Outsider's Perspective: Of serving all masters

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With the news breaking out that Volvo has decided to buy out Polestar, presumably to make them into their own personal AMG, everyone is asking the same question: I thought that Volvo had decided that the pursuit of speed wasn’t worth it and they’d instead focus their efforts in making the safest cars in the planet. You’d be right, then they remembered that people don’t usually brag about how safe their car is. At least not until after they’ve crashed it. At which point the people who they’re telling the story to wished they’d burned in a fireball.

It’s not like Volvo’s been a stranger to these sort of thing. Let’s not forget their hot 850 sedans and wagons. Or the C30, a lovely design unfortunately tainted by the movie that must not be mentioned. Or the V70R, a 155 mile per hour brick. Even today when they’ve ditched sonorous five-cylinders and torquey V8’s to pledge their allegiance to the church of the tax friendly “two-point-oh-tee” they’ve made a triplecharged 450-horsepower version.
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At the same time they make bold claims that it’s their goal to eliminate all fatalities in Volvo cars by 2020. Continually investing in new technologies and never really letting their reputation as a safe, sensible, traditional automaker for people that care more about sense over style and are not swayed by the glitzy Germans when it comes time to replace their previous premium import. Which was probably a Volvo aswell.
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The new XC90 T8 (For used To have 8 cylinders)perfectly embodies this Volvo dual persona situation. Here’s a car that’s aimed squarely at the suburban family with 2.3 children and a white picket fence. They go to extremely boring parties where the most interesting topic of conversation is how nobody can understand their phones. Jeremy Clarkson had the old model y’know? Its so laden with safety features that it’s not surprising it goes for more than sixty grand. It’ll tighten your seatbelt and provide additional protection should it feel that you’ve gone off-road. And you can only do that at a high rate of speed because at slow speeds it has so many sensors and radars it’s capable of semi autonomous driving. It’s so cleverly built it doesn’t need rear-side airbags or pedestrian protecting airbags to keep the poor sod who couldn’t see the two-ton behemoth traveling towards him at 35 miles an hour. It’s a plug-in hybrid too so you can drive 24 miles on electric power alone and not pay any road tax if you live in a country where that’s calculated by CO2 emissions.
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And yet, working in conjunction with the supercharged engine its been mated it produces 407 Horsepower and 472 lb-ft. of torque.  Which means this the college dean driving it will be able to get to 60 in 5.6 seconds, or about the same time it takes the student driving dad’s 428i. Everyone, I give you the McLaren P1 for the soccer mom. And they’ve given us all of this without alienating the audience that would’ve driven a 940 wagon in the 1990’s.
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Latin Americans get a lot of things hammered into their heads when they go through the school system. One of them being that no matter how much effort we put in and how much we succeed, we’ll never be as good as any Nordic country. They’re just better, they’ve achieved the perfect society with no crime, no corruption and unprecedented levels of freedom and equality. Back when I drank that nonsensical kool-aid I looked at Volvos as a prime example of that. They were not excessive or brash. Just perfectly practical and capable vehicles for perfect practical Swedish families. The XC90 T8 would’ve done nothing to sway me from that. It’s all things to all people. It doesn’t feel the need to shout its sporting credentials unlike the (admittedly faster)X5M. Thanks to the relatively simple design it manages to look more refined and dignified than the Range Rover and should be considerably more reliable (although going by J.D Power’s car survey they’d be both less reliable than average). To top it all off the T8 starts at $68,000. Or $15,000 less than the base V6 Range Rover. And are you getting any less car? I don’t think so.
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Have no doubt that the Polestar acquisition is just another step towards wanting to be all things to everyone. Hopefully when it comes time for them to do a sporty three-door hatchback again they’ll actually deliver on their promise of a 400 horsepower, All-wheel drive, electric blue version. That just leaves me one question that came up to me in the writing of this article. What would my image of Sweden be like if instead of Volvos we had gotten more Saabs around here?

0 Comments

  1. In a Swedish perspective, Volvo has become a very strong symbol for the culture and the mentality here, and not always in a positive way. A boxy Volvo is often used as an embodiment for the social climate: don’t be braggy, always do the sensible thing, don’t try to be special, etc. Calling something “the Volvo” of something is another way of saying it’s the standard or the average.
    Then, of course, there’s still the pride and the patriotism that comes with native cars for all countries.

  2. I can actually see Volvo becoming the new Audi, which used to be the upmarket choice for those who didn’t want to show off. Volvos are still understated, unlike every Audi since 2003.

  3. This duality between practical, ergonomical, safe cars on the one hand, and powerful versions on the other, is really nothing new. PV’s and Amazon’s were excellent rallye cars and turbo versions of the 240 and onwards were popular particularly in the US. DTM and BTCC wins really cemented this “Mr.Hyde”-identity of Volvo. As family cars, the excellent thought-through practicality and boring yet cool restraint (“design”) do count a fair bit.
    …and about “perfect” Scandinavian societies (I know from experience that some people in e.g. Germany actually believe this): Here in Norway, a lot of municipalities have closed their police offices, due to low crime. But…crime happens anyway. There are a lot of cases where people stealing stuff were caught on video, stopped by security guards etc – but there’s no case being made because of overworked police. Worse, a teenage girl gone missing in Oslo wasn’t looked for before three days were past – the police didn’t have time. There are basically no road controls. The sloppy ineffective response to Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attack a couple of years back sums it up pretty well.

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