Our Volvo S60 long-term test car is an outlier in the premium sedan market - as I've learned firsthand driving among ultra brand-aware Angelenos. So it seemed perfectly fitting when the Swedish manufacturer announced an alliance with New York Knicks basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, who shot from obscurity to mainstream notoriety seemingly overnight.
The only NBA player with a Harvard degree, Lin's early efforts saw his courtside talents undiscovered. Lin didn't get much play during his rookie season, was assigned to the NBA's Development League (a sort of minor leagues for basketball) three times, and was waived by two teams before signing on with the Knicks. Seems it's fair to say that the start of Mr. Lin's career has something in common with Volvo's current mission to "rejuvenate" their brand.
Like Volvo, Lin stands out. He was the fourth Asian American to join the NBA, and the first league player of Taiwanese descent. Similarly, Volvos are relatively uncommon when compared to their competition. For instance, though Volvo enjoyed a 214 percent sales surge in the U.S. last year, BMW and Mercedes-Benz each outsold the Swedish brand by a factor of nearly 3.6 to 1, and emerging player Audi sold 1.7 cars for every Volvo. BMW has even stated that its global goal of selling 2 million cars annually will be reached by 2016, four years earlier than planned, a timeline that certainly puts further fire under Volvo's Asian owners, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co.
Geely has ambitions of its own, including doubling Volvo's global sales to 800,000 by the year 2020. My experience so far with the S60 suggests the "outlier" card might actually help their cause. Although Volvo built their name on safety, the S60's lively on-road manners help it encroach into a performance territory that's not typically associated with the brand. Shoppers who test drive an S60 - even with the T5's base level, turbocharged 5-cylinder engine - should be pleasantly surprised by the model's unexpectedly involving personality. In fact, Volvo has plainly said in a Lin-related statement that the marketing relationship aims to attract "younger and performance-oriented customers."
Driving the S60 around Los Angeles has also confirmed everything you might suspect about a Swedish-built luxury sedan amidst its image-obsessed inhabitants. Whereas the Volvo often slips under the radar beneath a sea of Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Infinitis, Lexuses and even Priuses, every so often its Vibrant Copper Metallic paint grabs someone's attention and leads them to ask, "How do you like it?" Invariably, I reply something to the effect of, "I like it a lot - more than I expected to," which often draws a sort of knowing nod, as though the S60's bite is indeed as intense as its bright orange bark. Sure enough, its quirky color and underdog pretensions make it more of an automotive oddball than you might think. The Volvo isn't exotic and it's certainly not punk...but it's definitely different.
It seems doubtful that Volvo can achieve the vehicular equivalent of "Linsanity" with their current slate of offerings, but given the surprising appeal of their S60, the willingness of their ambitious owners and CEO to expand the brand's repertoire, and the potential for untapped buyers, Volvo might find a way to exploit a similar energy that turned a 6'3", 23 year-old athlete into a national phenom.
Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Volvo S60.