For all the advances in automotive technology, the modern motor car remains all at sea when faced with a stretch of water. Examples of amphibious cars do exist ñ the German Amphicar is the first aquatic automobile that swims to mind ñ but the car parked on your driveway requires a little help if it is to ford anything deeper than a stream or a babbling brook. As an island nation, weíre reliant on car ferries to reach lands beyond our borders, with huge vessels ready to take us to the likes of France, the Netherlands, Norway and Ireland. On a smaller scale, our coasts and inland waterways are peppered with smaller ferries, taking cars back and forth across rivers, estuaries and harbours. Some, such as the Aust Ferry, disappeared when a bridge was constructed, while others, such as the Skye Ferry, remain in operation despite the convenience of a road link. Taking a bonnie boat over the sea to the Isle of Skye is far more evocative than crossing the water via the A87 bridge.
Which is why, as the last of the tourists were departing from Devon and Cornwall, we took a Volvo XC40 on an autumnal road trip, exploring the car ferries that serve the south coast of the peninsula. Itís all a bit ëDon Henleyí at this time of the year, although you can exchange Cadillacs and Deadhead stickers for Volkswagen campers and Reef, Billabong and Sex Wax decals. But, even if the boys and girls of summer have gone, the ferries continue to operate day in, day out, from dawn until dusk. The queues might be shorter and the weather less clement, but for the locals who live and work in the region, they provide a vital service.
Although the people who rely on these ferries might disagree, thereís a certain romance associated with crossing the water on a ferry. While the golden age of flight is long behind us ñ thereís nothing romantic about queuing for security, squeezing onto an airport bus and being crowbarred into a middle seat for a three-hour flight ñ travelling by ferry retains a whiff of nostalgia and a degree of excitement. No matter how small the crossing or how long youíre on the ferry, thereís nothing quite like the enjoyment of disembarking on the other side of the water. It all feels a bit Swallows and Amazons or Treasure Island. It brings out the buccaneering spirit in you.
Quite what Robert Louis Stevenson would have made of the Volvo XC40 is anybodyís guess, but weíll use this irrelevant pondering as a segue to provide an introduction to the car used for this swashbuckling adventure. The XC40 is Volvoís first foray into the burgeoning compact SUV segment, with the Swedish firm bundling all that is great about the XC90 and XC60 into a smaller body. First impressions are great ñ itís hard to think of a new car that looks this well-proportioned and funky. It manages to look ultra-cool without breaking sweat, securing the middle ground between rivals that are either too showy or drab and dowdy. It helps that our test car is an XC40 D4 in stylish R-Design Pro trim, with Volvo lavishing it with over £6,000 worth of options. The range starts at £27,610, but youíll pay at least £29,910 for a 148bhp D3 diesel or £35,870 for the more powerful 188bhp D4 as tested here. Our test car would cost £37,770 without the trimmings, or £43,995 with its range of showroom-friendly trinkets. Not cheap, then, but few cars offer such a compelling blend of kerb appeal, feel-good factor and solidity. Little wonder that it was named Diesel Car & Eco Car 2018 Car of the Year in our June issue. If first impressions are anything to go by, this is undoubtedly the best new car of the past 12 months.
Lava Orange carpets and Hunter wellies
Introductions out of the way, our first decision was whether to start in Cornwall and head east or kick things off in Devon and head west. With one eye on the forecast, we decided to head straight to Cornwall, figuring that driving away from a setting sun would be preferable in the season of long shadows. Not that we had to look too far for an illuminating spectacle. Our test car was graced with the optional Lava Orange Carpet set ñ a snip at £175. It shouldnít work, but it does. Itís a little like Peter Jones of Dragonsí Den fame wearing a sharp and sombre suit contrasted by a pair of bright orange socks. Few manufacturers could rock the ëJaffa Cakeí interior look, but Volvo pulls it off with aplomb. Having said that, they might not be the most practical choice if youíre returning from a dog walk or country pursuit wearing muddy Hunters. Maybe the XC40 should come with a doormat and a boot scraper, along with a sign asking passengers to ëKEEP OFF THE CARPETí.
You could say the same about the entire cabin. It might be a clichÈ, but Volvo doesnít build car interiors, it creates interior living rooms. We may have grown accustomed to the design and build of Volvo interiors, but the approach has lost none of its wow factor. Youíre reluctant to eat in the cabin for fear of messing things up, and it almost seems rude to litter the cup-holders or storage bins with anything that might disrupt the ëhyggenessí of the space. Forget Volvoís vision that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo, itís unlikely that anyone will have an argument in an XC40. Itís such a calming and relaxing space, you begin to wonder if the car could deliver world peace.
King Harry Ferry
In the meantime, we had a ferry to catch. More specifically, the King Harry Ferry crossing the River Fal between Trelissick and the Roseland Peninsula. For some 500 years, a ferry has operated on this deep and tree-lined stretch of water between Truro and Falmouth, with the King Harry Steam Ferry Company formed in 1888. The current ferry was built in 2006 and can carry up to 34 cars at a time, which isnít nearly enough when the holiday season is in full swing. There were no queues on this occasion, and we near enough drove straight on to the floating bridge before paying the £6 fee for the 10-minute crossing. In 2010, the Independent on Sunday named the King Harry as one of the most scenic ferry crossings in the world, but for locals, itís little more than a critical ëbridgeí on the B3289. When the ferry isnít in operation, either for maintenance or in cases of bad weather, the alternative is a 27-mile road route through Truro and Tresillian. But for all the beauty of the surroundings and the evocative clunking of the chains, the King Harry Ferry is synonymous with the massive ships that were often laid up in the deep waters of the Fal. From oil tankers in the post-Suez era to warships and Cunard cruise liners, the ships have made for an unlikely spectacle in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Once off the ferry, we set the navigation system to Fowey for our second crossing of the day. A word about Volvoís voice-activated control, which is standard across the XC40 range. Itís not always a given that voice control will deliver the desired results, but on not one occasion did the XC40 let us down, even when asked to provide directions to Fowey. If it can cope with Cornish place names, it should be able to handle most European destinations. Granted, we didnít ask it to drive us to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwy-rndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, mind.
ëDrive usí is an interesting point. Our test car was equipped with the Intellisafe Pro pack, a £1,500 option comprising blind spot information, cross traffic alert, rear collision mitigation, auto-folding mirrors, auto-dimming exterior rear-view mirrors, adaptive cruise control and pilot assist. When using these final two features, the XC40 is just about as close as you can get to a fully autonomous car in 2019. At speeds of up to 80mph, the car will accelerate, decelerate and even steer for you, easing the pain of the most tiresome and boring journeys. The two-lane stretch of the A30 heading deep into Cornwall was its natural territory, but the adaptive cruise control came into its own on the back roads to Fowey. Faced with a tractor towing what appeared to be Cornwallís entire potato stock, we simply set the cruise control to 60mph and allowed the XC40 to follow the line of traffic at the appropriate speed and at a safe distance to the car in front. Without wishing to sound like Volvoís fan club, the adaptive cruise control system is one of the best on the market ñ you can use it on motorways, B-roads and even in crawling traffic.
Not that there was much in the way of crawling traffic en route to Fowey. Once the farmer had peeled off the main road with his lifetime supply of jacket spuds, the road was clear all the way to the Bodinnick Ferry. There has been a ferry crossing there since the 13th century, and an important one too, being on the main southerly route through Cornwall. Though not from a geographic perspective, this feels like the heart of Cornwall ñ a ferry crossing sandwiched between a historic shipyard and buildings with names like Ferrymanís Cottage, The Old Printworks and Chandlers. But, as if to prove that this is a town heavily reliant on tourism ñ not to mention bang up-to-date in its cultural references ñ the ferry is just a stoneís throw away from an ice cream shop called… Game of Cones.
The Bodinnick Ferry lands at the foot of the hill leading up to the former Old Ferry Inn, while on the shoreline sits the building in which Daphne du Maurier penned her first novel, The Loving Spirit. You can pinpoint the authorís room in the du Maurierís holiday home ñ simply look for the figurehead from the Polruan-built ship, the Jane Slade. From here, the road climbs gently away from the slipway, River Fowey to the left, before turning inland and making its way across the countryside of south east Cornwall. Destination: Torpoint and the once vital crossing into Devon. Before the opening of the Tamar Bridge in October 1961, this was one of the main routes across the border, the others being the old Saltash Ferry or a lengthy detour via the bridge at Gunnislake. By now, the XC40 was proving to be a perfect family vehicle. Volvo purists might bemoan the absence of the old five- and six-cylinder engines, but the 188bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel unit provides sufficient performance, even if it can feel underpowered on some of Cornwallís steeper inclines. Itís a similar story with the eight-speed automatic transmission, which is smooth and responsive for the most part but can occasionally seem a bit dimwitted and out of sync with the engine. Switching to Dynamic mode solves many of the problems, with faster gear changes, a more sensitive throttle, greater steering weight and a firmer ride, but ñ and this might be a sign of old age ñ the XC40 feels best in Comfort mode. Anything else disrupts the ëhyggeí.
The Torpoint Ferry is the busiest estuarial vehicle crossing in the UK, with the three vessels carrying nearly two million vehicles every year. Itís a world away from the peace and tranquillity of the King Harry and Bodinnick ferries, with multiple queuing lanes and a traffic light system managing the flow of traffic at each end. At £1.50, itís the cheapest crossing of the day (thereís no charge to travel from Devon to Cornwall), reflecting its vital link for Torpoint and the city of Plymouth. There has been a formal crossing here since 1791, with travellers crossing the Hamoaze by sail, oars, steam and, more recently, chains. Indeed, the first chain ferry or ëfloating ferryí was introduced here in the 1830s, with the service privately owned until 1922. Today, the Torpoint Ferry is run jointly by Cornwall County Council and Plymouth City Council.
The trek through Plymouth was slow and arduous ñ hordes of people were leaving town following a day maxing out their credit cards on Sunday shopping ñ but we emerged on the east of the city at Plymstock before taking the A379 to Kingsbridge. This was the most enjoyable part of the drive, with the changeable conditions of the day giving way to a beautiful autumnal evening, along with a series of driverís roads remarkably free of traffic. A compact SUV will never be as sharp or focused as a family hatchback or estate, but driving an XC40 with enthusiasm certainly isnít without reward. The ride is soft and unforgiving, even in Dynamic mode, while the steering is direct and nicely weighted. For the best experience, stick the transmission into manual mode and use the steering wheel flappy paddles, which deliver smooth and rapid shifts, especially in Dynamic mode.
By the time we reached Dartmouth, the sun was setting, and the day-trippers were heading home. Here, youíre faced with a choice of ferries: the Higher Ferry that forms part of the A379 between Torbay and Plymouth, or the Lower Ferry between the old parts of Dartmouth and Kingswear. For our first crossing, we opted for the latter, crossing the River Dart on an eight-car pontoon pushed and pulled by a tugboat. The XC40 feels far from compact in these surroundings, struggling to keep within the tight yellow lines painted on the deck of The Tom Avis. Whenever we parked the car, it seemed to dwarf the surrounding vehicles, even managing to make a Skoda Yeti look like a city car. The 20-inch wheels certainly help to deliver a supersize feel, but the styling is far from aggressive. The best-looking compact SUV on the market? Subjectively, we think so.
Once off the ferry in Kingswear, most travellers will make their way east towards Torbay, but we had one final crossing to make ñ back across the Dart. Evidence suggests there has been a ferry across the river since 1365, and there were three attempts to build a suspension bridge across the stretch of water in the 19th century. The current Higher Ferry, which looks and feels like the Lower Ferryís big brother, was built in Falmouth and welcomed to Dartmouth in 2009 as the latest chapter in nearly 200 years of floating bridge history. Itís a tale of horses, steam, violent storms and sinkings, but our trip was much less turbulent and pleasingly free of drama. Our circular tour of Dartmouth via the two ferries was complete as we landed on the foreshore immediately in front of the Floating Bridge Inn, with the town illuminated by twinkling lights as the sun set on another day.
A ferry good compact SUV
Aside from the journey home, noticeably free of ferries, the sun was also setting on our time with the Volvo XC40. Itíll leave a lasting impression as one of the most rounded new cars on the market ñ a vehicle so polished and free of vices, youíd have thought Volvo had been making SUVs and crossovers for generations, not the relatively short 15 years since the first XC90 burst onto the market in 2003. Compromises are few and far between ñ the fact that it doesnít drive as sweetly as a saloon car or hatchback will be of little consequence to the majority of buyers and isnít a problem isolated to the XC40. It can also get rather expensive with the option packs fitted, while the £300 charge for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration seems a bit mean-spirited when other car companies throw it in for free. But in a segment mostly free of soul and individuality, the XC40 feels unique and a little charming. Faced with a stretch of water your choices are limited to swimming, flying, crossing a bridge, using a ferry or taking the long way around. Faced with a choice of compact SUVs you appear to have more options. In reality, only one truly stands out. The Volvo XC40 is ferry good.