Volvo Plans Luxury Assault on Audi, BMW and Mercedes with New Engine and Platform Strategy
by: Bryan Joslin
Nov 16, 2011 - 9:56:54 AM
An hour north of Los Angeles, in a fairly conventional business park just off the 101 freeway, is Volvo’s North American technology and design center. It’s unremarkable in its outward appearance, just another two-story warehouse-type building tucked in along a wide, tree-lined parkway. But for the last twenty-five years, this place, better known as the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center, has been the American home for a small handful of the Swedish carmaker’s best thinkers. And with the Los Angeles Auto Show just around the corner, it seemed the perfect venue for the newly independent brand to show off just a hint of what its future holds.
Gathered around the Concept YOU vehicle, first shown in September at the Frankfurt Motor Show, members of Volvo management laid out a clear-cut and focused plan for Sweden’s largest carmaker. Volvo Car Corporation CEO Stefan Jacoby revealed that the company’s next wave of products will move upmarket to compete with other established luxury brands (BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi in particular). He also confirmed that the carmaker is already moving toward a new engine strategy that will completely eliminate combustion powerplants with more than four cylinders, and then revealed a few more details about future vehicles to be built on the new SPA platform.
For years, Volvo has lived in that somewhat vague, undefined market space between middle class and luxury, according to Richard Monturo, Volvo’s vice president of global marketing; but not so in the future. Hired to help redefine the brand now that it’s free from the hands of Ford, Monturo communicated a clear vision of Volvo’s core values and its strengths, and stated that, “Volvo will unabashedly be a luxury brand throughout the world,” but in a thoroughly Scandinavian interpretation.
Simplicity, long a trademark of Scandinavian design, will be at the center of the new philosophy, which will also focus heavily around the user experience. Luxury in the new Volvo context will center more on the small details, the back story that connoisseurs will notice. Monturo acknowledged that Volvo buyers have always had an appreciation for the little things that make their cars functional and well-engineered, and that the next generations of Volvo cars will benefit from what he calls cultivated luxury rather than label-focused luxury.
An interesting twist that reinforces this new approach is the company’s plan to gradually eliminate all eight-, six, and even five-cylinder engines over the next few years. On the not-so-distant horizon lies a Volvo lineup that will be powered by a range of four-cylinder gasoline, diesel, gas/electric hybrid and diesel/electric hybrid powertrains, as well as fully electric cars. As Jacoby proclaimed, “The days of counting cylinders when talking about premium vehicles are over.” The new scheme will rely on highly efficient engines tuned for fuel economy and low emissions — Volvo is aiming for 95 g/km of CO2 by 2020 — with performance hybridization filling the horsepower gap on upper-end models.
An entirely new modular architecture will allow the next generation of vehicles to achieve new levels of efficiency while allowing Volvo to retain its place as the world’s safety leader. The new architecture goes by the appropriately luxurious-sounding acronym SPA, for Scalable Platform Architecture. The Concept YOU was conceived on the SPA platform, which will use a combination of steel and aluminum to achieve its high strength and reduced weight goals. The first production model to take advantage of SPA will be the next-generation XC90 and the platform will also underpin future C- and D-class models such as S80, S60 and XC60, as well as potential new models.
Before drawing the presentation to a close, Volvo’s North American design director Chris Benjamin revealed some concept renderings that offer some clues as to the design direction of future Volvos. Elements of the YOU Concept could be seen in many of them, but some of these early concept drawings also included details that wouldn’t look out of place on BMW and Audi models. While none of the designs shown have been approved for production yet, it became clear that the next generation of Volvo cars will draw only partially on the company’s heritage for inspiration, but will largely represent a modern take on Swedish luxury.