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