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The Volvo T3 modular engine is the result of an in-house program; it is Volvo’s first-ever production triple.(Volvo)

What we’re driving: Volvo XC40 3-cylinder

“What we’re driving” is Automotive Engineering’s series of quick-strike vehicle reviews
Can any vehicle with a three-cylinder engine really regard itself as “premium?”

Volvo thinks so. To make the point, the company recently handed over the keys to its “compact premium SUV” XC40—now offered in some markets, including Europe, with a turbocharged 115-kW (154-hp) triple-cylinder variant of its in-house-designed modular “Drive-E” 4-cylinder engine. "What we're driving" previously reviewed the XC40 with 4-cylinder power.

The 3-cyl., displacing 1.5 L, drives the XC40’s front wheels through a pleasant-to-shift 6-speed manual gearbox; an automatic—also 6-speed—is coming soon. The all-aluminum engine is slated for use in other models (not the two-ton XC90, though!) that include hybrids and will play a part in the company’s plan to have all models offering electrified drivetrains by next year.

Designated T3, the triple delivers 265 N·m (195 lb·ft) from an impressively low 1850-3850 rpm. Combined fuel economy maxes out at 6.19 l/100 km (approximately 34 mpg) and CO2 output is 144g/km. The 9.4-s 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) time and 200 km/h (124 mph)  top speed look pretty good for such as small engine in a compact crossover that weighs a minimum of 1497 kg (3300 lb).

First road impressions are excellent. At idle, the engine is near inaudible and the initial few hundred meters immediately show verve. Called on to supply power at 3000 rpm-plus, the not-unpleasant sound of a triple at work is more pronounced.

But maintaining higher speeds on major roads and longer upgrades called for deft gearshifting and/or wide throttle opening. An intelligent automatic ’box would probably suit this engine better than its current manual transmission—it’s good to have six speeds and high gearing, but in this application, the willing triple might have been happier driving through five gears with suitably-spaced ratios. The thought of such a solution though, would cause any marketing team to experience palpitations: today, the more speeds a vehicle can boast is a major sales plus-point, so regressing to a mere five ratios would certainly detract from Volvo’s aspiration to the premium league.

So, back to the question: can a car be described as “premium” when powered by a 3-cyl. engine? The answer is potentially yes—but for the XC40, probably with the double caveat of having just two pedals and specific gear-ratio subtlety. We’ll have to wait and see.
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