Ford Death Watch 44: Wither Volvo?

ford death watch 44 wither volvo

My next door neighbor is one of those classic 'car traders.' He buys, fixes, drives, fixes, drives, fixes, etc. When the repairs finally get to be too much time and hassle, he sells the car. I've seen a lot of nameplates come and go through his driveway. Hondas and Nissans stay for a while. Saabs require constant weekend tinkering. And Volkswagens need more plastics than a Barbie factory. Only one brand has stuck around, for nearly a decade now: his family Volvo wagon. And therein lies the tale.

Back in the day, older Volvos were [rightly] known for their long list of standard safety virtues: side impact protection systems, whiplash protection, four wheel ABS disc brakes and traction control. Only an S-Class Mercedes or a few good friends from my home state of New Jersey offered more protection… and both required a lot more scratch.

These Volvo's of Yore were a lot more than just glorified safety barges. They were luxurious in a way that no Toyonda of the time could touch. The 'safest car on the road' was supremely comfortable, with Goldilocks perfect seats and terrific visibility. These thrones of near-luxury beatitude came complete with CD changers, turbochargers, all-wheel drive and a narrow girth. The combo made the Volvo wagon a favorite for buyers seeking a safe, European-style family car with a modicum of sporting character.

For a while, Volvo stood alone in the marketplace. Throughout the eighties into the nineties, while the Japanese and Americans followed the herd that became the SUV and minivan stampede, Volvo maintained its traditional virtues: a wagon (and sedan) that offered protection, build quality and comfort at a family-friendly price. It was a good bet– that unfortunately gave way to lots of bad bets.

In 1999, Ford bought Volvo. It wouldn't be fair to say that Volvo had jumped the shark by then. But you could say they'd lost their mojo. Or, more accurately, their competitors had found it.

At the turn of the last century, gas was [still] inexpensive, luxury was trickling down and, worst of all for Volvo, safety regulations had leveled the playing field. The Camry and Accord– once distant pretenders to Volvo's safety throne– released legitimate alternatives that cost thousands less than the mostly built-in-Europe S60's and V70's. Traction Control, standard ABS braking, side-curtain airbags, in-floor frame rails (used to move energy to the car body instead of the occupants) and new design architectures made these mainstream vehicles comparable to the sedan versions of Volvo's FWD models.

All of the sudden, Volvo's safety 'statement' became a debate. Still, if Volvo had simply progressed with the times in terms of product quality, the brand might have remained a serious contender. Unfortunately, Volvos were becoming expensive propositions for their soon to be disloyal customers. ABS modules, evaporator cores, severe engine throttle body issues (which required multiple recalls) and low-quality interior glues made virtually all the pre-Ford Volvos high dollar propositions for the automotive novice. The majority of whom represented Volvo's traditional conservative clientele.

The post-Ford 2001 refreshing of the V70 wagon resulted in numerous electrical glitches and transmissions that eventually went from a firm smooth ka-thunk to a $3000+ kaput. Volvo's clean competitive advantage gradually became a bit more hazy in the marketplace. J.D. Power reflected this new, less appealing reality when it released sub-par customer retention ratings for the Volvo brand.

By this time, Subaru had gained enormous traction amongst the Volvo crowd by offering cheaper and better made Foresters and Outbacks. In 2002, Volvo unleashed its XC90 into the American market. While the late-the-the-party SUV garnered tremendous sales success, the upmarket vehicle solidified a move away from Volvo's sensible, lower middle-class roots.

Despite its brand-faithful, class-leading safety, the thirsty XC was a "me too" vehicle with LOTS of lower-priced competition: compact SUVs with room, safety and features aplenty. Escapes, RAV4's, and CRV's posed a question for which Volvo didn't have an answer. "Why do we need to spend more for a Volvo?" At the same time, luxury brands' compact SUVs crowded Volvo from on high.

Today's Volvo is hanging in there. Sales have fallen 8.3 percent (to 106,213 units) year-to-date, but that's not bad in a generally down market. The bigger question is this: what is a Volvo? The revised V-wagons are an admirable attempt to recapture the old magic in America's post-SUV landscape, but the brand's defenders have positioned Volvos too high in the price ladder for its traditional clientele. The chances that Volvo can compete against the established luxury brands are, still, slim.

The term "Volvo wagon" as a phrase synonymous for affordable durability is dead. In the meantime, cars like my neighbors pre-Ford 1996 Volvo wagon are still running strong, giving serious street cred to a brand that really hasn't lead the field since 2001. Now what?

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  • GBG GBG on Apr 28, 2008

    Our '95 850 no option Volvo is nearing its practical life. After a very reliable 245,000 miles, it needs brakes and there seems to be no end to new electrical glitchs that dont disable the car, but just annoy the hell out of you. Good news is that when we bought it "new" with 5000 miles from the dealer, we were too broke to afford one with more gizmos. Those Sunroofs and power seats and door locks would now only be joining the chorus of little failures. With the recent purchase of a MINI, the Volvo is now the second car, and might be able to squeak out another 6 months to a year, as long as nothing big comes up. Maybe our mechanic will give us a good deal on the brake job. My only worry: The MINI has all those gizmos...

  • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Apr 29, 2008

    Most shops will charge $90 to $100 per set (front / rear) on replacing the pads and machining the rotors. Your Volvo has dirt cheap parts. As for electrical glitches, that's usually either connections that get loose with age or cheap bulbs that need to be replaced. That Volvo may indeed last 300k whether you like it or not ;)

  • ToolGuy "We’ll see what happens with Haas." I wonder what happened with Haas?
  • ToolGuy Auction is 2 days away now. I've been setting aside some spare change here and there - have you? (You forgot again, didn't you?)
  • Luke42 I like the Metris quite a bit, but I never bought one.Two problems kept me from pulling the trigger:[list=1][*]It was expensive for what it was.[/*][*]For the price they were asking, it needed to have a plug for me to buy it.[/*][/list=1]I wanted a minivan that could tow, and I test drove one and liked it. The Mercedes dealer stocked both cargo versions and conversion vans. It was a nice vehicle, and I really wanted one for a while.This is the inevitable fate of cars that I like, but don't actually buy.
  • Garrett I would have gone for one of these if it had AWD. If they had offered it, it could have done far better.
  • Michael500 Sorry, EV's are no good. How am I supposed to rev the motor to impress girls? (the sophisticated ones I like).