My first car was a 1970 Volvo 142, and I suppose that goes a long way toward explaining the soft spot in my heart (and head?) for the brand. Of course, you didn't see too many of those on the road in metro-Detroit back in the day, giving me a certain feeling of uniqueness that I sort of liked. I imagine it's the same sort of feeling being enjoyed by Volvo buyers nowadays, too, since the company only sold 4,000 units last month, more than 1,000 of which came from the Volvo XC60. Yet there's reason to believe this could start to change in the near future, and here, in my second holiday trip outside the mainstream'”I wrote about Mitsubishi two days ago'”I'll explain my thinking.
Too Safe at Any Speed
At this stage, the problem for Volvo is simple; maybe not simple to fix, but certainly simple to identify: The automaker's products have been typecast as safety-first vehicles, and despite customers always putting "safety" at the top of their lists as far as what they look for in a new car, Volvo is an ideal example of the old saying that actions speak louder than words.
The automaker has often tried to overcome this reputation with products like its funky hatchback, the Volvo C30, but you get the feeling young buyers think it's too safe to be any fun while traditionalists think it's too dramatically styled to be safe. Then, in the SUV/crossover segment, where a rep for safety would seem to do the most good, Volvo has been unable to find a way to effectively capitalize on this positioning. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this state of affairs, too many to go into in one column, but I pin a fair amount of the blame on Ford's inability to devote enough resources to the brand when it was owned by the Blue Oval.
Today, backed by China-based automaker Geely, Volvo has the opportunity to change that. Geely should be highly motivated to make the brand relevant again, as that could help the Chinese company be the first to establish a foothold outside of China.
A Less-than-Perfect 10
Right now, the ol' Volvo website shows 10 different models on sale in the U.S., and the ol' sales chart shows just over 4,000 customers bought one in November, representing a year-over-year decrease of 11.9 percent that's right in line with Volvo's 11.8 percent year-to-date decline. The only real bright spots were the aforementioned Volvo XC60, the only Volvo to sell more than a 1,000 units last month, and the S60, which saw a triple-digit gain over its double-digit sales from the previous year.
True, a thousand units a month is no great shakes for mainstream vehicles, but it is on par with near-premium near rivals like the Acura RDX and represents a solid performance for a vehicle from the second-tier of automakers. With station wagons making a bit of a comeback here in the U.S. and the sales of small crossovers on the rise, the XC60'”which is a little of both'”is in the right place at the right time.
As for the S60, it's another of those vehicles meant to change the way people think about Volvo, but in a different, easier-to-swallow way than with the C30. The S60, for all its naughtiness, is still a traditional sedan, as opposed to being some kind of hot, or at least luke-warm, hatch. Thus, it's that much easier for customers to accept from Volvo, as its sales bear out. Just remember, we're still looking at only 369 units, indicating how much work Volvo still has ahead of it with this car.
Oh, it's also just conceivable that Volvo's odd promotional tie-in with the Twilight movies, featuring the S60 and XC60, actually paid off.
Hitting the Swede Spot
Entries like the S60 and XC60 show a viable market for Volvo products remains in the U.S., but reconfiguring the rest of the lineup is a must. The automaker's other sedans, like the Volvo S80, are still struggling with being too safe, while cars like the C30 and Volvo C70 convertible coupe stretch the company's boundaries a bit too far at present. This makes pumping up support in growing segments where the 60's compete seem like the right way to also pump up the sales volume.