Volvo: Scandinavian Without the Drama

Volvo are re-emerging from the Northern wilderness and look set to upset the automotive establishment by offering something increasingly novel: a genuine alternative.

Image: speedcarz
The new face of Volvo. Image: speedcarz

Recently I was asked to cite which manufacturer impressed most over the past twelve months and I didn’t hesitate. It had to be Volvo. Having been a brand that previously earned my respect but little else, the sole remaining Swedish marque appears to be in the process of reinventing itself as perhaps the most viable alternative to the hegemony of the luxury car establishment, with a style and appeal that stands coolly apart from the self-aggrandizement of the mainstream prestige marques and their acolytes.

Once shackled to Ford’s under-performing Premier Automotive Group, Volvo seemed to lose touch with its heritage and in the aftermath of Ford’s messy fire-sale of the PAG portfolio, was forced to withstand the usual barrage of ill-informed xenophobia from those who refused to believe a non-European company – China’s Geeley in this case – could sensitively and successfully refocus an established mid-market car brand.

The naysayers certainly appear to have it wrong. 2015 saw Volvo achieve a benchmark 503,127* deliveries worldwide; their best result in 89-years. While Europe remains their core market by volume, (where 53.5% of new Volvo’s were registered), gains in the US were stronger, sales there rising 24.3%, largely on the success of the new XC90. China remained flat at around 90,000 cars, but showed an 11.4% increase towards the end of the year.

Additionally, the mid-sized XC60 crossover posted its strongest European sales since its launch in 2008; a virtually unheard of performance for a vehicle most likely a year from replacement.

Volvo's forthcoming S90 saloon. Image:
Volvo’s forthcoming S90 saloon. Image:

The parallel between ex-stablemate Jaguar Land Rover is interesting. Both were sold around the same time to large, successful, if previously little known motor businesses with no experience of the European luxury car market. Both Geeley and Tata Motors, following a certain amount of disturbance put competent managers in place, invested prudently and allowed management get on with it as they saw fit.

2015 was also a good year for JLR by the way, with 487,465 cars delivered by the year’s end. But of the two, it does appear that the Swedes have the stronger hand. Despite the amount of PR guff you read in the mainstream UK press, Tata’s European arm must be casting worried glances at Volvo’s success, especially in the US, a market where the West Midlands powerhouse continues to have a decidedly one-sided relationship.

While Volvo appears comfortable in its positioning as a defiantly Swedish product, Jaguar’s former BMW management seem equally hell-bent reproducing a virtual frame by frame remake of their former employer’s work. For all the Coventry cat’s recent ‘British Villain’ advertising bluster, it now speaks with a faintly unconvincing Bavarian accent.

And a leaked photo of its Estate sibling. Image: leftlanenews
And a leaked photo of its Estate sibling. Image: leftlanenews

Volvo’s new S90 saloon and V90 Estate are (to these eyes) contemporary, elegant re-imaginings of traditional marque virtues and mercifully, eschew the visual aggression of their German, British and potential Italian rivals. Thomas Ingenlath’s design leadership is producing calm, elegantly surfaced cars that stand apart in an increasingly noisy segment. If the forthcoming S60 is anything like as assured as its larger brother, the premium club should be worried.

Volvo have also taken a deft sidestep out of the power wars by making a confirmed pitch towards electrification and semi-autonomous control – both of which are in keeping with marque values and are increasingly what affluent buyers want.

Volvo remains modest about volume projections, and certainly, there remains a sizable mountain to climb before Volvo’s European saloon ambitions equal that of its estate siblings. Last year the sales ratio between the S60 saloon and Estate in Europe was 5:1 in favour of the latter**.

In the United States however, the situation is reversed; the lion’s share of the 24,128 S60/V60’s registered being sedans. Contrast this with a sales ratio of 9:1 in Europe’s favour for the V70 estate. The S80 remains an equally poor seller on both sides of the Atlantic with sales of 2329 (Europe) and 1887 (US), but is shortly to be replaced. All of which demonstrates Volvo’s business is currently heavily SUV and sedan based in the US and China, but is very much estate/SUV weighted in Europe.

Volvo S90 interior. Image: motortrend
Volvo S90 interior. Image: motortrend

If Volvo can harmonise the appeal of their offerings by creating a closer sales ratio between saloons and estates while continuing to win sales from rivals they could make a sizable breakthrough in the prestige market. The forthcoming S90/V90 proves they can produce a large saloon at least as appealing as anything emerging from Germany, Britain or Italy.

Couple that with a strong presence in China, a clearly defined offer and a Scandinavian aesthetic that seems to chime with buyers, who’d bet against them exceeding their stated aim of 800,000 cars by 2020? Food for thought at Gaydon and wherever FCA headquarter themselves this week. On current form they deserve every additional sale they get.

*Source Volvo press office

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Volvo: Scandinavian Without the Drama”

  1. The difference between Volvo and Jaguar is that even during the long dark winter of PAG, the Swedes kept their identity. Not only that, with the Horbury designs their conception of self solidified and flourished. Geely picked up a huge bargain. By contrast, perpetual handwringing at Jaguar over conservatism versus modernity held them back, and when they did lunge forward it was with a number of missteps.

    1. Am I alone in thinking that from the 850 on, Volvo subsumed a hefty chunk of Saab’s identity? I’ve occasionally mischievously suggested that the original S60 was the best Saab ever made, and nobody has taken exception.

      I wonder how many Saab people followed Rolf Mellde to Gothenburg? It does seem that as Saab’s character was diluted by the dead hand of GM ownership, Volvo’s became more multi-faceted, and its appeal far broader.

  2. That said, Jaguar do at least now appear to have found a way forward. Granted, the XE is very obviously spun from the 3-Series template, but that is where the saloon market is these days. I would argue that Jaguar have been quite canny in this regard, however, the XE harking back to the values set out by the E46, perhaps the last 3-Series that could unequivocally be called an Ultimate Driving Machine, rather than the diluted later generations. All this will be rendered moot by the F-Pace however, which I predict will soon be contributing nearly 50% of Jaguar’s sales.

    1. Sounds almost like what Lexus have done in the last 15 years or so. Hopefully JLR won’t be as late to the party when it comes to offering alternative powertains.

  3. What with hybrid and electric drives and the emergence of the CUV, the way we understand Jaguar and Volvo. The vision of low, sleek XJ saloons and indestructable 240 GLE saloons is as relevant to those firms as toilet roll is to Nokia.

    1. You say that, and yet I was thinking the other day that the XF is actually the sleek (relatively) compact the XJ once was, just as the XC90 is the modern-day Volvo wagon for a lot of families. In fact the latest version looks more like an estate on stilts and tries less to pretend to be a rugged all-terrain vehicle like its predecessors.

    2. “the sleek AND (relatively) compact SALOON the XJ once was”

  4. Just from an aesthetic perspective, I’ve got to hand it to Volvo: Ingenlath et al obviously know what their brand’s appeal is all about. Despite its gargantuan size, even the XC90 fails to evoke (no pun intended) the same kind of contempt I feel towards other SUVs, thanks to its calm styling.

    Despite things being so much better then they’ve been for a long time, my impression is that the sense of conservatism that’s driving Jaguar these days isn’t a bull’s eye hit to the same extent as Volvo’s re-alignment. Jaguar used to be all about flamboyance within the boundaries of classical elegance, not about modesty.

    1. I agree on all counts, and the way you describe the brief for Jaguar (flamboyance and classical elegance) it’s easy to see why they have a much more difficult balance to strike than Volvo.

    2. And that is the nub of the matter Kris. Volvo know who they are. Jaguar do not. Are they BMW or or they Porsche? Management can’t seem to decide. (Can’t we be both?) If as you suggest, the Swedes have hit a bulls-eye and Jaguar have not – (a claim I’d go along with incidentally) – my contention is that Jaguar don’t have many lives left and on current form appear (in stylistic terms anyway) to have done a Maserati by producing two visually similar and similarly lukewarm saloons – neither of which improve upon what went before. I’ve seen quite a few of both on the roads now. Not only are they impossible to tell apart, but neither do anything for me. Corporate, staid, safe; Jaguar’s current styling has become in its own way as ossified as anything produced under Ford. Make mine an S90.

  5. I fully agree with Richard’s comment on the importante of the low, sleek XJs and the bank-vault solid 240s to Jaguar and Volvo today. the Swedish have managed to reinvent Volvo by embracing the CUV without fully leaving the traditional estates. I’m a fan of traditional Volvos and have no sympathy for their current lineup, but I must admit that it works.

    as for the sales ratio between Volvo’s saloons and estates, I think the company’s old target (families) has changed in the U.S. it looks like most of the American Volvo buyers, especially the saloons, are businessmen. in Europe, their demographics are still families looking for a good estate – especially in Scandinavia, Italy, Portugal (where my personal experience indicates that BMW estates outsell the saloons by about 7:1) and UK/Eire (based on your comments). of course there are European businessmen buying Volvos for repmobiles, but families seem to still have the lion’s share.

    (sorry for the broken English, folks)

  6. As others have pointed out, Volvo’s saviour has been the CUV. They quickly weighed into the segment, having correctly identified that the niche was going to diminish sales in their estate heartland. Their style language and safety USP were both good fits too, making it a natural move. Indeed, it could be argued that the first big box Volvo, the Duett, was more of a high-riding proto-CUV than an estate.

    1. I went to Norway in 1970 and there were still a fair number of these around. Back then, of course, I thought they looked a bit old-fashioned and dowdy, but now they look like a proper car. Good looking, but purely as a complement to their primary function. What does anyone ever put in the back of a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake?

  7. Good on Volvo, I like that they’ve sharpened up again nicely after the melty Mattin-influenced styling era.

    Although if the critical consensus around here it that Jaguar is doing it wrong I feel like I need to burden myself with the payments on whatever XE I can afford because I like the whole current range and think the company deserves to do well.

    1. +1.
      While I agree that with regards to styling Volvo has the upper hand, technically Jaguar might be doing even better. The XC90 does look great inside and out, but technically it is not a revelation – too heavy and the engines are run-of-the-mill as well, except, maybe, for the hybrid.
      Jaguar has the aluminium body and a new engine generation, the latter aleady producing okayish diesels and probably only really paying off when the respective petrol versions hit market.

    2. Hmm. Equivalent of around £35k and up for the basic XE in NZ. Bit steep. Is there a twitter hashtag campaign I can support instead?

    3. Surely the XC90 with its brand new petrol 2 litre turbo plus supercharged engine at 316 bhp, at least as sold here in North America, cannot be accused of being run-of-the mill, Daniel? They were introduced only a year ago, and I’ve been looking forward to eventually seeing which is the better petrol engine, this new Volvo or Jaguar’s Ingenium. Jaguar are still fettling theirs for release, but the new diesel is reportedly a pretty coarse and lumpy object.

  8. One hundred percent agree here Eoin. If I was to say hand on heart what my next car will be to replace the Yeti, I’d say ten to one it will be a Volvo. I love the new Superb Estate for the same reasons as I love the Volvo: understated elegance without the current Germanic propensity of over-design. But I don’t want a car so low on the ground. I’m waiting for the new XC60 or XC40. Did I even mention the natural successor to my Yeti, the Kodiaq? Or will it be Kodiak? Nope. Why? Because it doesn’t excite me in the way these new Volvos do with Škodas all now having standard join-the-dots VAG (Audi) styling inside and out. Sigh.

    (As to the comment on the new XC90 being “gargantuan”: have you seen one and been in one or parked next to one?! My neighbour has one and parking my Yeti next to it shows you how small the XC90 is visually and in the metal. Especially compared to things like the current Disco or Q7.)

  9. Daniel – your comment about the Ingenium engine being ‘okayish’ accords with my thinking, after looking at a sectioned engine and speaking to some JLR people. Very much standard FEV fodder, with a basic architecture as close as could be to a BMW unit without incurring their major client’s ire. The distinguishing characteristics are low friction – roller bearings for the camshafts and balancer shafts – and light overall weight. The latter gives me K series-induced anxieties.

    It’s also strongly optimised towards compression-ignition, with very undersquare dimensions (83.0×92.4), and small parallel valves. Perhaps these things matter less in the brave new world of universal forced induction, but I’ll be interested to see whether the petrol Ingenium gets a completely different head design.

    The Volvo engine is very similar to the JLR unit in its fundamentals, although in this case their technology partner is AVL.

    Volvo have shown their hand far more than JLR more in the wide variety of induction and hybrid power systems, which are where all the action is these days.

    The Volvo engine is even more undersquare (82.0 x 93.2) than the Ingenium, but with 91mm bore centres, looks to have some room for expansion, should the industry ever tire of the long-stroke 500cc cylinder module. The Ingenium looks to have less ‘meat’ between the bores, but I can’t find a figure for the cylinder centres. It’s a notoriously elusive dimension, and regrettably my most dependable informant on such matters departed this life at the end of last month.

    1. Thanks for that. Very, very interesting!
      I’d love to read more of these kinds of analyses. Care to write an article on engine design characteristics?

  10. Thomas Ingenlath has plucked Volvo’s lowest hanging fruit, i.e. the large cars. I would like to see how he plans to square the circle that is the Ford Focus based V40. Applying his straight edged philosophy to a car that size will indeed be a challenge.

    1. You think so? I thought it worked ok on the previous V40 (or V50 as it was called)

    2. The second last small Volvo, the S40 and V40 (or is it 50) are really good bits of work inside and out. Surprisingly, they managed to make a great looking small saloon. It was contemporary and true to Volvo values. Horbury was on top form with those. And the estate combined practicality with great looks.

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