THE GLOBAL ECONOMY WAS IN DIRE STRAITS in 2009 — and few companies were harder hit than Volvo. The Swedish carmaker faced declining sales thanks to a stale cupboard of model selections and fierce competition from Germany. It also faced flagging morale as rumours began to swirl of a sale by Ford, its corporate parent for a decade. "The company was psychologically depressed and almost bankrupt," Peter Mertens, Volvo’s Senior Vice President of Research and Development told BBC Autos in an exclusive interview during the launch of the new S90 saloon and V90 estate. "At that point, we needed stability. Volvo was thinking and behaving as if Ford had left us, but we had actually left Ford. Yet, we were acting as if we were still part of a big company. At 360,000 cars annually, we were tiny."
Enter: China. In May 2010, the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group purchased Volvo from Ford for £1.2b — the largest foreign purchase by a Chinese car company at that point. The deal raised eyebrows among media pundits and consumers alike. How could Geely, a company that had received zero-star crash-test ratings, do right by Sweden’s venerable ‘Drive Safely’ carmaker?
But Geely had a plan. The company allowed Volvo to maintain Swedish management, and its chairman, Li Shufu, spoke to Mertens about generating ideas, not generating revenue, focusing on crafting a long-term vision and establishing Volvo, once and for all, as a world-class prestige brand. It quickly became clear to Volvo executives like Mertens that Geely purchased Volvo for the dormant strengths that Volvo itself had somehow lost in the years prior.
In the six years since, Volvo has evolved — both its cars and its culture. "We changed how we develop ideas, research, technologies, how we approach design and manufacture," says Mertens, "but it even goes beyond that. Fundamentally, we cannot live by processes. We do not produce and sell processes. We create products and we must be proud of them and build the best cars we possibly can. So, to adhere to our Volvo brand pillars, we took charge of our destiny."
The company made some brave product decisions. They decided to solely build four-cylinder cars and offer different power levels by turbocharging, supercharging and electric drive. Designers chose to eschew knobs and buttons almost entirely and opt for touchscreen operation of most audio, ventilation, navigation and other secondary controls in all Volvos. And that touch screen is in portrait orientation, not landscape due to heading-prioritised map use. It also splits up into different tiles on-screen, showing different functions and systems.
The first vehicle to really embody this new thinking — in fact, the all-new Volvo created under Geely ownership — was the 2015 XC90, the successor to the company’s 13-year-old mid-size sport-utility vehicle. Stylish inside and out and heaped with innovative safety tech and clever powertrain options, the XC90 was an instant hit with consumers and selected by a panel of motoring writers as the 2016 North American Truck of the Year.
"Perhaps we even overdid the XC90 in some ways," says Mertens. "Maybe it didn't need all of the leapfrog technology we put into it, but we wanted it to be a statement vehicle; to show what is possible from a reborn Volvo."
As well-received as it was, the XC90 SUV is not the siren of Volvo's rebirth. The S90 saloon and V90 estate are more substantially cut from the Volvo archetype than an SUV.
CLEARLY SPEAKING THE DESIGN LANGUAGE put in steel by the 2013 Concept Coupe, the S90 production saloon is a more cohesive, elegant car than the outgoing S80 in every way, with a roofline that descends towards the rear side windows that create a longer, more intricately-shaped DLO ("day light opening") with a kicked-up trailing edge.
One of the striking differences between old and new is a much shorter front overhang, which heightens the car's visual stability. The front fascia itself is cleaner and more detailed, but the details are subtle. The S90's concave grille is inspired by the classic P1800 sports car’s, and because modern car headlights must now be both functional and jewelry, the S90 uses what Volvo calls a “Thor's hammer” that bisects the headlight top to bottom and also serves as the daytime running lamps, creating a graphic shape that also feels structural.
At the other end, the S90's taillights are a unique, interesting squared-off C-shaped affair that accentuates the car's width. In fact, they're perhaps the most interesting taillight shape since the 164 of the early '70s, but we're not sure it's as successful as the rest of the new, elegant design. They speak a bit too loudly compared to the overall rear's shape. Also, unusual for a European car, the license plate is set low in the bumper, rather than the trunk lid, bringing a toothiness to the rear end.
The V90 estate might be even prettier than the saloon, free of the rear-end awkwardness of the sedan's slightly overbearing taillights. Arguably the most elegant wagon to hit the road in long time, the V90 arrives in Europe shortly after the S90, while a visually toughened and raised Cross Country version of the V90 will arrive in the US ahead of the standard model.
VOLVO HAS DRASTICALLY IMPROVED ITS GAME inside the S90/V90. There's a calming factor that comes across with a mixture of organic shapes, high-quality wood, leather, aluminium and faceted chrome on thumbwheels in the center console used for selecting drive modes. The Swedes have always done furniture, chairs and car seats exceedingly well and that does not stop here. The calm and comfort starts with seats you'll want to order for your office; they're that good. Multi-adjustable and offering a variety of massage modes, it wouldn't matter if the basic shape, bolstering and solidity weren't there. They are.
A large centre touch screen in the dash (similar in concept to the display in the Tesla Model S, but smaller) accommodates most of the switching and adjustment action, including the operation of the excellent Bowers & Wilkins audio system. The main screen has four windows and climate controls are always easily accessed. A swipe left or right allows a deeper dive into whichever system you're tweaking. Ventilation controls are clear and highly varied with a vast array of adjustments baked into the system.
Minor details inside show deep thought about pleasing touch points missed by other luxury auto makers, like the finger-following contour of the inside door pulls and how the interior lights hit the seats and door panels and then fall away. A brief sit in the back seat showed a slight shortage of legroom and foot room for a typical adult, though.
We drove only the 316-horsepower turbocharged and supercharged T6 drivetrain in the S90 and V90, which produced plenty of power and 295 pound-feet of torque, though at 5.7 seconds to 60 mph, no one will confuse it with a muscle car. All T6 cars also come standard with all-wheel-drive. A 250hp T5 engine matched to front-wheel-drive is standard (doing the zero-to-60mph dash in 6.5sec), while a late-arriving T8 adds hybrid electric drive to the mix. All permutations come with an 8-speed automatic transmission.
Dynamically, the S90 and V90 handle twisty roads and long sweepers with surprising agility, especially given the greater comfort focus of the sedan and estate. Both body styles proved whisper quiet inside, too. However, the weighting of the steering seems rather synthetic.
Volvo has come a very long way since the Ford years and since flirting with disaster before the Geely purchase. Now, with steady winds in its sails and engineers and designers free to hit their best strides, Volvo’s comeback is one for the automotive ages.
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