Are cars getting smaller? All evidence points to the contrary. Most city dweller would agree that the metal carapaces that whizz around the modern metropolis are getting bigger and bigger. For reasons of raw economics and naked desire, the car type that has defined the century to date is the SUV, a vehicle that is by its very nature bigger and more brutish than a ‘conventional’ car. So can this high-riding attitude be successfully transplanted into a smaller package?

Most manufacturers seem to think so. Buoyed by the success of the Nissan Juke, a gawky-looking vehicle from 2010, a rash of ‘design-led’ subcompact crossover SUVs has flooded onto the market, explicitly aimed at young, urban buyers. While the original SUVs vied with themselves for scale and presence, the compact SUV market is racing to improve quality, with ‘design’ being used as tempting bait to lure in the kind of buyer who considers themselves deserving of more than a humble hatchback.

Interior view of the Volvo XC40

Interior view of the Volvo XC40

Volvo’s XC40 is the latest car to enter the fray. Explicitly positioned as a ‘designer object’, even down to the little rubber Swedish flag that pokes out from between the body panels like a clothing tag, the XC40 is relatively compact, undeniably trim and very pleasant place to sit. In the space of a few short years, Volvo has leapfrogged to the top tier of car interior design, snapping at the heels of previously unassailable companies like Audi. The XC40 has a similar touchscreen set up to its larger siblings the XC60 and XC90, and it’s a beautifully tailored interface that is fast and intuitive. The bodywork is a little more expressive than we’ve come to expect from these sober Swedes, with a chunky, blade-like D-pillar that kicks up from the back door and dovetails into Volvo’s signature arrow-like rear lights.

The XC40 is currently advertised by spots that dutifully fulfil all the tropes of the genre by showing the driver escaping the complexity and chaos of the modern city. But behind this familiar idealism Volvo is hard at work changing the way cars and bought and used. With the new Care by Volvo service, the dark arts of car ownership are distilled into something as simple as a mobile phone contract. The package varies from territory to territory, but in the US, for example, a high-spec XC40 can be had for $700 a month, with all servicing and insurance thrown in, plus the option to borrow other kinds of Volvos for up to 14 days a year.

Side view of the Volvo XC40

Side view of the Volvo XC40

While the XC40 is perfectly pleasant to drive, it’s also relatively conventional in this debut form. The platform beneath it, however, needs to do a lot. Volvo is owned by Geely sits on their Compact Modular Architecture platform, a chunk of engineering that will also be common to the first products by Lynk & Co, Geely’s new start-up brand.

Volvo’s decades-long heritage imbues the XC40 with some pretty solid values, all of which it lives up to – safety, solidity, stoic simplicity. The company’s safety heritage in particular changed the entire industry’s approach. Almost a year ago, Volvo stole another march on its competitors by announcing it would only produce electric and hybrid vehicles from 2019; other manufacturers scrambled to follow suit. And if enough people eschew convention and start treating their cars like upgradeable gadgets, Volvo could once again be at the cutting edge of how we use our cars.