I’ve always had a soft spot for Volvo, that’s probably why I’ve owned two and chose European Delivery on one of them. But Volvo has a problem. It’s not the product. It’s not even the brand positioning. It’s a lack of advertising and visibility. Let’s dive deep into my mind as I pontificate about Volvo’s destiny.
Auto shows are an interesting place to see where a brand thinks they are heading. In Chrysler’s dark days they shrank their auto show floor real estate to a postage stamp sized lot, but it was in the busy central area of the LA Auto Show. Volvo on the other hand has long been squeezed into a minuscule area between Ford and Lincoln. This year something is different. Volvo relocated to the middle of the hall that contains BMW, Audi, Mercedes Lexus and Acura. They have also doubled their square footage. What does this mean for the brand’s direction and faithful? I’m not sure. Why? Because in typical fashion, Volvo had their new-to-America V60 wagon on the floor, but the press conference was on engines
we won’t see for ages. [Edit: Volvo tells us we will see the new 4-cylinder engines in January of 2014.] It was also scheduled for the last day of the show when everyone but me had flown home.
The problem was that there was plenty to talk about for the new model year. 2014 brought an unexpected interior refresh across the line with new shifters that are no longer clear (thank God), optional stitched leather dashboards, new front and rear bumpers across the line, a faster 6-speed transmission, LCD disco dashes for the masses and a touchscreen 3G connected system that you can use while wearing gloves. We also get some engine tweaks and more Polestar performance love. Did Volvo mention any of that? Nope. How about that V60? Oh, that? Ja, it’s new. Nej, we are not allowed to talk about new products. (OK, I made that last part up.)
What makes Volvo’s situation all the more bizarre is that when most companies wither and die, the product was the harbinger of doom. Saturn had, well, every car they ever made. Isuzu, enough said. Mitsubishi has the Mirage and Outlander and the writing is on the wall. Volvo on the other hand seems to have enough cash to make cars or to market cars, but not both. In typical Swedish fashion they have chosen the former. The result is a leather and natural-stained-oak wrapped S80 T6 that does 0-60 in 5.3 while AWD power-sliding through an intersection. Yes the steering is numb, heavy and slightly vague, but in reality the S80 is “more E350 and 535xi” than a Lexus GS or Acura RLX. Do those shoppers know the S80 exists? Nope. The XC60 T6 R-Design we tested about a year ago was the most powerful mid-sized luxury SUV available being as fast as the BMW X3 and faster than the Audi or Merc. Until the Macan lands, the Volvo is still second, just a hair below the incredibly expensive Audi SQ5. Anyone know that? Not even Volvo knew that. When we reviewed the XC60, I asked Volvo if they could confirm my suspicion it wore the horsepower crown. All I heard were crickets.
Even the ancient XC90 (which is nearly old enough to buy tobacco) is still a fairly competent SUV. By no means is it class leading, but shockingly, it just sailed through the IIHS small offset test to get a Best Pick award. Even after nearly 12 years on the market, I could see someone buying an XC90 instead of a Buick Enclave.
Plenty of people are convinced Volvo’s woes are because the product is too expensive, that the brand is trying to go upmarket and it doesn’t belong. Hogwash. If they want to price out their loyal 240 customers, go right ahead, this is business. BMW moved up market, Audi moved up market. Heck, even Kia is moving up market with the K900. Making more expensive widgets isn’t the issue, selling the widget is the problem. If Geely really wants to make a go out of Volvo, here’s my simple plan.
Step 1: Advertise. I’m not talking about doubling your budget. Dig deep. Find out what Audi is spending and get as close as you can. Mortgage everything if you need to.. Make it edgy. Bring those Volvo wife-swapping commercials from Sweden and play ’em on prime time TV. Bring back some teary-eyed “my Volvo saved my life” content. Jump some Volvos off a cliff. Jam some Swedish models in the cars.
Step 2. You know that 500+ horsepower S60? Stop toying with us and just build the darn thing. Will it be expensive? Sure. Will it sell? Probably not. Does it matter? Yes. Why do you think Kia wants a K900 flagship that will have an annual sales of 12? Besides, such a project might allow Volvo to design a 400HP drivetrain at a reasonable cost which is essential to compete with the Germans.
Step 3. Regain the impression of safety leadership. Notice I said impression. This goes back to step one. By not advertising, you have allowed Honda, Subaru, and others to take a leadership role in consumer’s minds about safety. I know safety doesn’t sell by itself, but everyone I know with kids that asks for car advice says one thing first: “I want a safe car that XXX”. Play on those fears.
Step 4. Prey on the weak. Acura and Lexus seem to have trouble finding their calling lately. Use that to your advantage and target four-cylinder FWD cars at those folks. Hint: they love wood trim and don’t care about RWD driving dynamics, so make a trim level just for them.
Step 5. It has been said before, but I’m starting to agree. You need to build a minivan. Make it looks XC60 ish, seat 8, give it AWD and don’t cheap out on the back seats. The Mercedes R didn’t sell, so keep the price reasonable, maybe a $10,000 premium over Chrysler’s Town & Country. Jam more air bags than a mother-in-law convention in there and sell it to minivan mommies who will buy anything to keep their kids in a Swedish cocoon.