There has been a dearth of news—good or bad—out of the iconic Swedish brand since Ford sold to it Geely more than three years ago in a $1.8 billion deal. Frankly, the future didn’t look very bright back then. Ford had tried and failed for years to make the brand more competitive. Geely’s prospects hardly seemed much better. But amid the uncertainty, Volvo could still hang its hat on safety, premium Scandinavian styling, and station wagons. Then Volvo even stopped selling wagons in 2011. Things seemed bleak, indeed.
What a difference a few years make. Geely has turned out to be a surprisingly effective steward of Volvo. Here’s something you that will shock you: Geely is investing $11 billion in Volvo. That’s big money, especially when you consider Volvo doesn’t have that many models. It shows how serious Geely is about injecting Volvo with quality products.
The blitz began this year with critical vehicles like the S60, XC60, XC70, and S80 all refreshed as 2014 models. All except the XC60 showed sales gains in October, though Volvo volume is down 6.7 percent through the first ten months of the year in a U.S. market that’s on the upswing. Globally, Volvo sales leapt 3.7 percent last month, helped by growth in China.
That’s a mixed bag of sales figures, and it’s indicative of a year of transition for Volvo. Expect the brand’s product strength to show right away in 2014 when the V60 hits the U.S. market in January. It’s real-deal station wagon, not a crossover, and it’s an encouraging sign Volvo is getting its mojo back. While having a wagon in the Volvo stable is heartening for brand enthusiasts, the V60’s significance truly lies under the hood. The wagon is the first vehicle to get a new powertrain, called Drive-E, which will roll out across most of the company’s models, including the S60, XC60, XC70 and S80 in the coming years.
Drive-E is an umbrella term for Volvo’s new suite of powertrain technologies, which formerly was called Volvo Engine Architecture (VEA). In simple terms, it’s a 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder engine with direct-injection paired with a new Aisin-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission. There will be two variants sold in the United States: a turbo, which makes 240 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (280 lb-ft when overboost is engaged), and a higher-performance unit that uses turbo- and supercharging to push out 302 hp and 295 lb-ft. The architecture is also set up to handle electrification. Trivia buffs might know Volvo’s first car in 1927 also ran a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, so Drive-E fits with the company’s heritage of gleaning power and efficiency from small packages.
Volvo is also showing a bit of design panache, as evidenced by the Coupe Concept displayed at the Frankfurt auto show. It was easily one of the best-looking cars there, with simple lines and beautiful proportions. It really captured the spirit of the P1800 without being retro. Our design editor, Robert Cumberford, called it “undoubtedly the prettiest Volvo ever shown.”
Even in that vacuum, it’s high praise, and the Coupe Concept was truly an outward demonstration that Volvo is moving forward on all fronts—design included—to become competitive and distinctive.
The automaker clearly has a pulse. It opened a second assembly plant in China in October with capacity to make 120,000 cars annually, supported by a nearby engine plant that also came online this fall. Additionally, Volvo recently completed a study on cordless charging for electric vehicles, demonstrating that a C30 electric car can be fully charged in two and a half hours.
Will all of this result in Volvo reaching its ambitious goal of selling 800,000 units annually around the world by 2020? Last year it sold 421,951, so at the moment it’s not even close. But, the encouraging signs of progress indicate Volvo is heading in the right direction as it slowly revamps its product lineup, manufacturing footprint, and technological capabilities. Volvo still faces plenty challenges. But with an attentive ownership group and an aggressive plan for battle, the Swedish automaker finally seems to have momentum.