Volvo is perhaps best known in America for its straight sedans and, in particular, its station wagons. It is something of a well-deserved reputation. For decades, the Swedish company has produced angular, responsive vehicles that prioritize reliability and safety.
“This square was really something that they hung their hat on and turned it into a kind of safety sign, because you have all this tin around you,” said Paul Snyder, chair of the transportation design department. at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, a major school for automotive designers. “They were very flat and looked like tanks.”
But the brand is gearing up for the next step in its nearly 100-year history. This includes a move away from petroleum power in favor of an all-electric range and an impending initial public offering intended to raise nearly $ 3 billion to help fund this change. These plans lead him to face this past.
Volvo, founded in Sweden in 1927, has already undergone significant changes in the last decade. In 2010, Chinese industrial giant Geely bought the automaker 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. Trained at the Royal College of Art in London, Mr. Ingenlath worked at Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda, then headed the Volkswagen Group Advanced Design Center.
It brought a new fluidity to Volvo’s rigorous and elegant design, with soft, strong lines on the exterior and thoughtful layouts on the interior that were based on quality materials and functional utility – similar to modern Scandinavian furniture from the mid-century.
Under Mr. Ingenlath, Volvo has revamped its range. It went upmarket to compete with real luxury brands. He introduced an electric sub-brand, Polestar, where Mr. Ingenlath now acts as Managing Director. And Volvo was one of only three brands to increase sales during the pandemic economy contraction of 2020.
Yet Volvo hasn’t completely abandoned its Angular roots. “Our design language is like taking a solid piece of marble and cutting out the volume,” said Robin Page, formerly of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, who succeeded Mr. Ingenlath as design director in 2017. “I I’d say it’s not so much about the box we’re focusing on, it’s more the versatility.
The brand is now thinking outside the box, both literally and figuratively. “The product will generally be developed in two directions,” said Hakan Samuelsson, president of the company since 2012. “One is that the product will be less than just hardware. In the future, it will include more things like maintenance, insurance, and software.
This is exemplified in the Care by Volvo program, which forgoes purchases and rentals for an all-inclusive, millennial-friendly monthly subscription model. It now represents 6% of the brand’s new vehicle sales in the United States and 10% in Europe.
Second, Samuelsson said, Volvos will provide increased safety. “Our cars will not only be safer when you crash, they will also be cars that are very difficult to crash,” he said. “Our vision is a car that never breaks down.”
This vision will be based on advanced driver assistance technologies, via external radar and lidar sensors and enormous computing capacities.
“If you look at the safety, we thought more inside the box, with seat belts, airbags and crumple zones,” Page said. “Now we’re thinking outside the box, so it’s all about preventing problems. “
This focus on safety isn’t just a legacy game, building on the company’s inventions of the three-point seat belt and 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 upmarket.
“When I got here about 10 years ago some people were saying about safety it’s kinda old school because now everyone has safe cars, five star ratings so we have to do something else, ”Samuelsson said. . “But I think it was wrong because Volvo is about safety, and on the contrary, I think it is becoming more and more important now.”
This sensitive sensitivity has definitely given the brand cachet recently, as consumers reacted to Covid-19.
“With the pandemic, people got worried about everything, and if they had to buy a car, they thought about what brands they would consider,” said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, a research and development company. council that surveys hundreds of thousands of new car buyers every year. “Volvo, because of its safety and security fundamentals, entered into this set of considerations even though the consumer might not necessarily think, ‘I’m going to buy a Volvo. “”
The brand’s new look has won over an unsuspecting clientele. “When they got to the dealership, or did some research online, they looked at the exterior styling, they looked at the interior aesthetics, they looked at the way the IP is presented,” Mr. Edwards said. , referring to the dashboard, “and they said, ‘Damn, this is a pretty impressive vehicle.’ “
According to its data, consumer ratings of Volvo’s exterior and interior styling are similar to or better than those of design leaders like Audi and BMW. This allowed him to steal the sales of these brands.
“It hasn’t been that massive change, where Mercedes S-Class enthusiasts are flocking to Volvo,” said Edwards. “But there are more people moving from their Audi Q5 and BMW 3 Series to Volvos. More people who weren’t looking at Volvo and wouldn’t have investigated a Volvo.
Despite this good news, Volvo faces significant challenges as it moves with the rest of the industry towards a future dominated by electrification and, perhaps one day, autonomous driving. The brand – the first historic automaker to commit to phasing out internal combustion engines – has already stopped producing cars that run solely on petroleum: its vehicles are all electric or gas-electric hybrids, and the range will be purely electric by 2030. But it no longer commits to deadlines for autonomous driving.
“We were a little too optimistic, I think, all of us in the business,” Mr. Samuelsson said. “It’s harder than we thought.
Volvo must now find ways to capitalize on the goodwill it has gained during the pandemic. “If they are to see sales over the next decade, they need to ensure that the innovative styling and innovative technology of vehicles remain in a leadership position,” said Mr. Edwards.
Volvo also has to deal with changing demographics. “Consumers who are innovators and buy for aesthetics are still found in emerging markets and ethnic minorities. This is especially true for black car buyers in America, ”Mr. Edwards said, citing data. “One thing Volvo has suffered from is being a very white brand, having a university education, if not the professor. They have finally started to bring diversity in a positive way, but not as well as their competition.
Mr. Edwards has taken a strong stand on this issue. “They really need to think about who will be the American consumer in 10 years. The next group of luxury buyers are going to be quite different from what it looks like today, and Volvo is not a priority for those buyers. “
Finally, Volvo must re-face the box. Because electric cars lack an engine, gas tank, transmission, and exhaust system, they can break conventions and create new shapes. But as designers seek to maximize interior space – by minimizing hood length and incorporating the trunk into the vehicle like a sport utility vehicle – they end up with a familiar shape.
“We’re pushing students to rethink what’s possible with all of this new packaging,” said 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 Volvo showed to indicate its design direction under electrification is called Recharge, and it’s, decidedly, square.
“For me, while the Recharge is very nice, it doesn’t really move the needle for Volvo,” said 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, where everyone is really trying to scream.