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Just four years ago, Volvo was known for making safe and competent but outdated vehicles — and little else.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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