When it comes to embattled automakers starting with the letter V, lately Volkswagen has been in a class by itself. But Volvo – that staid Swedish stalwart that everybody loves but nobody seems to buy – has had plenty of problems over the last few years too (both companies have had similar struggles jumpstarting sales in the U.S.). And while its German rival is mired down in one of the most expansive automotive scandals of all-time, Volvo is quietly shoring up its assets and following through on an ambitious plan that could turn the small company into one of the most formidable premium marques in the world in a little over two years.
Unsurprisingly, a big part of these plans involve both the U.S. and China. Since 2010, Volvo has been owned by Geely Automotive, and while the owner gives its iconic marque a long leash, it sees Volvo as instrumental in opening the door for a successful Chinese-built car in America. Earlier this summer, it began importing the S60 Inscription, a long-wheelbase version of the S60 sedan built in Chengdu, China. And while we still get Swedish-made Volvos like the all-new XC90 SUV, we’re about to get a third option too: Come 2018, we’ll be able to buy Volvos made in the United States.
Last week, the company broke ground on its first-ever North American plant in Berkeley County, S.C. Set to go online in late 2018, the $500 million plant will have the capacity to produce 100,000 cars a year. And with plants in the U.S., Europe, and China, tiny Volvo will be entering the arena populated by big guns like Toyota, General Motors, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford by having plants on three continents. And if the rest goes according to plan, it’ll need all of them.
From here, the 100,000 car a year capacity sounds pretty ambitious for Volvo. It hasn’t had a six-figure sales year in the U.S. since 2007, and this year looks like it could be another disappointment. Aside from the XC90, which has almost unanimously been hailed as a gem, the rest of its lineup is aging and uncompetitive. With automotive safety standards rising across the board, its reputation as “the safety brand” is no longer the draw it once was (something it’s trying to reestablish with the XC90), and without mass-market performance models (the Polestar cars are a bit too exclusive), it’s having a difficult time competing with sportier rivals from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
But by the time the South Carolina plant opens, this could all be in the past for Volvo. By then, the XC90 will be the oldest model available, with eight new models replacing the rest of the lineup. Coming up next, is the S90, Volvo’s BMW 5 Series-fighter that we may have accidentally caught a glimpse of in scale model form. Due sometime in 2016, if the S90 is as good-looking as the leaked model suggests, and as well-built as the XC90, Volvo could well be on the path to better days.
Like Volkswagen, Volvo’s plan centers around modular platforms, specifically its Scalable Platform Architecture, which underpins all its new models. It’s versatile enough to handle everything from a small sedan all the way up to the full-size XC90. If all goes according to plan, the South Carolina plant will create 2,000 jobs in its first decade, with the possibility of doubling that in the future. Of course, this is all still up in the air. But with the success of brands like Subaru and Hyundai after they opened their factories in the U.S., Volvo’s plans are anything but far-fetched. If you’re in the market for a premium car in the next few years, keep your eyes on Volvo – it’s the one to watch.
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