In 2010, Ford Motor Co., desperate to shed non-core businesses, sold Volvo to China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group for $1.8 billion. As it turned out, the Chinese automaker got what analysts now see as a T.J. Maxx kind of bargain — and the venerable Swedish carmaker got a new lease on life.
Saddled with hand-me-down Ford platforms and aging powertrains, Volvo's sales had been in decline. The company's very survival was on the line. As Lex Kerssemakers, Volvo's senior vice president for the Americas, put it at a recent news conference, "We had to reinvent the company."
Fortunately, a symbiotic relationship developed between the two automakers that allowed Volvo to develop the strategy and products that could make a renaissance possible. Essentially, Geely gave Volvo a free hand to plan and develop, and Volvo's crack engineering team shared its expertise with the little-known Chinese carmaker.
"We got the support and freedom we needed from Geely," Kerssemakers said.
The strategy that developed was multifaceted. First, the company would develop what it called a Scalable Platform Architecture. That meant it could use the same platform design for all its cars, stretching it for the full-sized 90 models, and shortening it for the compact 60 models.
The engine bay size is the same for all models because they all use the same 2-liter four. That's right: Volvo's five- and six-cylinder engines are gone. One little four-cylinder engine, coupled to an eight-speed automatic gearbox, now motivates all Volvo's sedans and crossovers.
You don't need an MBA from Penn to realize that a one-size-fits-all platform and engine are going to dramatically cut engineering and manufacturing costs. Indeed, Volvo sees those economies as essential if it is to compete with the larger, deeper-pocketed luxury car builders.
There are three variations on that direct-injected four-banger, and all are economical and surprisingly lively. The T5 models are powered by a turbocharged version of the engine that develops 250 horsepower and takes the redesigned XC60 compact crossover from 0 to 60 in a presentable 6.4 seconds. The T6 version puts a supercharger on the dance floor with the turbo and lets the duo twirl up 316 horses and a brisk 0-to-60 time of 5.6 seconds.
(I knew the beauty of adding the supercharger was that it negated turbo lag by providing instant low-end power. But since the boost afforded by the turbo and the supercharger are both related to engine rpm, I wasn't sure why the supercharger should be more effective at the low end. The answer, a Volvo engineer told me, was that the supercharger's impeller was geared up to spin faster.)
The T8 hybrid, which uses the T6 engine to power the front wheels and an electric motor to activate the rear ones, is the gutsiest of the lot (400 horsepower) and the quickest (0 to 60 in a sporting 4.9 seconds). It's also a harbinger of the next chapter of Volvo's strategy: the company's recently announced plan to electrify every car it sells by 2019. That means they all would be either hybrids or pure electrics.
In the wake of the news conference, Volvo gave the ink-stained wretches a chance to try its three latest models: the all-new 2018 XC60, which I had reported on earlier; the new 2018 V90, which is a station wagon version of the S90 sedan; and a 2018 S90 sedan, which is a 2017 with a 4.5-inch stretch.
They are economical cars that proved quiet, comfortable, and fun to drive. They are also handsomely styled, and the upmarket models I drove had gorgeous interiors and wonderful seats.