Volvo rounds the corner to a new styling direction
By MARK RECHTIN
GOTHENBURG, Sweden - For nearly 20 years, Volvo styling was known for sharp angles and crisp edges. Volvo's fiercely loyal owners took pride in their cars' Scandinavian boxiness.
But in the last six years, Volvo designers have embraced curves and rounded forms across the model lineup - even for wagons. To the untrained eye, Volvo's current model line looks little like the old boxy days. Volvo says its styling needed a dramatic change to achieve a goal of 650,000 annual sales globally. The Swedish carmaker wants to keep existing customers who bought its cars for their safety features but attract new buyers who thought the brand lacked panache.
"In the past, people felt if the car was safe, it had to look like that," said Peter Horbury, the former chief designer at Volvo who last month was named executive director of design at the Premier Automotive Group. "Now, we can say that the car is safe, but it looks beautiful. There can be a desirability to it, as well as it being inherently practical and functional."
Has this new strategy succeeded?
Purists insisted the new look would kill Volvo's uniqueness. They predicted long-term owners would leave the marque en masse.
Three studies - one commissioned by Volvo and two done independently - support Volvo's design strategy. But there are some danger signs.
Even though the boxy 940 was phased out after 1998, only now is there sufficient market research data to assess opinions about Volvo's latest design direction.
Studies conducted by three U.S. market research companies show that while Volvo successfully attracted new shoppers, it also has offended some loyal customers. European research shows a similar trend, Volvo says.
The most favorable data come from a survey commissioned by Volvo Cars from The Car Lab of Santa Ana, Calif. That survey shows the current design is much more appealing than the boxy styling, perhaps so much that Volvo could be considered a design leader.
"Generally, the new designs are seen as very attractive to many non-Volvo customers," said Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab. "This is definitely leading to conquests, although this varies by model, price and positioning.
"There has been some grumbling by loyalists, but they typically won't leave the brand anyway. The new styling just gives the loyalists a chance to differentiate themselves as 'early fans of the band before they sold out.' "
Strategic Vision of San Diego also conducted a consumer survey. President Dan Gorrell said that while Volvo's conquest sales increased, loyalty declined.
"There appears to be a new group of buyers coming into the franchise who have a somewhat different emotional profile," Gorrell said. "It will be incumbent upon Volvo to successfully tie these people into the brand."
But there are contrasting views. Volvo's current design could actually damage the brand, according to a survey of U.S. buyers of European luxury vehicles by CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore. CNW data show the new styling makes Volvo designs harder to recognize.
Surprisingly, the new look also hurts Volvo's perceived safety.
"The problem here is one of loyalty," said CNW President Art Spinella. "People who buy a car mainly due to the design are less loyal than those who buy a product for some other attribute - in Volvo's case, perception of safety."
Horbury was surprised by the low scores on Volvo's perceived safety in the CNW study. To the eye, Horbury theorized, a sharp line should look fragile compared to a muscular curve.
"The car can't seem substantial if it is meeting at sharp corners," Horbury said. "But we've always talked about a 'safety cage,' and I suppose cages don't have soft corners."
European market researchers are positive about Volvo styling.
Gilly Filsner, analyst with Morpace International in Woking, England, believes Volvo made the right decision. Morpace tracks European buyer trends.
"Loyal Volvoists probably bought the cars despite, not because of, the boxiness," Filsner said. "It shouldn't turn off the customer base, as long as the curves don't impact roominess, practicality and safety."
Added Peter Schmidt, analyst with Auto Industry Data in Warwick, England: "Apart from safety, Volvo was nothing. Their market share wasn't going anywhere. They had to do something to move away from being a brick. They've added desirability and made it fun to drive."
Horbury joined Volvo the day the 850 sedan was launched in 1991. While still a boxy design, the 850 was Volvo's first step toward changing its image. By offering performance, Volvo let its owners have fun. The next step was to allow Volvo owners to be more expressive in their choice of vehicle.
The timing matched a shift in cultural aesthetics, Horbury said.
"People were expecting a combination of brains and beauty, and were not ashamed of it," Horbury said. "The professor no longer dressed down in a poorly made blazer. He wore an Armani on his book tour. We wanted to add this desirability factor to something inherently practical and functional." Previous Volvo designs had followed the German practice of placing the car's visible weight over the rear wheels. But by turning the engine to a transverse position and shortening the gap between the front-wheel arch and the front doors, Volvo changed the proportion and stance of its cars.
While Volvo was not the first to use cab-forward styling, its version created more occupant space instead of using a steeply slanted windshield with a huge dashboard below it. It also encouraged designers to try something new.
"Peter had ambitions for where he wanted Volvo to be, but boxy was on the way out when he came," said Neil Simpson, general manager of TWR Design in Leafield, England, which helped Volvo create the C70 coupe.
Working with the new shapes was relatively easy when applied to coupes and sedans, Horbury said. The real challenge was the V70 station wagon, because owners expected Volvo to keep the massive storage area. Rounding the roof into curved side panels eliminates interior space, which Volvo wanted to avoid. So Horbury ordered his stylists to create "the front of a Ferrari and the back of a United Parcel Service van."
Horbury says the design borrows from Volvo's history - a hint of a shoulder flair from the 240 series, or a line from the Amazon.
"A clean sheet of paper is dangerous if you have heritage," he said. "Some have accused us of falling in with the rest of the crowd, but there are recognizable features from the old Volvos."
Horbury admires styling attributes that other luxury brands have used to create or enhance their brand identity. For example, German luxury marques use a simple arched "eyebrow" over the wheel wells to make their cars look like they are actually gripping the road. While visually simple, it's expensive to manufacture, he noted.
Horbury wants Volvo to upgrade the quality of its interior fitments and switchgear. He cited the air vents used in Audis.
"We have functionality, but now we need aesthetics," Horbury said. "Look at the materials inside some of Audi's cars. They are beautiful. That air vent is something you want to use again."
CNW's Spinella said Volvo must state its safety message more aggressively.
"For Volvo's long-term health, new styling must be linked to the brand's long-standing safety image or, at least, not displacing that historic perception," Spinella said.
Horbury admits combining the current styling with Volvo's long-time safety message "has been the biggest marketing problem of all."
Other brands' attributes are more visible.
"You're reminded of BMW's performance every time you start the engine, of Mercedes' solidity every time you hear the door shut," Horbury said. "But unless you've been in the worst experience in your life, there is no reminder in a Volvo."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....