That design is increasingly a core brand communicator for car companies is underlined by Volvo’s new XC90, revealed this week.
The XC90 has become the car which underpins Volvo’s brand. The concept of an SUV sits more comfortably with Volvo than with any other company: good SUVs should be true lifestyle vehicles, where substance is never beaten by style, and in which everything serves a purpose – one of which is, simply, making your life better. For the inventors of the well-made, classless, intelligently designed and extremely safe family box on wheels, the XC90 articulates the brand better than any other model could.
So the XC90 is the right vehicle to be leading with as Volvo effectively relaunches itself with a wave of new models. But the exterior design of the car, so vital to making a big brand statement, is not quite as well resolved as it should be, given the car’s ambassadorial role. Head-on and tail-on it does the job. In a nod to the past, it’s boxy, yet unlike previous Volvos it’s relatively cluttered. But more importantly it’s a tall car and looks it: the beltline is low and flat, with almost no rake. And there’s little tension in the surfacing. The effect is that in profile and front-three-quarter views it lacks forward motion and dynamism. It’s reminiscent of the utilitarian Toyota Landcruiser V8. Which isn’t where Volvo needs to be.
Does this matter? After all, shouldn’t a Volvo should be happily understated, not shouty? Even coolly smug that it’s not a be-chromed Mercedes M-Class, an aggressively squat BMW X5 or a blacked-out Audi Q7?
Yes. But Volvo is talking about taking on the big premium brands. And it’s opening the order books with a limited edition version at a price of £68,000 (Euros 85,500), ahead of sales of a range starting at £45,000. Compare those figures with BMW’s brand new X5, which starts at £43,000 and tops out at £64,000 for a 402bhp petrol M sport derivative as opposed to the limited-edition Volvo’s 225bhp diesel engine. And the range-topping hybrid XC90 will push the ceiling higher. Leading with a loaded limited edition is a clear strategic move to establish Volvo in consumers’ minds as a confident, premium, aspirational brand. However, in doing that it’s trying to leap from sub-premium – an uncomfortable place where the brand has been locked into for years – to super-premium in a single move.
The issue here is not so much the size of the leap but that it’s not necessarily in the right direction. Volvo shouldn’t be trying to take on the German establishment directly. Its brand relevance is that it’s different and occupies a lateral space; a sudden vertical move undermines this uniqueness. At these price levels people buy on what a brand says about them, and a Volvo should say independent thinking and practical luxury for real, smart people at sensible prices. Not necessarily a 1400-Watt audio system and a crystal glass gear shifter.
Volvo has said that the exterior design of the next new model, the S90 executive car, will be edgier. It will need to be. Because while the brand should remain authentic and eschew ostentation, it needs a 100% confident design language to support a more aspirational price and brand positioning. That will help it take on the establishment from a position of difference and greater strength.
There’s not much amiss with the new XC90. But unlike Mercedes, BMW and Audi, with their huge model ranges, every new Volvo has to be bang-on and express the brand perfectly.
Volvo has shown how to combine practicality, cutting-edge technology, uncluttered design and Scandinavian character into interiors which are perfectly resolved. They’re not only a welcome change from those of the German brands but are world-leading. If it can make its cars as confident and satisfying to behold from outside as to sit in and to use, then it will be able to compete better emotionally as well as rationally.