I grew up in a Volvo family. That meant that there was always a Volvo parked in our driveway -- my father bought a new model every three or four years -- but it also meant that the sight of it gave passersby an indication of the type of family that we were. Back then, in the early '80s, Volvo connoted very specific personality traits. If you purchased one, it was because you wanted to show the world that you were cut from the same cloth. Volvo cars, and Volvo drivers, were a little upscale, and a bit European. They were firmly family-oriented, putting safety first. And, Volvos being generally boxy, ugly cars, they weren't concerned with what others thought of them. This was perhaps the most important part of the messaging for my father, as evidenced in particular by his seventh Volvo: an aggressively ugly, salmon-pink 740GL. It was always the ugliest car on the road, and I think my father felt defiantly elevated for it.
Volvos stopped being ugly at around the same time that Volvos stopped being interesting. This started in the late '90s, and was accelerated when Volvo was acquired by Ford in 1999. Hearing current Volvo executives talk about the "Ford years" -- as I did at a Las Vegas event that they hosted me at in late January -- makes it sound like a lost decade. They grimace as they recall the loss of engineering independence; during the Ford years, the Volvo C30 and S40 models that would roll off the assembly lines were built on the same platforms as the Mazda Biante and the Ford Focus. Even North America CEO Tony Nicolosi acknowledged that "we lost our way" in an interview with Autoweek. Through the early 2000s, Volvo sales gradually declined, and, under the guidance of Ford design chief J. Mays, that distinct, ugly Volvo look was gradually smoothed out into homogeneity with the rest of the parking lot. If there was still any personality statement wrapped up in the purchase of a Volvo, the same bland one accompanied the purchase of a Ford Taurus or Escort.
But today, having been liberated from Ford in a 2010 sale to Chinese automaker Geely, Volvo is ready to start becoming itself again. The Vegas event I attended had been organized to allow press to try out the company's new "Drive-E" powertrains, which contain the first non-Ford engines to power a Volvo this century. These powertrains are just now making their showroom debuts, and are so far the most significant piece of the reemerging Volvo puzzle. The company is slowly shedding its Ford-ness by swapping in original components, one at a time. First came new sheet metals and interiors, debuting in the 2014 model line. Then came the unveiling, at this year's CES, of the new "Sensus" infotainment system, an experiential companion to their already-remarkable IntelliSafe safety system. And now we have the Drive-E engines, designed as a universal engine architecture for all models and a platform for future electrification.
Each of these new pieces have been applauded upon arrival. And the driving experience they are combining to create is different. Over two days of driving new Volvos in the Nevada desert, I was most struck by the IntelliSafe safety system, which, with further evolution, really has the potential to transform what we think driving is (more on that in the video below). But are these cars more "Volvo-y" than their Ford-tainted predecessors were? I don't think so, not yet. Design-wise, they still succumb to a generic and needy sportiness. The V60 wagon is especially over-stylized, all sexed up in what I took as an attempt to distance itself from its natural family-man associations. In my consideration, that's precisely the wrong direction. But we don't know yet what the complete assembly of the new Volvo will look like. We will at the end of summer 2014, when the curtain will be pulled back on the new structural architecture that will be the foundation for its future safety cage and overall design. Then we'll see what a new, independent Volvo looks like. I, for one, hope it's horrifically boxy. I want to have the same shot at being a Volvo man that my dad did.