It’s hard to say when, exactly, Volvos started turning heads. At some point in the past three years, there’s a good chance you became aware that something had changed at this steady, reliable Swedish car company. You’ve probably been catching glimpses of designs that stand out from the automotive wallpaper on our roads, designs with presence and attention to detail. Maybe you’ve noticed a bit more pride in people’s voices as they chat cars. “Actually, I’ve just bought a Volvo.”
For motor show-goers and car geeks, it began in 2014 with a series of three concept cars: the Concept Coupe, Concept XC Coupe and Concept Estate. The work of German designer Thomas Ingenlath, who had joined from Volkswagen two years previously, they set out a new vision for the company. Presenting a more powerful design language, they also, unbeknown to onlookers, introduced what would become the Polestar 1 – the first standalone model from Volvo’s high-performance, all-electric spin-off and one of the most hotly anticipated cars across the industry, set to roll off the production line in the coming months.
In fact, the change really began in 2010 when Ford sold Volvo Cars to the Chinese conglomerate Zhejiang Geely Holding Group for $1.8bn (£1.5bn) – at the time, the largest overseas acquisition by a Chinese carmaker. It was the start of an investment spree that has seen Geely take control of Lotus, revive the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC), the firm making the capital’s new electric black cabs, and recently take a 9.7 per cent stake in Daimler, Mercedes-Benz’s parent company. Back then, few would have bet on Chinese ownership turning Volvo into a brand that has not only rediscovered its mojo, but developed a previously unseen edge as a true luxury competitor.
“It’s a great compliment,” says Robin Page, the Briton who succeeded Ingenlath as Volvo’s lead designer in 2013 (Ingenlath was appointed CEO of Polestar). “Five years ago we didn’t say, ‘We want to be cool in five years’ time’. The objective was to put the focus back on design within the company. In that space of time, we’ve really fulfilled the quest that we set, around 2014, to fully replace the current range. Five years is fast to replace the entire range of a product.”
That range now comprises SUVs – the XC90, XC60 and XC40 – which, to many petrolheads, represent the acceptable face of the sports utility vehicle; estates (V90, V60); the V40 hatchback; and the S90 flagship saloon and its S60 younger brother, which was released in May – the first model to embody Volvo’s commitment that every car it makes from 2019 will contain an electric motor, with a view to phasing out internal combustion over a generation.
That approximate deadline stands alongside a firm goal of selling one million electric cars by 2025 and making the company’s manufacturing processes carbon-neutral in the same year. It’s bold, ambitious stuff, and, according to Page, we have that change of proprietorship to thank. “With the new ownership there was definitely a change in the culture. Because the future was basically put into the people’s hands. And then you have this new energy of, ‘We can really achieve things here if we work together and get things moving in the right direction’. It’s something you’ve seen at Land Rover as well, where, when the ownership is put into the people’s hands, the brand starts to return to what it should be.”
To a generation that grew up with the boxy estates and saloons of the 1980s and 90s, the idea of Volvo returning to cool status takes some mental gymnastics. My grandfather drove a 940 saloon (tartan rug on the back seat; a tin of Werther’s Originals in the front) and, while it was safe and practical, it was also about as exciting as his perfectly ironed beige chinos. Page, who spent 12 years at Bentley, latterly as head of interior design, acknowledges that putting the safety-first image of the brand slightly to one side was fundamental to the transformation. It was necessary to look past Volvo’s years of angular designs to a time when its cars were sexy: the 1960s were an inspiration, and, in particular, the P1800, which was manufactured between 1961 and 1973 (although, it must be said, even then Volvos were leaders in safety).
With the 2014 concepts, says Page, “we were communicating the new design language, but also it was a nod to our heritage. And the car that we picked up there was the P1800.” It was, he points out, the car used in cult 1960s TV series The Saint and “was one of the most beautiful in the Volvo range. It was quite sculptural, very appealing and captured what we thought was the Scandinavian design principle.”
Scandinavian design – unsurprisingly – is invoked time and time again as one of the crucial touchpoints with which the brand needed to reconnect. In that vein, Page is at pains to root the principles behind the new generation of cars in a design tradition that’s broader than automotive design, referencing sculpture, architecture and furniture. Other influences are less predictable: at one point, the range is expressed in terms of footwear. “With the XC40, we started to mix some fresh ideas into the formula, rather than just downsize the same formula,” says Page. At that time, he adds, Ingenlath “talked about different shoes. He said, ‘One way of looking at it is to take a shiny pair of gentleman’s shoes; you have it in size 12, and that’s your big car. Then size 10 is the medium SUV. And then for the XC40 a lot of brands would do a size eight; the same shoe, but just downsized.’ What we wanted to do is create a different character with different sizes. So we still have, for the XC90 and the S90, this kind of formal black shoe.” But for the Volvo 60 models, he explains, “we looked at this blue suede shoe, which can go with a suit, but it also could go with jeans and a blazer. And then for the XC40, we talked about a Prada trainer – something that’s far more playful, but still expensive. That brought out a much more useful and characterful car.”
Driving the S90, you can see where Page is coming from. It’s a serious car, still pitched at the executive market –‒very black leather shoes. With Inscription trim and Volvo’s top-end T8 hybrid engine, good for 320hp, this is a £65,000 saloon, but unlike a lot of cars at this level, it doesn’t feel the need to shout its prestige credentials in your face. It’s a relaxing place to sit, and it treads a fine line between minimalist and luxurious, confident in its own simplicity and elevated by a restrained number of decorative touches. Page says, “We then worked out which materials we wanted, and tweaked it to get the best out of them. Then we said, ‘Now let’s bring in some beautiful bits of jewellery’. Not too many, just four or five areas: for instance, the solid crystal gear selector, or the rotary switch. We needed to add those elements because people will really enjoy relaxing in an environment that’s not too noisy. To be in the premium sector, you need to have both the right materials but also the ‘delight’ features.”
Interiors are important. Anyone who’s sat in a Bentley Continental or Mulsanne knows how much respect Page deserves for his grasp of ergonomics, comfort and materials (he also worked on the Queen’s state limo). But it’s the exterior that turns heads and here it’s by not being quite in lockstep with the mainstream that Volvo has succeeded. Pick almost any new car and you’ll notice some common visual elements: large front intakes which visually suck the car’s nose into the road; wide, flared haunches; sharp pseudo-aerodynamic splitters and wings; and angled, frowning headlights. It began with performance models from the usual suspects – Audi, BMW, Mercedes – but has spread throughout the industry. Now even your Mum’s Kia looks as though it’s permanently angry with the car in front.
Volvo hasn’t totally dodged this trend (the radiator grilles are still very large and, entertainingly, the LED headlights have what’s referred to as a Thor’s Hammer design) but it’s a lot calmer than most, which was deliberate. “The brand is about human-centric design,” says Page. “If we’re trying to stay true to the principles of Scandinavian design, it is a lot about stripping away the visual noise and taking away unnecessary aggression.” Consequently, Volvo’s star models – particularly the XC40 – come across as a lot more zen than their competitors. There’s a playfulness to the design that Page credits to sculpting the shape from one block, avoiding sporty lines from front to back and experimenting with geometric forms instead. Even when the brief is to be powerful, as it is with the 600hp Polestar 1, the design eschews so many of the textbook features employed by fast cars to broadcast their potency. Its humble silhouette is almost Q car stealthy, its presence guaranteed by its simplicity. In what will hopefully be one of 2019’s standout cars, and in everything it has done in the past five years, Volvo is showing what you can achieve when you have the confidence to be different.