Here’s Why Volvo’s Big Comeback Will Actually Work
Twenty-five years ago, the future couldn’t have looked brighter for the Swedish automotive industry. General Motors had just bought a 50% stake in Saab for a whopping $600 million (roughly $1 billion today), and an expanding Volvo had just launched the 940 and 960 models to take on mid-size offerings from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi. By then, the Swedish automakers had developed a decades-long reputation for building cars with an attention to design, safety, and reliability that translated into sales in a way that was too much for the world’s largest automakers to ignore. By 2000, Volvo had been bought by Ford, and Saab was a wholly-owned subsidiary of GM.
In 2015, the situation is very different. Saab lies moribund in a state of suspended animation after becoming one of the first automotive casualties of the global financial crisis, leaving Volvo as the last bastion of Sweden’s once-proud auto industry – and it hasn’t fared much better. In 2004, Volvo sold 139,384 cars in the U.S. – a respectable number for a relatively small up-market brand. But the financial crisis hit the company especially hard, and Ford sold it to Chinese automaker Geely in 2010. Cut off from Ford’s resources, minimal design updates, a lack of new models and increased competition have taken their toll on Volvo’s American presence. In 2014, the company’s U.S. sales totaled just 56,366 cars. In comparison, Ford sold 74,355 F-150 trucks in the month of December alone.
But after years of hardship, it looks like Volvo will be spared the fate that befell Saab. Like Mazda’s recent transformation from troubled automaker to industry leader (and another one of Ford’s cast-offs), Volvo has kicked off one of the most complete and ambitious reinventions in recent memory. For several years, the company has been quietly developing new engines and platforms, and if all goes according to plan, the company could reemerge stronger than ever before – and quickly, too. The first step of Volvo’s next act is the release of the all-new XC90 SUV for the 2016 model year, which is already making waves as the best new Volvo in years. By 2018, the company hopes its latest look into the future will be eclipsed by eight other all-new models, soon making the new XC90 the oldest car in Volvo’s lineup.
While Volvo was unveiling the XC90 at a press event last August, the company may have “accidentally” shown a room full of journalists a detailed powerpoint slide outlining its busy future plans. Even if the big reveal was really a mistake, the message was clear: New Volvos are coming – a lot of them.
The current unfocused lineup will be completely replaced with three comprehensive model lines: the 40-Series, 60-Series, and 90-Series. Within each line will be a sedan (S-model), station wagon (V-model), and crossover/SUV (XC-model). The XC90 isn’t just a preview of these new cars, but the first wave of a Swedish invasion. Like Volkswagen, Volvo (and parent company Geely) is betting heavily on modular platforms, and the XC90 is a showcase for the engineering, technology, and styling that will quickly come to define the company’s future products.
Starting this year, the most important letter combinations for Volvo will be SPA and CMA, or the platforms on which the company has built its entire future. The first to reach production is the Scalable Project Architecture, a front or all-wheel drive platform that will underpin all new 60-Series and 90-Series models. Like Volkswagen’s versatile MQB platform, the SPA can be configured in a number of ways to underpin everything from a compact sedan to a seven-passenger crossover. The platform’s modular structure allows different powertrains, electrical systems, and computers to be plugged in and easily swapped out for faster model refreshes with minimal development cost. With the XC90 already going into production on the SPA, it’s expected that the 90-Series will be the first full new model line to reach showrooms, followed by the 60-Series. Volvo’s engineers are still finalizing details for the Compact Modular Architecture, but once that platform is completed, it’s expected the compact Volvos will hit showrooms not long after the larger cars.
Beginning in 2013, Volvo stunned the automotive world with a trio of concepts designed to introduce the world to the brand’s new design direction. A series of two-door concepts, the Concept Coupe, Concept XC, and Concept Estate wowed the automotive industry, and for the first time in decades made Volvo a company to watch. Amid a sea of the world’s most exclusive cars and imaginative concepts, the estate won the Car of the Show award at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, and ignited a “will they-won’t they” debate in the automotive press as to whether the stunning cars would see production. Now, over a year since the concepts debuted, we have an answer from Volvo, and that answer is: kind of…
While the auto show cars were merely concepts, it doesn’t mean that the cars couldn’t reach showrooms in some form or another. More than most other carmakers, Volvo has a reputation for putting its popular concepts into production – its 1992 ECC concept went into production largely unchanged as did the S80 in 1998. These recent concepts have proven that there’s a market for a modern, sexy Scandinavian car, and if Volvo stays true to its design intentions, it could quickly regain its long-lost reputation for offering stylish alternatives to its German competitors.
And with the XC90, it looks like Volvo is on the right track. The SUV shares its distinctive redesigned grille and “Thor’s Hammer” headlights with the concepts. On the inside, the XC90’s dashboard is dominated by a large Tesla-like touch-screen and powered by an all-new infotainment system that also debuted in the concepts. Eager to regain a place at the forefront of automotive technology, Volvo was one of the first brands to announce that its new models will come equipped with Apple CarPlay, which should nicely compliment the brand’s refined tech-savvy image. With so many details from the car-based concepts making their way into the four-door production SUV, the car models should prove to be even more faithful to the original concepts.
While Volvo’s aggressive new design direction suggests an element of performance, the brand has never been known to set any production speed records. These new models probably won’t change that perception anytime soon, but the potential is actually there. Volvo’s next-generation engines are about doing more with less, and so far the results have been pretty interesting. Leaving the V6, V8 and multiple inline-four engines from the Ford era behind, these new Volvos will have power delivered from the new Drive-E engine family, and like the rest of the cars, they’re modular.
The Drive-E engine line tops out with a 2.0 liter turbocharged and supercharged inline-four. Like Ford’s EcoBoost system, Volvo plans on using complex software and tuning to get maximum performance and economy from the small engines. Instead of moving up to offer a range-topping V6, Volvo is moving down to offer an all-new inline three-cylinder to power the 40-Series and entry-level 60-Series. Like the larger fours, the three is expected to be augmented with tuning and forced induction to keep the cars competitive. The three cylinder is still a few years away from production, but Volvo says it’s already near production-ready. Despite the diminutive size of these new engines, they’re capable of some pretty big things.
Surprisingly, the most powerful production car Volvo has ever built is the upcoming hybrid version of the XC90 called the T8. While it’s hardly a contender to the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the SUV’s Drive-E 2.0 liter inline-four is mated to an electric motor to put out a whopping 400 horsepower. If Volvo launches T8 models across its new lineup, it could instantly have a serious performance presence – something the brand hasn’t had since its 1980s turbocharged heyday.
Unlike General Motors, whose top-down dictation sapped Saab of its identity and traditions, Geely is following Ford’s lead and giving Volvo a lot of leeway, and so far, it looks like it’s paying off. Unlike Ford, the Volvo-Geely relationship appears to be truly symbiotic: Volvo desperately needs Geely’s cash, and the Chinese automaker desperately wants to gain a foothold outside of China. For the first time in decades, Volvo’s survival is essential to its parent company, and that’s a very good thing. Volvo knows how badly it needs to regain its lost customer base, and it’s hell-bent on getting it back in a way that we rarely see in an automaker. If Volvo’s concepts and the XC90 are any indication of the future, then the brand should do just fine. After years in the wilderness, Volvo is back. Time for people to take notice.
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