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Practical luxury in a handy, city-sized package is a formula that’s resonating with Canadians, who made small premium SUVs one of the fastest-growing categories last year.

Two of the newest entries are the Cadillac XT4 and the Volvo XC40. In size, they arguably occupy different segments – the Cadillac is a smallish compact, the Volvo a biggish subcompact – but their specs are nearly identical and they butt heads in the same pricing arena.

Each came to our throw-down in their respective sportiest versions.

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Cadillac XT4 Sport

The 2019 Cadillac XT4 Sport.

Cadillac

  • Base price/as tested: $42,795/$56,510
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo, 237 hp
  • Transmission/drive: nine-speed automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/8.2 hwy

Volvo XC40 R-Design

The 2019 Volvo XC40.

The Associated Press

  • Base price/as tested: $44,100/$52,675
  • Engines: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo, 248 hp
  • Transmissions/drive: eight-speed automatic/AWD
  • Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): 10.3 city/7.5 hwy

Looks

Cadillac: The XT4 looks just how you’d expect a compact Cadillac crossover to look, nicely chiselled with a good stance, although only the signature Cadillac headlamps are truly distinctive.

Volvo: The (optional) black roof, stubby proportions and kicked-up rear window line give the Volvo a distinctive, provocative look that may, however, be polarizing.

Interior

Cadillac: The XT4’s cockpit feels airy and spacious, with a well-forward cowl well and low-profile dashboard. The seating position is a little low, however, and the overall ambience is disappointingly low-rent – a concoction of plain materials, dull hard-to-read buttons, and a relatively small (eight-inch) touch screen. Rear-seat room is respectable for its class, with good foot room under the front seat, although the seat lacks thigh support.

Volvo: It’s easier to tailor a comfortable, “tall in the saddle” posture in the Volvo, although the cockpit seems narrower and the dash more upright than the XT4’s; you feel more intimately a part of the car. The nine-inch screen is oriented vertically, and the expected screen-based functions are easy to use, but too bad you also need the screen for HVAC. Kudos to Volvo for super-fast seat heaters, but a raspberry for the toggle shifter that needs a double-tap to select D or R. In the back, the XC40 has comparable knee room to the bigger XT4, but also lacks thigh support.

Performance

Cadillac: Dynamically, the XT4 falls a little short by Cadillac’s own standards. It handles well enough, but its steering is not especially engaging for keen drivers, and the ride errs on the brittle side. As well, this version of GM’s 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine is less refined than its forebears (although it’s still more than acceptable). Despite very similar specifications to the Volvo, independent tests measure the Cadillac’s zero-to-60-miles-an-hour acceleration at a pedestrian 7.5-ish seconds – about a second behind the Volvo. In street driving, the engine feels oddly strained, up-shifting at quite high rpm even when you’re not in a hurry and not in Sport mode. But the nine-speed transmission is slick and seamless, and the XT4 settles down nicely on the freeway, showing barely 2,000 rpm at 120 kilometres an hour.

Volvo: Based on the specifications, the XC40’s maximum-effort acceleration should be similar to the XT4’s, but buff-books’ 6.5-second-ish 0-60-mph times say it’s significantly quicker. And the Volvo certainly feels quicker – not just in drag-strip mode, but in the relaxed, refined, effortless way it delivers routine, part-throttle driving. It also rides more supply than the XT4, yet handles more engagingly, with lively steering and a tight, nimble cornering style. Disengaged drivers might even find it too responsive, however, and enthusiasts would like more road feel through the steering.

Technology

Cadillac: Infotainment standards include OnStar, 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot, Sirius XM and HD Radio. On the driver-aids side, Teen Driver, and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, are standard on the Sport. However items such as surround vision, automatic parking assist, rear camera washer, adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assist and forward/reverse automatic braking require extra-cost packages. Also optional are head-up display, embedded navigation, wireless charging and a power-adjustable steering column.

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Volvo: Volvo’s standard Sensus Connect and Volvo-on-Call features provide comparable connectivity and infotainment to the Cadillac, with built-in Navi a $1,000 stand-alone option. Also extra-cost are blind-spot/cross-traffic alerts (they’re standard on the Cadillac) and semi-autonomous Pilot Assist with adaptive cruise. However the list of standard driver/safety aids beats the Cadillac, and includes low- and high-speed collision mitigation, run-off road and oncoming-lane mitigation, and lane-keeping assist.

Cargo

Cadillac: Official specs credit the XT4 with 637 litres of cargo space with the back seats up, 1385 with them down. The seat-backs fold creditably flat, and there are some small odd-shaped compartments under the deck tucked around the space-saver spare tire.

Volvo: As you might expect, the smaller XC40 is a little down on cargo space, at 586 and 1336 litres, respectively, but it does have a slight edge on usability: Its cargo deck is lower to the ground, and there’s a large, usefully shaped compartment beneath the floor.

Verdict

The Volvo is an engaging charmer that delivers a superior driving experience, with no significant left-brain downsides in space, comfort or utility. But its cheeky styling, lively handling and intimate driving position may not suit all tastes, in which case, the Cadillac presents a slightly larger, more conservative and mature alternative.

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