HIGH TIME FOR THE BLOODY VOLVO DRIVER
Since it was taken over by Chinese backers in 2010, Volvo Cars has embarked on one of the most intriguing revitalisation programs the modern car industry has ever seen. Now, as the fruit of this partnership continues to ripen, Harrison Boudakin looks at how it all came to be, and what lies further down the road for this most storied of Scandinavian marques
A grey, Uber-branded Volvo XC90 lying forlornly on its side in Arizona became one of the defining images of the autonomous-vehicle arms race that escalated so rapidly over the last few years. It was also, however, one of the many news stories we’ve seen in the last 24 months involving Volvo and the world of disruptive, future-oriented technology – and that says rather a lot about the reform agenda being prosecuted inside this fascinating Swedish automaker.
Of course, many brands these days have come to see the shifting automotive landscape as an opportunity to break the nexus between who they were, and who they want to be, but Volvo have been perhaps the most radically ambitious, and successful, of the lot.
Much of this is attributable to the company’s high-profile sale to the Chinese industrial giant, Geely, back in 2010, which liberated the Swedes from 11 years of sclerotic management under Ford. Since then, Volvo’s new Chinese relationship has become nothing if not a model for how foreign ownership of a well-known car manufacturer should be done – not least because the suits in Beijing have been willing to put some proper fiscal muscle behind the company’s big-picture, expansionist plans, and have let the Swedes work largely unfettered by corporate fiddling. The result has been that the sick man of Ford is now the rising star of Eurasia.
It’s a combination of factors that have underpinned this zesty renaissance, not just in Volvo’s image, but in its approach to engineering and its sense of its place among the automotive elite. Having been left with what was, in engineering terms, a blank canvas after the Geely takeover, Volvo’s foremost thinkers developed a really rather intelligent framework for the essential reconstruction of their brand.
At the heart of the plan are two very flexible product architectures, which together will be found – in various forms – under the skin of every one of the company’s future products. This modular approach is not necessarily new – after all, the Volkswagen Group have been practicing it for decades – but Volvo have added their own twist in the form of a very distinct engine strategy.
Eschewing the sweet straight-sixes and V8 engines of their past, the Swedes have instead gone all-in on a four-cylinder-only strategy, using different states of turbocharging and/or hybridised-electrification to achieve a performance hierarchy. It’s an approach that is paying particularly strong dividends in this age of engineering uncertainty, as automakers begin the delicate task of weening the buying public onto the idea of plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles.
In fact, it’s worth noting just how successfully Volvo’s marketing department have managed to spin this strategy, into something even greater than the sum of its parts. In July 2017, the Swedes made quite a splash in the international press, when they boldly declared “Volvo Cars to go all-electric from 2019” – a headline which rather conveniently forwent any explanation of the fact that “all-electric” simply meant every car would be offered with some element of electric assistance. But while the implication that Volvo was walking away from the internal combustion engine turned out to be dead wrong, the statement nevertheless put Volvo’s ambitions on the map in a big way.
Of course, tricky press statements do not a renaissance make – great design, on the other hand, does. It’s possible to argue that more than any other factor, it is Volvo’s pursuit of a new aesthetic language that has contributed most to the dramatic shift in how people perceive this one-time pariah of a brand.
Former VP of Volvo Design, Thomas Ingenlath, who kick-started Volvo’s design revolution, mined a sweet vein of very balanced, palatable design forms, which quite deliberately shunned the kind of overwrought sportiness that the Germans so religiously purvey. The beauty isn’t just skin-deep either: Volvo has absolutely nailed their interior style of late, pursuing a crisp, iPad-esque techno-vibe, that nevertheless still feels decidedly Scandinavian in its warmth and quality.
Do not underestimate the sort of power that resides in this particular success: one only has to look at the explosive rise of Audi in the early noughties, as an example of what happens when designers hit a sweet spot, and then build on it relentlessly. If Volvo’s current form is anything to go by, we can expect further greatness to visit upon the Swedes.
What is far more difficult to predict, however, is where Volvo’s ambitious forays into the autonomous, connected universe will ultimately lead them. There’s no doubt they are approaching new pockets of automotive innovation with an especially bullish zeal, having forged some high-profile partnerships with Silicon Valley’s finest quite early in the piece.
The aforementioned Uber tie-up is particularly noteworthy – this ongoing collaboration on driverless research will see the Swedes sell 24,000 vehicles to the ride-sharing giant, who will use them to grow their fleet of autonomous taxis. Despite the well-publicised 2017 incident in Arizona, in every other respect the program is forging ahead at some pace; in fact, Volvo and Uber just recently announced a major deal with prominent chip maker, Nvidia, who are considered to be among the industry leaders in the development of the digital architecture underpinning the driverless revolution.
For Volvo, being seen to be jostling in amongst the movers and shakers in Silicon Valley is a crucial pinion in their ongoing effort to redefine how people perceive who they are as brand. So far, the efforts have paid off: never before has the name Volvo carried with it so many positive connotations, which no doubt augurs well for the company, as the industry itself pushes ever deeper into what is perhaps the most transformational phase in its 133 year history.
And therein lies the most significant achievement for the Swedes: since the Geely takeover, they have managed to give everyone – from the layman to the astute observer – a sense that Volvo are really ‘in it’; that they have the confidence to make the big punts, to play with the new trendsetters, and to thrive in an automotive universe whose future is equal parts exciting and unknown.
In other words, it’s high time to be a bloody Volvo driver.