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At the launch of the Volvo S60 and V60 here, we sat down to chat with the important people that saw the transition of the brand till today.

04 Sep 2019

Volvo isn't just making safe cars with uninspiring designs these days. In the last decade, Volvo has become something of a design icon, whilst still being as safe as ever.

But this didn't just happen overnight at Volvo. To find out more on the challenges and bold decisions for Volvo to be a relevant manufacturer today, we spoke to Keith Schafer, Head of Operations, Volvo Asia Pacific, and Jonathan Disley, Vice President of Design at Volvo Cars.

So, about the bricks...

Keith Schafer said that perception is certainly not something that can change overnight, and that with change, keeping its current customers is important
"When we talk about the 'brick' Volvos, we're talking about the 200 Series," Keith said. "We produced the Volvo 240 and the 260 from the 1970s to the 1990s - that's a very long time."

Jonathan added that the reason we recognise Volvos as such is due to the fact that most of these older Volvos continue to run today. "They're made so well," Jonathan said. "The quality is so good and the steel is so thick that they last forever. Not many remember other cars the same way they do Volvos, because they've stood the test of time."

On the topic of well-built, Jonathan shared a story in 2001 when he was in the Swedish alps on a skiing trip, driving a Volvo S60. "It was -30 degrees outside, and no one could even get in their cars as the door seals had frozen. But my S60 could - I even started my car in such harsh temperatures!"

Changing perceptions

Jonathan Disley agrees that the XC40 is targeted at younger customers, but he's seen the traditional Volvo audience embracing the crossover, too
But the key point of Volvos is that it has always been assumed to be a 'traditional' brand, and the transition to what it is today has been a significant change. When asked if this would turn away customers that were previously attracted to Volvos, Keith said that in 2010, they had a goal to produce 800,000 cars every year, from what was originally around 320,000 cars. And if they wanted to reach that goal, we had to find new customers.

"But on the journey to finding new customers, you have to work hard in keeping your current customers, too," he added. 

The Volvo XC40, according to Keith and Jonathan, is one crossover that has attracted younger, trendier customers to the brand. But they found that it attracted the brand's older customers, too.

"I wouldn't call these customers old, but experienced," Jonathan said, with a smile. "If you design a youthful product, these experienced customers would want it too, because they don't want to feel old!"

Dropping a diesel option for the new S60 worldwide is certainly a very bold decision, but Keith says it is one that's a step in the right direction
"You need a balance, keeping the Volvo experience that current customers are used to, but also cater to younger people with different lifestyle demands," added Keith.

Design with safety

New Volvos are underpinned by the company's new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform. Volvo says it offers significant improvements in terms of occupant safety, whilst allowing for more safety assistance systems.

Jonathan says it is due to the new SPA platform that the team of designers were able to fully exploit the car's proportions. "We can do anything we want with the platform, you can start from scratch, and you are essentially not modifying the design around the car."

According to Jonathan, the platform allows the designers and engineers to build a car around the best dash-to-axle position, fully utilising the widest points of the car from the factory.

Jonathan says the SPA platform allows for Volvo designers to achieve the best porportions
"Normally, when you talk to the engineers when you want to incorporate such porportions, there would be issues, such as wiring harnesses or air-conditioning systems that get in the way, but with SPA, we don't have such issues, as we worked hand-in-hand to create the platform to understand the constraints from both design and engineering standpoints,” said Jonathan.

Bold decisions

But Volvo's transition to what it is today isn't an easy one. Aside from manufacturing locations, another bold decision was not offering a diesel variant for the new S60. According to Keith, it is in line with Volvo's goal towards electrification and improved safety.

While the S60 will be petrol-driven, the V60 stationwagon will still have a diesel variant in other markets
"We think this is the right way to go," says Keith. "We're going towards a way where we minimise our impact on society, and we feel that diesel is not the right way to go in the future. So we decided with immediate effect, we will stop the development of diesel engines - we're the first manufacturer to do so."

While the current Vehicular Emissions Scheme here in Singapore has effectively prevented most diesel passenger vehicles from entering our market, the European market's demand for diesels has also slowed.

This shift in demand is due to new incentives by governments in Europe to encourage car buyers to choose Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). With emissions looking towards getting stricter over the years, the decision Volvo made makes sense.

Made in China Volvos?

Keith shared that having Volvos made outside of Sweden allowed for easier access to technologies and abilities offered in other markets
As Keith is based in Shanghai, we asked the all-important question - despite it not being a cost-cutting measure, why the decision to export China-made Volvos?

"The most important thing for us is not where we produce the car, but that we have the right designers, suppliers and quality - the latter being the most important," Keith said. "With our global operations, we have direct access to the technological abilities we need. The S60 for example is built in Charleston, U.S.A, but we have plants in Sweden, Belgium and China."

Perceptions will change, just like how Volvos went from 'bricks' to design icons. "But we are, and always will be a Swedish brand. And as a Swede, you go your own way, you don't follow the mainstream!" says Keith.

Why not watch our video review of the S60, and judge for yourself just how far Volvo's design language has evolved?

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