Presented as the product of an intelligent, refined, and inviting Scandinavian blend of Safety, Quality, and Care for the Environment, a Volvo is portrayed as a thoughtful purchase that will reward its owner for years to come. The pitch is an intuitive, natural alternative to the elitism of the usual premium suspects. To be successful, the modern Volvo must be quietly cool.
Different to its German Mercedes, BMW, and Audi counterparts, the Volvo is not without their self-assuredness. The Swedish brand has always had a strong, unique (and Nordic) identity.
Volvo promises "to help people, to make their lives easier and more enjoyable." A Volvo is subservient to its driver and occupants with a countenance the opposite of its German counterpart. Just as the brand prides itself on a focus on humanity, the product never overshadows its driver and passengers. Indeed, if the need arises, it will fully sacrifice itself for them.
Safety is Volvo's core value; enduring and commendable, if not particularly exciting. The company has, to quote one of its old brochures, maintained that safety "gives you the peace of mind to enjoy your trip." Less convincingly, it believes that "the characteristics that make a car safe are also the ones that make it fun to drive."
Until fairly recently, the Swedish company was also known for its stubborn resistance to fashion. The Volvo was a worthy workhorse, but not for the bachelor.
From the '60s through to the turn of the Millennium, Volvos were largely, famously "boxy but good." They came from the factory with "two small children pre-glued to the rear seat cushion" (as one motoring scribe put it), and were generally thought of as serious and rather boring cars.
For decades, the typical Volvo driver was an upstanding family man or woman with conservative values and tastes. Their philosophy for life was similar to Volvo's philosophy of product development: no change for change's sake. Quality, safety, reliability, and comfort trumped fashion. Volvos didn't change; they evolved, and always as sturdy, surefooted comfort zones designed to move people about with a minimum of fuss.
"You'd love to have a Volvo owner as a neighbor," a Volvo spokesman told Road & Track in 1995, while admitting, "But if you were throwing a party, you wouldn't invite him."
That, according to Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, was in stark contrast to the customers of Volvo's crosstown competitor Saab. "You could have a party for Saab drivers and it'd be brilliant."
While others raved about speed, luxury, and style, Volvo stressed homespun virtues: safety, practicality, and value. If it built cars your mother wanted you to drive, Volvo made no apologies. Just as cars might allow freedom and enjoyment, a 1998 brochure scolded, they demanded accountability.
"Our philosophy," declared the blurb, "is that the more responsibility we shoulder when we make a Volvo, the more freedom and enjoyment you can experience when you drive it.
"Like you, we want to be able to look our children in the eye."
A healthy respect for others became integral to the Volvo brand, perhaps explaining its popularity with university professors. "We do all in our power to minimize the impact of cars on the environment - when they are manufactured, as they are driven, and when they reach the end of their useful life," the company promised in 1994.
Responsibility, for Volvo, has also centered around strength and durability. "We started making cars in 1927 because we believed nobody else was making them strong enough or safe enough for Swedish roads," the blurb continued.
"Along the way, we've come up with dozens of innovations, some of which have changed the world."
Volvo was neither the first nor the only company to pay attention to deep-dished steering wheels, energy-absorbing steering columns, and padded dashboards.
However, it is true that, before Volvo, among the unwritten rules in marketing automobiles was that safety didn't sell cars.
Part of making peoples' lives easier is effortlessly hauling their stuff. For many decades - and perhaps still today - load-hauling wagons were what Volvo did best. As Top Gear presenter James May has remarked, "The Volvo estate is part of the very backbone of our society… it's used by Middle England to transport little bits of England, all over England." Volvo wagons - quintessential boxes on wheels - tended to rate well among an enthusiast media that was not always convinced by the brand's other efforts. The V50 and V70 wagons were, in 2007, the only two Volvos in an eight-strong range that continually defeated their peers in comparison tests.
Volvo occasionally tried to blow the cobwebs off the rather musty perception of its cars - "to give people permission to buy a Volvo," as one company spokesman explained to Road & Track.
One attempt was the niche Volvo 480 ES of 1988; a second was the boxy but brawny 850, whose sporting manners, agile handling, and outstanding acceleration in turbocharged form, raised many an eyebrow.
Like Saab, Volvo was an early adopter of turbocharging. Saab somehow made more of this.
Meanwhile, as Motor Trend's Don Sherman wrote in the '90s, on the international scale of sex appeal, Volvos lay "just north of Homer Simpson.
"Long after automakers elevated the jellybean to an art form, these sturdy Swedish sedans remain faithful to frumpy functionality: slab sides, upright windshields, and industrial-strength rain gutters."
It is forever something of a paradox in the automotive world that a brand known for its staid sense - lack? - of style, then twice in twenty years created a design buzz. What designer Peter Horbury did for the brand in, first, the mid-to-late '90s and again for its 90th anniversary in 2017, ranks among the most thorough, convincing, and thoroughly impressive revamps of an automaker's image.
Horbury began designing Volvo out of its box with the S40/ V40 compact sedan and wagon (1996). The C70 coupé of a year later was impossibly pretty, and a convertible followed for 1998. That year, the statesmanlike broad shoulders of the S80 visually reinterpreted Volvo's legendary solidity in a more interesting way. The trick was repeated on the smaller S60 (2001), while the XC90 (2003) took Volvo into the Millennium and the crossover boom.
In the wake of sliding sales at Ford, Volvo's parent since 1999, Horbury left to implement the Dearborn company's "Red, White, and Bold" design strategy. Meanwhile, Volvo again attempted to release its inner BMW, touting performance of models like the S60R while its wagons openly sacrificed function for style. A Volvo V50 estate, for instance, had less load capacity than its Audi A4, BMW 3 series, and Jaguar X-Type counterparts.
This alienated loyalists - already angry over the company's increasing use of Ford components - while chasing buyers who would not look at a Volvo.
As Ford flirted with bankruptcy, there wasn't the money to replace critical cars like the midsize S60. The '09 XC60, smaller than the best-selling XC90, should really have arrived sooner than it did in a market hungry for crossovers.
The XC90 itself ran for an astonishing 12 years, largely unchanged.
In 2010, a major investment by China's Geely and Horbury's return to the helm of Volvo design brought forth a resurgence. The S90 - "Simple, Clean, Honest, Intelligent" - was voted "Design of the Year" by Automobile magazine in January 2017.
The eleven-billion dollar injection of capital also enabled Volvo to continue developing the safety technology for which it was known, including City Safety (which helps to avoid collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, and large animals), Oncoming Lane Mitigation (which uses steer assist to help mitigate head-on collisions), and Pilot Assist, a semi-autonomous driver assistance system which takes care of steering, acceleration, and braking on well-marked roads up to seventy miles per hour. Volvo's Blind Spot Information System, which alerts drivers to the presence of vehicles in their blind spot, has also received an update to steer the car back into its own lane and away from danger.
Three years ago, the Senior Director of Volvo Cars' Safety Center projected the brave vision that "no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo Car" by 2020.
Volvo sells more than 700,000 cars annually and has targeted 800,000 this year.