JOHANNESBURG, Gauteng – We head upcountry for the local launch of the smallest model in Volvo's burgeoning XC-badged crossover range. Meet the new XC40...

Right, so the new Volvo XC40 has been launched in South Africa. I must say, I do like the look of this one...

Both you and the Europeans. In March, it was crowned the 2018 European Car of the Year and I’ve yet to read a bad word about it in the Continental press. We drove a XC40 D4 derivative at the international launch in late November 2017 and also came back suitably impressed.

But yes, it does look pretty, doesn’t it? Unlike the new XC60 (which, by the way, launches here in May), which looks very much like a smaller version of the more conservatively handsome XC90, Volvo’s baby crossover certainly has its own character. From that concave grille to the sharply rising shoulder line mirrored by sharp downward side scallops, and (optional) two-tone roof, this XC not only looks more purposeful but, for Volvo, borders on downright funky.

Hang on. Are those orange carpets I’m seeing inside? That’s a click or three beyond mere funky…

Quite. They do have a whiff of flared trousers and sideburns to them and might not be to everyone’s tastes, but don’t panic, Mr Huntley-Smythe, those Lava Red carpets and door inserts are optional. And, yes, with leather colour options that include Cranberry and Blond, you can specify an interior in which a mirrored disco ball would be right at home. But there’s also the usual black-and-grey Scandi palette to satisfy the likes of me and you.

Not that either of us old codgers is part of the market at which Volvo is aiming here. If the exterior styling doesn’t convince you as such, one look at Volvo’s XC40 advertising and marketing campaigns, filled as they are with fresh-faced Generation-Xers, should tip the scales.

Hey! Speak for yourself...

Lava aside, the interior is actually typically Volvo in its minimalist leanings. Momentum spec gets concave aluminium décor inlays on the dash and door that mirror the grille and, like all models in the range, comes with Volvo’s superb Sensus Connect infotainment system, displayed in the XC40 on a 12,3-inch screen. The seats, while not quite as big and plush as big brother XC90’s, are still comfortable and supportive, and the driver’s is power adjustable as standard.

And what about interior space? Listening to your target market quips, I’m guessing it’s not really a family vehicle...

Look, there’s plenty of interior passenger space. As an average-sized male, I can comfortably sit behind a driver’s seat set to my requirements. And it isn't just legroom I have more than enough of, but shoulder- and headroom, too.

At the launch, Volvo surprised us with a chauffeured shuttle from Lanseria to Sandton in the new XC60 and, to be honest, the XC40 just about matched its bigger sibling for rear passenger space. Unlike some of its rivals, the XC40 has shunned a coupé-like roofline for a boxier silhouette and that means the smaller Swede’s interior packaging is rather good and definitely less snug than that of the Jaguar E-Pace and, to a lesser degree, the BMW X2. Looking at everyone’s claimed figures, however, boot space may be one area where the Volvo appears to fall short of more family-focused rivals such as the Volkswagen Tiguan and BMW X1 (the Tiguan's luggage compartment comes in at 615 litres, X1 at 505 litres, E-Pace at 577 litres, X2 at 470 litres and XC40 at 460 litres).

So, to get back to your family car question: yes, luggage space is a little tight, but I otherwise don’t see why it couldn’t function as a family vehicle. The boot may be a bit of a squeeze for all the kit that accompanies a baby (prams, camper cots, etc.) but once the kid's outgrown that sort of stuff, it’ll be fine. It does have Isofix attachments on the rear seats, plus you get all the latest active and passive safety tech Volvo has to offer, including front, knee and curtain airbags; rear collision warning; run-off mitigation and protection; and driver alert. IntelliSafe assist with adaptive cruise control, pilot assist and lane keeping aid, plus blind spot monitoring, are also optional.

One thing there is no doubt about, though, is the level of fit and finish. The XC40 feels just as carefully tailored and expertly assembled as the XC90.

So, what’s it like to drive then?

This T5 has Volvo’s familiar 2,0-litre turbopetrol and here it's tuned to put out 185 kW and 350 N.m – healthy numbers by any standards, but particularly perky in a little SUV. Volvo claims a brisk 0-100 km/h time of 6,4 seconds and having floored it with the drive select set to dynamic, that doesn’t surprise me. With peak torque available between 1 800 and 4 800 r/min, in-gear acceleration through the smooth-as-you-like eight-speed torque converter inspires confidence when overtaking at any legal speed.

What impressed me the most, though, was the XC40’s ride quality. As the first vehicle to use Volvo’s compact modular architecture, it certainly bodes well for models that follow. With a superbly damped multi-link rear suspension and MacPherson struts at the front, the XC40 has a controlled and supple ride quality that’s quite distinctive in this segment. Perhaps not as dynamically adept as the X2 and certainly more comfortable than the X1, it is a lot more nimble than the heavier E-Pace (with a mass of around 1 700 kg, the Swede is nearly 200 kg lighter than the Jag).

What’s this going to cost me?

The full pricing is here, but you are looking at between R490 000 and R650 000.

R490k? That’s pretty good.

It is, but to clarify, that’s for the 115 kW three-cylinder 1,5-litre T3 manual that will arrive here only in early September. There will be an auto version, too (for around R20k more) scheduled to touch down a few months after that.

At the moment, it’s only the 140 kW/400 N.m D4 turbodiesel and this T5 that are on showroom floors and while that R600k-R650k bracket is significantly higher, it’s still very aggressively positioned in the segment, especially given the high spec levels that Volvo offers.

Encouragingly, Greg Maruszewski, Volvo Cars SA managing director, revealed that the local arm has been given full authority to decide its own pricing and strategy in our market, which has allowed the firm to bring in the baby XC at a price point aimed more at getting people behind the wheel than at pure profit margins.

And that’s a win for the consumer in what – based on these first impressions, at least – may well be the segment’s best vehicle...