Volvo is no longer boxed in and wins buyers with its sleeker look

Volvo is perhaps best known in America for its straight-line sedans and especially station wagons. This is something of a well-deserved reputation. For decades, the Swedish company produced angular, sensible vehicles, where reliability and safety were paramount.

“That boxiness was really something they hung their hats on, turning it into sort of a sign of safety because you have all this sheet metal around you,” said Paul Snyder, the chair of the transportation design department at the College for Creative Studies. in Detroit, a top school for car designers. “They were very sticky and looked like tanks.”

But the brand is preparing for the next phase in its nearly 100-year history. This includes forgoing petroleum power in favor of an all-electric lineup, and an imminent IPO that aims to raise nearly $3 billion to help fund this shift. Those plans make it come to terms with this past.

Volvo, founded in 1927 in Sweden, has already undergone significant changes over the past ten years. In 2010, Chinese industrial giant Geely bought the automaker from the ashes after the recession 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. Trained at the Royal College of Art in London, Mr Ingenlath worked at Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda, then headed the Volkswagen Group’s advanced design center.

He brought a fresh fluidity to Volvo design, rigorous and elegant, with flowing, strong lines on the outside and sensible layouts on the inside that were based on quality materials and functional utility – comparable to modern Scandinavian furniture from the middle of the century. the century.

Under Mr. Ingenlath, Volvo renewed its range. It became more expensive to compete with real luxury brands. It introduced an electric sub-brand, Polestar, where Mr Ingenlath now serves as chief executive. And Volvo was one of only three brands to expand sales during the shrinking pandemic economy of 2020.

Still, Volvo hasn’t completely abandoned its angular roots. “Our design language is like taking a solid piece of marble and cutting away the volume,” says Robin Page, formerly of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, who succeeded Mr Ingenlath as design director in 2017. “I’d say it’s not like that. a lot is about the box we’re focused on. It’s more the versatility.”

The brand now thinks outside the box, both literally and figuratively. “The product will generally be developed in two directions,” said Hakan Samuelsson, the company’s chairman since 2012. “One is that the product will be less just hardware. In the future, there will be more things like maintenance, insurance and software.”

This is illustrated in the Care by Volvo programme, which forgoes purchases and leases for a millennial-friendly, all-inclusive, monthly subscription model. It now accounts for 6 percent of the brand’s new car sales in the United States and 10 percent in Europe.

Second, said Mr. Samuelsson, Volvos will offer more safety. “Not only will our cars be safer when you crash, they will be cars that are very hard to crash,” he said. “Our vision is a car that never crashes.”

This vision will be based on advanced driver assistance technologies, via external radar and lidar sensors and enormous computing capabilities.

“When you look at safety, we used to think more within the box, with seat belts, airbags and crumple zones,” said Mr Page. “Now we think outside the box, so it’s more about preventing problems.”

This emphasis on safety isn’t just a historic game, based on the company’s inventions of the three-point seat belt and rear-facing child seat. In fact, the focus on safety may have been on the chopping block, as part of the brand’s attempt to scale up.

“When I came in here about 10 years ago some people said about safety it’s a bit old fashioned because now everyone has safe cars, five star ratings so we have to do something different,” Mr Samuelsson said. “But I think that was wrong, because Volvo is based on safety, and I think it’s becoming more important now.”

This sensible sensibility has certainly given the brand cachet of late as consumers reacted to Covid-19.

“With the pandemic, people were worried about everything, and when they had to buy a car, they rethought which brands they would consider,” said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, a research and consulting firm that conducts hundreds of surveys. thousands of new car buyers every year. “Volvo, because of its foundation in safety and security, ended up in that trade-off 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 dealership or did research online they looked at the exterior styling, they looked at the interior aesthetics, they looked at the way the IP address is laid out,” said Mr. Edwards, referring to the instrument panel,” and they said, ‘Damn, that’s a pretty impressive vehicle.’”

According to his data, consumer ratings of Volvo’s exterior and interior styling are comparable to or higher than those of design leaders such as Audi and BMW. This has made it possible to steal the sales of these brands.

“It hasn’t been this huge shift with Mercedes S-Class devotees flocking to Volvo,” said Mr Edwards. “But there is an increasing number of people who are leaving their Audi Q5s and BMW 3-Series for Volvos. A greater number of people who did not look at Volvo and would not have researched Volvo.”

Despite this good news, Volvo faces some significant challenges as it joins the rest of the industry into a future dominated by electrification and, perhaps one day, autonomous driving. The brand – the first automaker to vow to phase out internal combustion engines – has already stopped producing cars that run purely on petroleum: its vehicles are either all electric or gas-electric hybrids, and the lineup will be pure by 2030. be electric. no longer adheres to deadlines related to self-driving cars.

“We were a bit too optimistic I think, all of us in the company,” said Mr. Samuelson. “It’s harder than we thought.”

Now Volvo must find ways to capitalize on the goodwill it has acquired during the pandemic. “If they want to see sales in the next decade, they need to ensure that the innovative styling and innovative technology in the vehicles maintain a leadership position,” said Mr. Edwards.

Volvo also has to cope with changing demographics. “The consumers who are innovators and who buy for aesthetics are always in emerging markets and ethnic minorities. This is especially true for black car buyers in America,” said Mr. Edwards, referring to data. “One thing that bothers Volvo is that it is a very white, highly educated brand, if not the professorship. They have started to finally bring diversity in in a positive way, but not as well as their competition.”

Mr Edwards took a strong stance on this issue. “They really need to think about who the American consumer will be in 10 years. The next group of luxury buyers will look quite different from what they do now, and Volvo is not top of mind for those buyers.”

Finally, Volvo has to confront again. Since electric cars do not have an engine, gas tank, transmission and exhaust system, they can break conventions and create new shapes. But when designers try to maximize interior space—by minimizing the length of the hood and incorporating the trunk into the vehicle as in an SUV—they take on a familiar shape.

“We encourage students to re-imagine what is possible with all this new packaging,” says Mr. Snyder of the College of Creative Studies. “And so it kind of creeps into what we call a one-box form.”

The first concept Volvo has shown to indicate its design direction under electrification is called the Recharge, and it’s definitely boxy.

“For me the Recharge is very nice, but it doesn’t move the needle much for Volvo,” said Mr. snyder. “But they know who their consumer is, and minimalism is a big part of what they think. So whatever they do it will be simple and clean and maybe a little refreshing. Especially compared to the competition out there where everyone is really trying to scream.”

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