Volvo’s boxy sedans and station wagons were an American symbol in the ’80s of safe suburban yuppiedom, but the Swedish car maker hasn’t done so well here since. Its sales in the United States, once its largest market, have been cut in half over the last decade, slipping last year for the first time ever below Chinese buyers. Ford Motor, the Detroit powerhouse that bought Volvo for $6 billion in 1999, opted to offload it for just $1.8 billion in 2010.
But in an attempt to rescue the company’s presence stateside, the car maker on Tuesday unveiled something completely different: a bulkier, pricier seven-seat SUV that will take on rivals Lexus and BMW in the high-end crossover market. Its most distinctive feature: the T-shaped “Thor’s Hammer” running lights, which the car maker says will “add to the entirely new, distinctive and confident face for Volvo’s forthcoming car generation.”
The XC90, which will begin selling in April, is the first new showing for Volvo under its new ownership, Chinese car conglomerate Zhejiang Geely, which has invested $11 billion in the years since toward redesigning the SUV and its ultra-efficient engine. The strength of that investment, and Volvo’s success, could depend heavily on whether buyers flock to the SUV’s big build.
“This is one of the most important days in our history,” Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are not just launching a car, but relaunching our brand.”
The XC90 is a relaunch of the crossover SUV first debuted in 2002, and it’s marked by a handful of high-profile touches more likely to be seen in something like a Cadillac Escalade: a big tablet-esque dashboard touchscreen, a chunky chrome grille, wheels that can stretch up to 22 inches. “Volvo wanted to give the new model a more macho look, but it didn’t want the SUV to appear overly aggressive,” a Car & Driver reviewer said.
But Volvo — which is Latin for “I roll” — is still touting it as a safety vehicle, in line with the company’s stated goal that no one dies or gets seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020. It’s also, as one executive called it, Volvo’s “first step towards self-driving cars”: it follows the next vehicle up in stop-and-go traffic, and brakes if the driver turns in front of an oncoming car.
A limited run of 1,927 first-edition models will go on sale next week for $66,000, about $25,000 more than the average Volvo sold for in July, Edmunds.com data show. That’s a huge leap of faith for Volvo, which was one of the few big car makers to sell fewer cars last month than the year before.
“It’ll be the first chapter of the new Volvo. … and they’re launching into one of the hottest segments on the market: SUVs,” said Mike Tyndall, a London-based auto analyst for Barclays Capital Group. But “it’s too rash to say success is guaranteed. One would hope they’ve got a nice tailwind, let’s put it that way.”