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GG van Rooyen: The Evolution of Volvo

20 January 2015

I was watching an old episode of the UK motoring show Top Gear the other day. American actor Christian Slater was a guest on the show, and when host Jeremy Clarkson quizzed him on his history of vehicle ownership, he said the following: “The Volvo was really for covert purposes. I mean, nobody looks at a Volvo. Volvos are very subtle, very inconspicuous vehicles.”

In other words, Slater drove a Volvo because it wasn’t the sort of vehicle people would expect a Hollywood star to drive. Because it was such an unassuming vehicle, it allowed him to move about inconspicuously.

This, of course, is an image that the Swedish company has struggled to cast off for some time. Traditionally, Volvos have been seen as “safe” in both the literal and figurative sense. Yes, a Volvo boasted admirable safety technology, but it was also a boring and rather unimaginative choice of transportation.

This broad generalisation of the company’s products was unfair, no doubt, but it was also understandable to a certain extent. For a while there, the cars really weren’t the most eye-catching around.

But things are changing. Volvos are becoming cool. Even Twilight vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen zipped around in one in the film series, though I’m not sure whether this increases or decreases the cultural cachet of the brand.

Seriously though, Volvo has managed to reposition itself as a somewhat iconoclastic brand over the last decade or so. It has become the premium car of choice for those who do not like premium cars. For those who consider buying a traditional Teutonic premium car as too predictable and mainstream, a Volvo is becoming the attractive choice. Suddenly, owning a Volvo is cool.

That said, not everyone has caught on yet. And the majority of top-end buyers will continue to opt for the established German marques. But the Volvo bigwigs have no illusions about this, and view themselves as a relatively small company that will never post BMW or Mercedes-Benz numbers.

Volvo wants to be a small manufacturer with a niche target market. At the moment the company sells around 400 000 vehicles a year. In fact, it just had its biggest year in history, selling more than 400 000 cars. Its aim? To sell 800 000 annually.

Is this possible? Can Volvo double its sales in the next couple of years? Yes, thanks to a new slate of vehicles that promises to invigorate the brand even further.

The first to hit showroom floors will be the next generation XC90 – the company’s much-anticipated SUV. I recently had an opportunity to see it “in the flesh” during the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Cape Town, and couldn’t help being impressed. The technological advances and refinement of the SUV threaten to eclipse even what the Germans are doing. This truly is a class-leading luxury SUV.

Moreover, Volvo hasn’t simply copied what the other brands are doing. The average number of buttons in a luxury SUV is around 15. The XC90 has only eight. This is a very clean and minimalist SUV. It has real presence, but isn’t overly showy. It has an effortless kind of elegance. The XC90 is, well, cool. Even legendary Bafana Bafana footballer Lucas Radebe has ordered one. He was in Cape Town to get a first proper look at the SUV that he has already purchased.

I can’t wait to get behind the wheel of an XC90. Not only is its design impressive, but Volvo is also doing interesting things with engines. According to the company, the era of the eight-cylinder (and even six-cylinder) engine is quickly coming to a close. Even the large XC90 will sport a four-cylinder mill, and the company’s engineers have apparently managed to squeeze the same sort of performance out of a four-pot that we traditionally expect from a V6 or V8. So Volvo is positioning itself at the forefront of new engine technology.

The XC90 will be released globally throughout 2015. It has been 12 years since the previous version’s release, so this launch really is overdue. But we won’t have to wait too long for the release of Volvo’s next vehicle. During a media presentation in Cape Town, we were told that, in four years’ time, the XC90 will be the oldest vehicle on Volvo showroom floors.

If I were sitting in a boardroom at a vehicle factory in Germany, I’d definitely take notice of what those Swedes are getting up to…