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Volvo’s Rebooted XC40: Not Just Improved, a Whole New Car
By Dan Neil

IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY, there is a dent in my forehead from beating it against Volvo steering wheels. The Swedish car maker’s otherwise excellent products have long been plagued by underbaked firmware and software. The most consumer-facing issue has been the large, portrait-oriented touch screen in the cabin that runs Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system and that is a proper pain in the ass. It takes seemingly forever to boot up after you press the Start button—every time you start—leaving you unable to adjust the radio, temperature, navi…Hellooo? The touch screen is finicky, with tiny icons—runes, I suppose. The navigation app is sometimes unsure of its surroundings. The delay connecting to an iPhone will have you googling “patience mantras.”

But we live in an age of wonders. It turns out much of what ailed my last XC40 compact SUV was curable—has been cured!—by an extensive software update that became available in April. Some of these fixes improve cabin convenience—like faster pairing to Apple CarPlay—and some go to the heart of the machine’s drivability, including the algorithms presiding over engine and drivetrain. I don’t usually review the same model twice, but the post-update XC40 is effectively a different vehicle and a vastly improved consumer experience. Such is the nature of modern cars that coding counts more than horsepower. Weird, huh?

‘I don’t usually review the same model twice, but this is effectively a different vehicle, a vastly improved experience.’
The XC40 is the line’s compact premium SUV, with either front or all-wheel drive, five-star safety, and lots of gear to go with its Nordic kühl. The vibe from the driver’s seat is smart, restrained, contemporary—if you had a dentist in Stockholm this is what his chair would feel like. The base price of the T5 AWD ($35,700) includes Volvo’s full suite of driver-assistance features, such as collision avoidance braking, cross-traffic alert with auto braking, and lane-keeping assistance. All these, I note, are helpful if you’ve taken your eyes off the road to fiddle with the ritardando Sensus screen.

Our Inscription package T5 AWD ($47,395) was a tiny longboat laden with surprise-and-delight features, including driftwood inlays, metallic exterior paint, and crystal gearshift knob from Orrefors. What’s Old Norse for “bling”?

Volvo’s coding problems date back to the company’s recapitalization and product reboot, circa 2011, when Volvo laid out its emissions strategy for the next decade. In a bold bit of engineering design, the company decided to restrict itself to gas engines no larger than 2.0 liters displacement—either supercharged, turbocharged, super-turbocharged or hybridized. These hardworking machines were to be mated with complex eight-speed automatic transmissions and multi-clutch AWD systems, to wring out the last dram of efficiency.

All of that requires immense amounts of code to move rapidly throughout the car. The CAN bus system—a car’s central nervous system—has to smoothly integrate data from dozens of ECUs (electronic control units) managing everything from lighting to cooling to anti-lock brakes to transmission algorithms and all the bells and whistles too.

And sometimes, it seemed in my previous test Volvos, the chipsets or code just couldn’t keep up. The sense of disconnection was most acute in the plug-in hybrid models, which require elaborate logic and mechatronics to balance gas and electric motive force, demand and regenerative braking. But even in the non-hybrid models, the low-speed hesitancy and millisecond latency can be huge. There was a ghost in these machines—a bored, passive-aggressive streetcar conductor with numb hands.

Among the curiosities of the Volvo update is the diversity of systems that are tweaked. Is that standard practice, I wonder? In the cabin, for example, the rear seat belt warning chime will now stop if the vehicle is motionless and then start again once it moves. Here’s a fun one: “altered optimization” of the noise-cancelling system to mask powertrain radiations. They changed the color of the aural wallpaper.

The Apple CarPlay module was mission-critical, apparently. Now the iPhone startup is quicker—seconds count in this environment—and the Volvo will now display texts and notifications. Better mapping information in China, too, apparently. Obiter dicta, I would like to see data on the number of Volvo windshields that needed replacing due to owners throwing their devices in frustration.

The Sensus touch screen system itself got a thorough recalibration, including what Volvo calls “performance and stability improvements.” That means, roughly, quicker response time with less fussy touch screening. Both much appreciated. The navigation’s points-of-interests functions were updated, as well. Navigation through voice command remains hopeless.

The most striking, night-and-day difference is in the way the compact SUV actually drives. Like other Volvos, the XC40 has multiple driving modes—Eco, Normal, Sport—with different throttle and transmission “maps,” or control algorithms, that favor efficiency or performance. But what really matters is the default mode, the one most consumers will use, all the time. In the previous car, the throttle response in Normal was tediously nonlinear. You stepped on the gas and then after what seems a considerable sussing of data the approved acceleration came on.

Not so with the revised software. Our T5 Inscription answered the whip when cracked and was much less hesitant at low speeds. The four-banger and eight-speeder seem more on the same page. Everything sounds happier, though that might be the noise-cancelling system.

The only thing that might be more marvelous about Volvo’s software update is if owners could receive it over the air—like Tesla owners can—so they don’t have to go to dealerships. But I guess one reboot at a time.
 

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Makes you wonder if this one included the Polestar tune. Did Volvo really change the drivetrain software all that much with the latest updates (or 2019 vs 2020)?


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Are there going to be similar or same improvements with a software update for 2019's? Anyone think there was some kind of hardware update in one year?
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 · (Edited)
Would like to read it but requires a subscription to do so. Do you work for the subscription department of WSJ?
I see someone else was smart enough to get past the paywall. And then they posted the full article for everyone. ;)


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I see someone else was smart enough to get past the paywall. And then they posted the full article for everyone. ;)


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Patting yourself on the back for a situation you created and could have easily prevented is so presidential.
 
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