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By JASON STEIN | Automotive News


Volvo officials say early reaction to the V50 wagon suggests that U.S. buyers will respond favorably.

MALAGA, Spain - When Volvo Cars of North America Inc. executives gathered last year to plan a V50 launch strategy, they concluded the new sport wagon probably would be a small player in the United States.

Their goal was to sell 6,500 of the cars in the United States in 2004 - nearly 70,000 fewer vehicles than in Europe. U.S. journalists would not be invited to the official launch here this month.

But something happened on the way to Spain: "Detroit," said Anders Robertson, Volvo's product strategy manager.

"When we went to the Detroit auto show, the response was overwhelming," Robertson said. "From the public reaction to the comments from other manufacturers, people wanted to know more about the wagon in America. That's when we started to think: 'Hmmm, is there something we're missing here?'"

Volvo scrambled to develop a U.S. launch plan, invited dealers for a closer look and made the United States a higher priority.

Volvo President Vic Doolan said he is re-evaluating his V50 marketing plans.

"We will look again at the support we are giving this vehicle and give it an adequate program," he said. "It's attracting young people, and we are pleased and inspired by the fact they can relate to it."

Volvo can't be blamed for being caught off guard. The company sold just 2,949 of its V40 wagons, the V50's predecessor, in the United States last year.

Volvo executives concede the V40 seemed an afterthought in the United States. It came to the United States four years after its European introduction and struggled to find a niche. The company didn't support the wagon adequately, they acknowledge.

"We never accurately positioned the V40," Doolan said. "But we will promote the V50 and push it as a wagon that can compete with the crossover."

Because crossover vehicles occupy a growing share of the U.S. market and other manufacturers are launching wagons this year, Volvo anticipates the V50 will be a stronger competitor than the V40.

The V50 offers the options of all-wheel drive, 18-inch wheels, a manual transmission and a five-cylinder turbo engine. Volvo officials say early reaction to the wagon suggests that U.S. buyers will respond favorably.

"Everywhere we go with it, there seems to be a different attitude than the one we received from its predecessor," Robertson said.

Volvo will extend its youth-oriented marketing campaign for its S40 to the V50, focusing on 35-year-old buyers who are seeking fun as well as functionality, Doolan said.

The S40's joint advertising initiative with the video game maker Xbox may include the V50, he added.

Although Volvo's goal of selling 6,500 V50s in the United States this year is modest, "we can exceed those targets," Robertson said. "We will keep a close eye on what happens in the U.S. market."
 
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