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Volvo’s Decision to Focus on SUVs Was Brilliant

Recently, many automakers have been trying to rebrand themselves. We’ve seen this from Jaguar, Lincoln, Buick and Acura, as well as a few other brands here and there, on a smaller scale. But nobody has done so better than Volvo.

Just four years ago, Volvo was known for making safe and competent but outdated vehicles — and little else. Their cars weren’t really alternatives to rival models like the BMW X5 or the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, unless shoppers wanted a Volvo for the brand’s perceived safety image.

Then, Volvo made drastic changes to update its image. First came the Volvo XC90, generally agreed to be one of the best new SUVs on the market. Then came the Volvo XC60, just after the XC90, which brought much of the XC90’s sought-after technology — and its gorgeous styling — to a more affordable price point and a smaller size. Then came the Volvo XC40, which is now one of the fastest-selling cars on the market, touting similar technology and some funky, cool features Volvo has always been known for.

In just a few short years, Volvo single-handedly transformed its brand from a stoic, old-school automaker to one that is truly building some of the most technologically equipped, most comfortable and most attractive cars on the road. Sales, naturally, are through the roof.

With this goal met, Volvo turned its attention to other models — like the new S60 and the new V60, which should be coming out soon. The Volvo S60 and the Volvo V60 were ancient designs, but Volvo knew that consumers wanted SUVs — and that a brand turnaround would be led primarily by SUVs, rather than by cars.

I will never forget having this argument — and it was actually an argument, not just a discussion — with a vice president from Lincoln back in 2014. He maintained that the brand’s just-released MKZ sedan would be the cornerstone of a company turnaround — one that shoppers would regard as the start of a "new" Lincoln. I argued passionately that Lincoln should instead focus on the Lincoln Navigator, just as Cadillac had done, and that "cool" should come from the top down. He insisted I was wrong. I insisted he was wrong. I was right.

Usually, in my discussions with automakers, I’m wrong, or just an idiot. I want a wagon version of this, or a high-performance version of that, and it makes no sense. But I understood back then what Volvo also understood: Consumer tastes are shifting, people want SUVs, and the best way to win market share is by creating a fantastic SUV. So that’s exactly what Volvo did.

Interestingly, this SUV success has given Volvo the chance to experiment a little, bringing us a full-size wagon for enthusiasts, the V90 Cross Country. Volvo even offers a "non-SUV-ish" version of the V90 that’s special-order only, for the "true" wagon enthusiasts. These models don’t sell as easily as the SUVs, but the dealers don’t seem to mind, since SUV sales are so strong — and it keeps Volvo "in" with the old-school customers, who don’t want to give up their Volvo wagons.

In the end, Volvo’s rebirth was the best. As Lincoln and Jaguar are now beginning their own SUV-centric rebirths, I can’t help assuming they’re looking to Volvo for guidance on getting it right.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Doug – I’m seriously considering a 2018 S90 for my next car (replacing a loved 2016 3 Series). Is that nuts? I’m seeing some coming in as used cars for the low-mid $30’s and thinking it’s a nice car for the money that a comparable BMW even used is much more. 

    I’m also the same guy who traded in his beloved ’07 GTI back in 2009 for a year old S80 so I guess there’s some history to my madness. Maybe it’s a cycle?
    • Since Sedans are so unpopular compared to CUV’s I’d advise against it because you will really loose performance and even fuel efficiency but if it excites you go for it!

  2. When my wife’s lease was coming due, I looked at a ton of three row SUV’s. We ended up with the XC90 because nothing touched it with features, tech, cargo space all for the price. I think it was the best looking inside and out. I also love how you don’t have to get the Inscription model to get the best tech (even though I wanted the massage seats). The advanced package did the trick on our momentum trim model with the cool air suspension that does make a difference in dynamic around corners. It’s great to drive and I drive a new S4 and 981 Boxster. Pilot assist on the Volvo also beats the Traffic Jam Assist on my Audi hands down which makes it a great road trip car with our newborn and the dog. With all that said, I agree Doug….no brand has turned themselves around quite like Volvo has. I sat in a 2018 S60 at the dealership and it amazes me that these model years aren’t far apart. I don’t think though I would ever want to own the XC90 out of warranty.

  3. If I could afford a Volvo V90 station wagon I would buy it tomorrow.

    I love the look of that low strung wagon.  I don’t understand why they don’t sell more.  Either way, I wonder how reliable these new Volvo’s will be.  With more electronics and technology usually mean questionable long term reliability.

    • If you look you can find them a year old for under $40k. They don’t show up as much as the S90 but they are out there. Volvo sedans and wagons don’t hold their value as well as their SUVs. 

  4. The Lincoln MKZ also happened to be quite ugly (IMO) while not offering enough luxury features to justify its price premium over a fully loaded Fusion Titanium – which was a far more handsome car (and which I own!). I used to laugh at older Lincolns for literally looking like rebadged Fords (heck you could even transplant the doors and trunk lids!), but the MKZ actually made me wish they’d stuck to that formula instead. 

    On a side note, Volvo has a Euro Delivery option just like the Germans, allowing you to pick up the car in Gothenburg and drive it around the EU for up to 2 weeks at no additional charge. Highly recommend prospective buyers consider that.

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