BARCELONA, SPAIN—Volvo has been busy lately. The Swedish company, whose name translates as “I Roll” (in Latin), was thought by many to be dead in the water in 2010, which is when Ford passed the baton to China’s Geely for a mere $1.5 billion. (Ford had paid $6.5 billion in ’99, but by sale time the company looked stale and was losing $635 million a year.)
As you recall, Saab never recovered from GM ownership, and Volvo needed a complete makeover if it was to become competitive. As Volvo VP Dean Shaw puts it, “We had no new cars for four or five years, and some people were saying that Volvo was going to exit from the U.S. market.”
Far from it. Geely has been hands off and let the Swedes run Volvo—giving them far more leeway than the company had under Ford. And the Chinese invested $11 billion in Volvo, with the fruits being realized in the form of a completely replenished product line, including the bestselling XC90 SUV, the S90 sedan and V90 wagon, all on the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform.
The next entry in the lineup is the XC60, which in its earlier form dominated the crossover market in Europe. That’s the car I journeyed to Spain to drive, and it’s on that same versatile SPA platform. Volvo is seeing the virtue in simplicity. There are only two engine families, one three- and the other four-cylinder. All the cars will be either SPA or the Compact Modular Architecture (CMA). The latter will host the forthcoming XC40 because, well, you can’t have too many crossover SUVs these days. There’s also a battery electric car for 2019, but Volvo won’t say much about that one—even which platform it will be on.
The newly muscular XC60 (like the old car has been “working out more”) is sized for someone like me. I’m an empty nester, and this midsized vehicle is aimed at families that have sent the kids off to college, or haven’t had the youngsters yet (or maybe never will). The luxury crossover segment is really hot in the U.S., dominating the auto show circuit, and Volvo currently has five percent of that (with hopes of seven percent). It’s big American competitors now are the Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V.
The buyers want luxury, and they want performance mixed with safety. Some 18,000 have raised their hands to indicate interest in the new Volvo, which puts the XC90’s four-cylinder, drivetrain in a smaller and lighter body. Yes, it’s marginally faster than the XC90 (5.9 seconds zero to 62 mph in as-tested all-wheel-drive form, with the 316-horsepower T6 supercharged and turbocharged four coupled to an eight-speed automatic).
The highest-performance XC60 also mirrors the 90, with the 400-horsepower plug-in hybrid drivetrain. Soon, Volvo will be offering three plug-in hybrids.
No, they don’t give away luxury. The XC60, in showrooms now, will start at $41,500 (Momentum base model) and head north to $45,300 (Inscription). Much of the action is likely to be in the loaded trim, because that’s the way the market’s been shaking out recently. Buyers will want all the safety and luxury stuff, and it isn’t that much more money.
New tech for the XC60 includes City Safety steering support (which engages to guide drivers around obstacles); oncoming lane mitigation, which steers around vehicles to avoid head-to-head collisions); and an (optional) blind spot information system, updated to include active steering support when vehicles are located in that blind spot.
"Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car,” says Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo’s president and CEO. I saw Samuelsson and other Volvo folk speak about their laudable vision (which has been embraced both by the Swedish government and the EU) at the International Transport Forum last week in Germany. Did you know that the U.S. has 35,000 road deaths annually, and the entire EU about 26,000? The safest countries? Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark. Even if you adjust for the fact that Americans drive a lot per capita, it doesn’t make us look better. But Africa has the worst accident statistics, in part because they don’t have many vehicles with the latest passive and active safety.
On the road, the XC60 felt fast, and with speed-sensitive electric steering handled very well indeed. All that steering control felt rather obtrusive—it was constantly yanking me back to the center of the lane, though if I owned the car I’d probably get used to it.
The seats, always good in Volvos, are doubly so in the XC60. Zero fatigue in four hours. Optional, and on our car, was ventilation and massage for front passengers, heating for both front and rear. The massage feature felt surreal but, hey, I bounded out of the car. The interior of our tester featured “blond driftwood,” which gave the kind of Danish modern feel I get from BMW’s i3.
If I had a gripe, it was with the navigation system, which on the outward journey was giving directions a little late for comfort. Fonts were smaller than they might be, too. But the 1,100-watt Bowers & Wilkins stereo sure cranked nice. I'd like to know what fuel economy the XC60 gets. The data isn't available yet, but it should be better than the XC90's unimpressive 22 mpg combined.
As a longtime Volvo owner (and now a Saab one), I’m thrilled to see the Swedes still in there with competitive product. The new XC60 is entering the most competitive segment on earth, but as long as the stock market keeps hitting record highs it should do just fine. Here's a closer look at the XC60 in some Volvo video: