Volvo is perhaps best known in America for rectilinear sedans and, especially, station wagons. This is something of a well-earned reputation. For decades, the Swedish company produced angular, sensible vehicles, which put a priority on reliability and safety.
“That boxiness was really something that they hung their hat on, and turned it into a kind of signifier of safety, because you’ve got all this sheet metal around you,” said Paul Snyder, the chairman of the transportation design department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, a top school for automotive designers. “They were very slab-sided, and looked like tanks.”
But the brand is preparing for the next phase in its nearly 100-year history. This includes a renouncement of petroleum power in favor of a fully electric lineup, and an impending initial public offering intended to raise nearly $3 billion to help fund this shift. Those plans are causing it to confront this past.
Volvo, founded in Sweden in 1927, has undergone significant change already in the past decade. In 2010, the Chinese industrial giant Geely bought the carmaker from the post-recession ashes of Ford Motor’s Premier Automotive Group. A huge investment in technology and engineering followed, as did the hiring of Thomas Ingenlath as head of design. Educated at the Royal College of Art in London, Mr. Ingenlath worked at Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda, then ran the Volkswagen Group’s advanced design center.
He brought a fresh fluidity to Volvo design, rigorous and elegant, with smooth, strong lines outside and sensible layouts inside that relied on quality materials and functional utility — akin to Scandinavian midcentury modern furniture.
Under Mr. Ingenlath, Volvo revamped its lineup. It moved upscale to compete with true luxury brands. It introduced an electric sub-brand, Polestar, where Mr. Ingenlath now acts as chief executive. And Volvo was one of just three brands that expanded their sales during the contracting pandemic economy of 2020.
Still, Volvo hasn’t entirely abandoned its angular roots. “Our design language is like taking a solid piece of marble and carving away the volume,” said Robin Page, formerly of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, who succeeded Mr. Ingenlath as design director in 2017. “I would say it’s not so much about the box that we’re focused. It’s more the versatility.”
The brand is now thinking outside the box, both literally and figuratively. “The product generally will be developed in two directions,” said Hakan Samuelsson, the company’s chairman since 2012. “One is that the product will be less of just hardware. In the future, it will include more things like maintenance, insurance and software.”
This is illustrated in the Care by Volvo program, which forgoes purchases and leasing for a millennial-friendly, all-inclusive, monthly subscription model. It now accounts for 6 percent of the brand’s new vehicle sales in the United State and 10 percent in Europe.
Second, Mr. Samuelsson said, Volvos will offer enhanced safety. “Our cars will not only be more safe when you crash, they will also be cars that will be very difficult to crash,” he said. “Our vision is a car that never crashes.”
This vision will rely on advanced driver assistance technologies, via external radar and lidar sensors and huge computational abilities.
“If you look at safety, we used to think inside the box more, with seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones,” Mr. Page said. “Now we’re thinking outside the box, so it’s more about preventing problems in the first place.”
This emphasis on safety is not simply a heritage play, drawing on the company’s inventions of the three-point seatbelt and the rear-facing child seat. In fact, the focus on safety was potentially on the chopping block, as part of the brand’s attempt to move upscale.
“When I came in here about 10 years ago, some people were saying about safety that it is sort of old school, because now everybody has safe cars, five-star ratings, so we have to do something else,” Mr. Samuelsson said. “But I think that was wrong because Volvo is based on safety, and if anything, I think it’s getting more important now.”
This sensible sensibility definitely lent the brand cachet recently, as consumers reacted to Covid-19.
“With the pandemic, people felt worried about everything, and if they had to buy a car, they thought afresh about what brands they’d consider,” said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, a research and consulting firm that surveys hundreds of thousands of new-car buyers annually. “Volvo, because of its foundation in safety and security, got into that consideration set even though the consumer wasn’t necessarily thinking, ‘I’m going to buy a Volvo.’”
The brand’s new look won over unsuspecting customers. “When they got to the dealer, or researched online, they looked at the exterior styling, they looked at the interior aesthetics, they looked at the way the I.P. is laid out,” Mr. Edwards said, referring to the instrument panel, “and they went, ‘Damn, that’s a pretty impressive vehicle.’”
According to his data, consumer ratings of Volvo’s exterior and interior styling are similar to or higher than those for design leaders like Audi and BMW. This has allowed it to pilfer sales from these brands.
“It hasn’t been this massive shift, where Mercedes S-Class devotees are leaving in droves to Volvo,” Mr. Edwards said. “But there is an increased volume of people leaving their Audi Q5s and BMW 3-Series for Volvos. A greater range of people who weren’t looking at Volvo and wouldn’t have investigated a Volvo.”
Despite this good news, Volvo faces some significant challenges as it moves with the rest of the industry into a future dominated by electrification and, perhaps one day, autonomous driving. The brand — the first heritage automaker to vow to phase out internal combustion engines — has already ceased producing purely petroleum-burning cars: Its vehicles are either all electric or gas-electric hybrids, and the lineup will be purely electric by 2030. But it is no longer committing to deadlines with respect to self-driving.
“We were a bit over-optimistic, I think, all of us in the business,” Mr. Samuelsson said. “It’s more difficult than we thought.”
Now Volvo must find ways to capitalize on the good will it acquired during the pandemic. “If they want to see sales in the next decade, they have to make sure that the innovative styling and innovative tech in the vehicles remain in a leadership position,” Mr. Edwards said.
Volvo must also confront shifting demographics. “The consumers who are innovators, and who are buying for aesthetics, are always in emerging markets and ethnic minorities. This is especially true of Black car buyers in America,” Mr. Edwards said, citing data. “One thing that Volvo has suffered from is being a very white, college-educated — if not the professor — brand. They’ve started to finally bring in diversity in a positive way, but not as well as their competition.”
Mr. Edwards took a firm stance on this issue. “They really need to think about who the U.S. consumer is going to be in 10 years. The next group of luxury buyers is going to look fairly different from how they look today, and Volvo is not top of mind for those buyers.”
Finally, Volvo must re-confront the box. Because electric cars lack an engine, a gas tank, a transmission and an exhaust system, they can break conventions and create new forms. But as designers seek to maximize interior space — minimizing the length of the hood and incorporating the trunk into the vehicle as in a sport utility vehicle — they end up with a familiar shape.
“We’re pushing students to re-envision what’s possible with all this new packaging,” said Mr. Snyder, of the College for Creative Studies. “And so it’s sort of sneaking up on what we call a one-box shape.”
The first concept that Volvo has shown to indicate its design direction under electrification is called the Recharge, and it is, decidedly, boxy.
“To me, while the Recharge is very nice, it’s not moving the needle much for Volvo,” Mr. Snyder said. “But they know who their consumer is, and minimalism is a big part of what they’re thinking. So whatever they do is going to be simple and clean and maybe kind of refreshing. Especially compared to the competition out there, where everybody is really trying to scream.”
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