The New Volvo: Reborn in China


When a car company gets sold, things usually go in one of two directions: Either the new boss has an inspired vision for the future and piles of money to see it through, or the smaller company is forced to coast on its past glories until nobody cares anymore. On the happy side of this equation, we have companies like Jaguar and Land Rover (now under the control of Tata) or Volkswagen’s Lamborghini. On the opposite side, ponder the deprivations visited upon Saab by GM, which slapped Saab badges on TrailBlazers.

From 1999 to 2010, Volvo was owned by Ford, which never really knew quite what to do with it. And even if it had, it was confounded by the self-imposed challenge of creating Volvos that didn’t step on the other brands then in the Ford empire, including Jaguar and Land Rover.

The new owner is a Chinese car company named Geely – maker of the awesomely named Gleagle Panda and Urban Nanny – which seems intent on not screwing it up. To that end, Geely has so far spent $11 billion on Volvo, and the fruits of that massive outlay are now hitting the streets. For the first time in a long while, Volvo has a plan, and it’s more ambitious than to just become “the Swedish BMW.”

Historically, Volvo was always about safety. But nowadays, lots of cars are safe, some even more so than Volvos. So what else could define a Volvo, besides the ability to swerve around an elk? (Yes, it does test for that.) Going forward, Volvo’s got a new theme – call it smart performance. From now on, all new Volvos will have a four-cylinder under the hood and, as a consequence, excellent fuel economy.

2015 XC60, powered by efficient, overachieving four-cylinders.

The initial results of this project are the revamped S60 sedan, V60 wagon, and XC60 crossover. I recently snagged the keys to an S60 and headed to my favorite godforsaken road, way outside of Las Vegas. Over the years, I’ve sampled these desolate straightaways with a Lamborghini and an overpowered Plymouth Duster, but I’ve never ventured out this way with a Volvo. I mean, why would I?

The answer is, to exercise the strapping 302-horsepower 2.0-liter that is, for now, the top of Volvo’s new four-cylinder hierarchy. Many engines use a supercharger, and many others use a turbocharger, but this is the only one in the U.S. that uses both. Without delving too deeply into the rationale for this combination, superchargers are good for instant response, while turbos are ideal at maximum power. So when you hit the gas in the S60, the supercharger throws you back in your seat. As the RPM climbs, the turbocharger wakes up and, imperceptibly, takes over.

This isn’t just a lot of power – it’s smooth, refined power that pulls hard all the way to the limited 130-mph top speed. And you get 35 mpg on the highway, a number more characteristic of an economy car than a luxury sedan that does 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds. One of Volvo’s new diesel four-cylinders, now on sale in Europe and hopefully heading this way, posts better mileage than the Prius – and corners like a sport sedan.

2015 V60.

Right now the Volvo lineup is in transition, but within a few years all the old motors will be retired as the new engine program expands to include diesels and hybrids. Those forthcoming Volvo hybrids would seem to neatly address the question that Toyota has not yet been able to: “What do you buy to upgrade from a Prius?” Shrewdly, Volvo isn’t going after BMW buyers. It’s going after tech-savvy drivers who can’t swing a Tesla. And there are plenty of those.

We all know someone who owned one of the so-called “brick” Volvos, those Eighties- and Nineties-era 240s and 740s that transcended class with their functional charm. Those cars did more with less, and Volvo, in its angular Nordic manner, was cool. I predict it’s about to be cool again, in a way that Ford never quite allowed – or maybe just never understood.

Given Geely’s investment, though, I think it should insist on naming at least one new model. Long live the four-cylinder, and bring on the Urban Panda.

2015 XC70.