Hammer Time: Whither Volvo?

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My next door neighbor is one of those classic ‘traders.’ He buys, fixes, drives, fixes, drives, fixes, etc. When the repairs finally get to be too much time and hassle, he sells the car.

I’ve seen a lot of nameplates come and go through his driveway. Hondas and Nissans stay for a while. Range Rovers require constant weekend tinkering. And Volkswagens need more plastics than a Barbie factory. Only one brand has stuck around, for over a decade now: his family Volvo wagon.

Therein lies the tale.

Back in the day, older Volvos were [rightly] known for their long list of standard safety virtues: side impact protection systems, whiplash protection, four wheel ABS disc brakes and traction control. Only an S-Class Mercedes or a few good friends from my home state of New Jersey offered more protection… and both required a lot more scratch.

These Volvos of yore were a lot more than just glorified safety barges. They were luxurious in a way that no Toyonda of the time could touch. The ‘safest car on the road’ was supremely comfortable, with Goldilocks perfect seats and terrific visibility.


These thrones of near-luxury beatitude came complete with CD changers, turbochargers, all-wheel drive and a narrow girth. The combo made the Volvo wagon a favorite for buyers seeking a safe, European-style family car with a modicum of sporting character if they chose their features wisely.

For a while, Volvo stood alone in the marketplace. Throughout the eighties into the nineties, while the Japanese and Americans followed the herd that became the SUV and minivan stampede, Volvo maintained its traditional virtues: a wagon (and sedan) that offered protection, build quality and comfort at a family-friendly price. It was a good bet– that unfortunately gave way to lots of bad bets.

In 1999, Ford bought Volvo. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Volvo had jumped the shark by then. But you could say they’d lost their mojo. Or, more accurately, their competitors had found it.

At the turn of the last century, gas was [still] inexpensive, luxury was trickling down and, worst of all for Volvo, safety regulations had leveled the playing field. The Camry and Accord– once distant pretenders to Volvo’s safety throne– released legitimate alternatives that cost thousands less than the mostly built-in-Europe S60’s and V70’s. Traction Control, standard ABS braking, side-curtain airbags, in-floor frame rails (used to move energy to the car body instead of the occupants) and new design architectures made these mainstream models comparable to the sedan versions of Volvo’s FWD models.

All of these safety technologies that once made Volvo distinct were now found, at least on paper, nearly everywhere else.  Ford Tauruses would arguably be worse in the real world of crashes. But in the marketing world of ‘5-star safety’ these types of debates rarely came up. Safety became an increasingly universal trait for midsized and larger cars, and Volvo’s ability to differentiate themselves through this marketing channel became limited.

Still, if Volvo had simply progressed with the times in terms of product quality, the brand might have remained a serious contender. Unfortunately, Volvos were becoming expensive propositions for their soon to be disloyal customers. ABS modules, evaporator cores, severe engine throttle body issues (which required multiple recalls) and bad decontenting choices with the late 90’s S70 and S80 models made virtually all the pre-Ford Volvos high dollar propositions for the automotive novice. The majority of whom represented Volvo’s traditional conservative clientele, who were no longer above considering Toyota, Honda and Subaru alternatives.

The post-Ford 2001 refreshing of the V70 wagon resulted in numerous electrical glitches and transmission issues thanks to a purely mythical ‘lifetime fluid’. All of a sudden, $40,000 Volvos offered transmissions that a firm smooth ka-thunk to a $3000+ kaput. Volvo’s clean competitive advantage gradually became a bit more hazy in the marketplace and J.D. Power reflected this new, less appealing reality when it released sub-par customer retention ratings for the Volvo brand.

By this time, Subaru had gained enormous traction amongst the Volvo crowd by offering cheaper and better made Foresters and Outbacks. In 2002, Volvo unleashed the XC90 into the American market. While the late-the-the-party SUV garnered tremendous sales success, the upmarket vehicle solidified a move away from Volvo’s long-time dominance in wagons.

Despite its brand-faithful, class-leading safety, the thirsty XC was a “me too” vehicle with LOTS of lower-priced competition: SUVs with room, safety and features aplenty. Escapes, RAV4’s, and CRV’s posed a question on the lower end of the SUV marketfor which Volvo didn’t have an answer. “Why do we need to spend more for a Volvo?” At the same time, luxury brands’ compact SUVs crowded Volvo from on high.

Today’s Volvo is hanging in there. Sales have fallen 6 percent in (to 32,578 units) year-to-date, and that’s not good in a healthy car market.

The bigger question is this: What is a Volvo? The revised XC60 crossover is an admirable attempt to recapture the old magic in America’s post-SUV landscape, but the brand’s defenders have positioned Volvos remaining models too high in the price ladder. The chances that Volvo can compete against the established luxury brands are, still, slim.

The term “Volvo wagon” as a phrase synonymous for an entry level luxury offering noted for durability is dead. In the meantime, cars like my neighbors pre-Ford 1996 Volvo wagon are still running strong, giving serious street cred to a brand that really hasn’t lead the field since 2001.

Now what?