Volvo's eighty-five-year visual history is rather odd, never quite free of the perpetual "it looks like a..." problem. The earliest Volvos looked like boxes, along with most other cars of the 1920s. The Carioca, introduced in 1935, looked like a Chrysler Airflow; the Philip prototype of 1953 strongly resembled the Darrin-designed '51 Kaiser; and the '50s 122 Amazon was so similar to an Aero Willys that some U.S. car magazines suggested actual American tooling was involved. It wasn't.
The models that popularized Volvo's products outside its native country and the rest of Scandinavia, the PV444 and its PV544 derivative, were no exception. From most angles they looked like early 1940s Fords with a particularly clumsy front end grafted on, but clever advertising combined with outstanding ruggedness and surprising performance -- I remember a couple of them outrunning MGAs on a track near Washington, D.C., and Tom Trana winning the R.A.C. rally in a 544 in 1963 -- helped Volvo climb as high as number three on the import sales charts in the United States before the Japanese invasion overwhelmed European carmakers. After the 544 went out of production, Volvos went back to looking like boxes again, elegant boxes in the case of the 960, but boxes all the same.
When Peter Horbury arrived in Sweden twenty years ago as Volvo's design leader -- he had previously created the interior of the 1985 DAF-derived 480ES, Volvo's first front-wheel-drive product -- he created a gas turbine/electric hybrid concept car, the ECC, that led to some very nice but conservative designs with curved surfaces, very much in the general mainstream of "international" design. Not only did the ECC lead to big styling changes, it seemed to liberate Volvo's engineers to abandon the classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration that had prevailed for decades. Today, there are only front- and all-wheel-drive chassis, some of which have benefited Ford's American lineup.
Volvo has had many commercial problems. There was an aborted merger with Renault that put both companies back several years, an outright sale to Ford, and then Ford's fire sale to China's Geely. Through it all, Horbury has gone to each buyer as part of Volvo's patrimony. After his Ford service in Detroit, Horbury returned to Volvo and gave us two quite similar concept cars last year -- this Concept You and the earlier Concept Universe -- that have recapitulated the blocky hood on top of the flat-fender front end of the 444-series cars. So while one might think that this newest concept car would at last be free of the "it looks like..." problem, that hasn't happened.
The Concept You looks like...a Volvo.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1. LED headlamps are combined with discreet air inlets.
2. Hood is set above the horizontal plane of the fender tops, with a concave radius turning downward from the sharply defined hood edge.
3. A crisp line separates the slightly convex hood top from the concave radius fairing into the fender form.
4. Very subtle right and left hood surface intersection defines an elegant centerline.
5. One is highly aware of the inward-tapering roof that is formally much more a fastback coupe than the typical upper structure of a four-door sedan.
6. The surface flowing outward to the wheel- opening perimeter emphasizes the wheels.
7. This soft indent in the body sides visually separates front and rear fenders on what is basically a single pontoon form.
8. Another crisp edge defines the break from side to front of the body, convex outboard, slightly concave below the lamps.
9. Chrome bars take up only a third of the bottom edge of the dual inlets that are a quiet reference to the double grilles of the 122 Amazon.
10. The diagonal bar in the radiator grille has been a Volvo identity mark since the first Swedish car in 1927.
11. Relatively flat fender top is very much a characteristic from the PV444/544 series.
12. Windows in the roof are an odd development, seen on the Nissan Maxima and many concept cars. Practicality is questionable.
13. Backlight is very much a coupelike detail, tapering inward at the base.
14. This crisp edge, derived from the top of the A-pillar, defines the break from roof to tail panels. Concave deck lid is part of much-too-small trunk opening.
15. Sharp horizontal line defines the perimeter of the car, looks good but is also vulnerable to parking-lot damage.
16. Brightwork on the underside of the tail is a very understated decorative element.
17. Moderately complex wrap-over taillight is visible from all legally required angles.
18. Chrome strip underlines the doors only, an unusual and interesting detail.
19. Door panels are clean, simple, and very attractive.
20. Driver's seat appears to float above the floor, but backrest angle does not seem variable with respect to cushion. Its thinness enhances a sense of spaciousness in the cabin.
21. Complex inner panel on rear doors integrates into cocoonlike rear seats.
22. The rear seats are nicely shaped but are not especially inviting, more like racing-car shells than luxurious chairs. But Volvo has been particularly good at seat design since the '60s, so they're probably very comfortable.
23. Putting the decorative step plate at the rear is very unusual. A driver alone in the car would never see it.
24. Instrument cluster is reduced in size, leaving the entire transverse panel free of clutter and confusion. The overall effect is a highly welcoming interior, made especially agreeable by the absence of a B-pillar, as in early Lancias.