For a very long time, Volvos all looked like something else, a problem I addressed in discussing Volvo's You concept car in our March issue last year. If the first Volvo PV444s to come to the U.S. were funny-looking and more than a bit funky, subsequent models have always been quite decently shaped, announcing by their insistently unstylish appearance that they were serious automobiles, with quality and robust strength as their bellwether attributes. Making them beautiful, or even just pretty, was never really on the program; "handsome" is about the best you could say, even after Peter Horbury's 1992 revolution consigned Volvo's severe "T-square-and-triangle" styling to history.
Quite apart from ownership shifting from Ford to Geely, the many recent changes at Volvo include a new chief designer, Thomas Ingenlath. Backed by longtime Bentley interior designer Robin Page, Ingenlath has created what is undoubtedly the prettiest Volvo ever shown. Not really retro, this Concept Coupé nonetheless evokes the 1960s P1800 coupe, Volvo's second foray into sports cars (the first was the P1900, a short-lived, Dutch Darrin -- inspired fiberglass roadster of the mid-1950s). Even though I liked it well enough to buy one, I always thought that the P1800 was an awkward, vaguely amateurish imitation of the Ghia Supersonic series of coupes. But there's no awkwardness in this new design. It's elegantly beautiful, even if there's nothing innovative about it. I briefly thought the nice indentations around the wheel openings were new, but Volkswagen Crafter and Mercedes-Benz Vito vans share that feature, so no innovation, just careful, good design.
The interior is said to be inspired by the Swedish seaside, but I found its dark blue and driftwood gray colors distressingly cold and uninviting, despite a very pleasant disposition of the constituent elements. The central data screen is well integrated, the seats are genuinely inviting and very comfortable, and all the small controls are inviting to hand and eye.
The car is most impressive in the subtle handling of the exterior surfaces and the superb transitions between convex and concave areas. And however good it may look in photos, it's many times more attractive when you see it in person, a tribute to the care taken in the details. I particularly like the break line in the front fender that fades beneath the door handle and is resumed slightly above from the front of that recessed handle, effectively increasing the eye's perception of length by about six inches.
The engineering design is impressive, as well. All future Volvos will have the same front-axle-to-ball-of-driver's-foot linear dimension, whether for a low car like this one or the forthcoming XC90 SUV, and they also will have transverse super- and turbocharged gasoline and diesel engines -- four-cylinder 2.0-liter aluminum units at first, three-cylinder variants with great component commonality later. As an independent enterprise hoping for 800,000-unit-per-annum sales, Volvo can survive only if it sharply reduces its parts count.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1 The very sharp break between side and rear surfaces results in a kind of low fin similar to the P1800’s from fifty years ago. Note how sharply the sides pull in to the rear.
2 Parallel sides of the A-pillar recall the 1992 ECC gas/turbine hybrid, Peter Horbury’s initial statement that Volvo design was significantly changing.
3 This subtle fender peak arises from nowhere and disappears before it reaches the door. Convex on either side of the peak, surfaces become concave inboard.
4 This elegant little loop separates the convex upper hood surface from the concavity inboard of the fender peak, defining the upper edge of the headlamp space.
5 This diagonal crossbar has been a Volvo identity mark since the company’s earliest days, although it was not present on every model.
6 There is a huge amount of air-intake area on this front end, but presumably not all of it will actually be open to the passage of air, depending on the level of cooling needed for various power configurations.
7 Headlamps wrap well around the nose, and the daytime-running-light area points forward dynamically. For production, the entire hood and fender panel would presumably pivot up and over the grille, as on the PV544 series of the ’50s and ’60s.
8 This little indent surrounding the flat band around the wheel opening is very nice, fading as it descends and providing some definition to the fender surfaces.
9 The hard, slightly rising line above the sill gives some thrust to the body side and reduces visual height, helping offset what is a too-chopped top, reminiscent of the awful Bertone Volvo coupes of yore.
10 This surface indentation on the lower body side doesn’t actually reduce usable interior space and allows the elegant surface modeling between the front and rear wheelhouses.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
11 The all-glass roof looks great, but it puts a lot of weight up high in the car.
12 This little badge is an homage to the one on some P1800s. It uses the same graphic elements and is a nice design conceit.
13 Notice how each rear transverse surface panel curls outward at its lower edge to catch light from above and reduce the visual height of the tall rear end while allowing good trunk depth.
14 Bold exhaust outlets frame a diffuser panel next to the license plate, which is probably too low for many jurisdictions. But it looks good on a show car.
15 Taillights are slightly inset but would likely need to have better visibility from a 45-degree forward angle to be road legal in the U.S. and many other countries.
16 This fin edge recalls the P1800 but is in fact much more gracefully shaped in profile without a straight section, and it ends much higher on the body side.
17 Recessed door handle looks and feels good but might be vulnerable to icing in tough winter conditions. Like those in Sweden.
18 Despite the transverse engine, the front fender is artfully contrived to make us see classic long-hood, short-deck proportions. Nicely done indeed.
19 Steering wheel encompasses many controls yet does not appear excessively complex.
20 The main instruments are placed beneath a divided glare shield with cockpit vents on both sides.
21 Data screen is unusually large but is mounted in such a way that it is not obtrusive.
22 This gray wooden shelf is very elegant but imparts a chilly feel to the cabin.
23 Not an attachment for a five-point racing harness but a very convenient fore and aft seat adjustment . . . for anyone in trousers.