Swedish manufacturer Volvo has undergone a drastic switch in recent years from boring but practical and safe family load-lugger extraordinaire to something... well, the same really, but switching "boring" for "stylish". But what does the next few years hold in store for the popular brand?
For context, just 12 years ago, Volvo was sold by Ford to Chinese firm Geely. The move could have gone one of two ways, seeing the prestigious Swedish manufacturer fall from grace or grow stronger than ever. Fortunately for Volvo, it was the latter.
The Chinese paymasters should be given credit here, backing Volvo with finances to set up operations, but demanding that manufacturing processes were simplified. Crucially however, they brought in people who knew the European and American car premium car markets, trusting those with experience rather than putting the wrong people in the wrong positions.
Things don't change quickly in the car world - the turning an oil tanker metaphor often comes in handy here - but changes were put in place.
A reinvention in 2015 meant that instead of using offering a wide range of different engines that all required different mounting points and other logistical difficulties, just one petrol engine and one diesel were designed.
These were almost modular in design and are still used today, with various combinations of turbo and/or supercharging, and electrification used to alter power levels.
A single eight-speed automatic transmission was designed too, with the top two gears effectively overdrive for improved efficiency at motorway speeds. This was designed to have an electric motor sit between the transmission and engine from the off, to make sure that difficulties didn't come up further down the line. The engine line-up has expanded now, but the diesel is being dropped and the only addition has been a three-cylinder petrol unit.
Instead, Volvo decided to commit to an electric future, and has focused development on that. Alongside the simple engine and transmission designs were a large platform on which to build them, again designed to so that the transmission tunnel could hold a car's battery so that no compromise was made in terms of space for those picking a plug-in hybrid option.
There have subsequently been smaller and electric-only platforms designed, but the same principles remain - make things flexible and simple.
Because of these foundations, Volvo offers an electrified model in each of its models, often two, and sometimes pure-electric - in fact the C40 Recharge is electric-only. Everything has an electric motor of some sort, with even the least electrified models offered as mild hybrids.
That ranges from the large XC90 SUV to the most compact model in the range, the XC40. Saloons, estates, crossovers, and SUVs all get the same electrification treatment, stemming from the decisions put in place a decade or so ago.
What the future holds
It's important to consider that alongside Volvo, there are two other satellite concerns that must be considered. The LEVC (London Electric Vehicle Company) builds black cabs that are such a commonplace sight around London and a large number of other cities in the UK and abroad.
Although not pure-electric, the cabs operate as range-extended plug-in hybrids, using that compact three-cylinder petrol engine to act as an onboard generator for the electric motor and decent sized battery. Anyone who has sat in one as well as a Volvo will quickly recognise the switchgear and large portrait touchscreen system.
It's an important business, but more crucial to Volvo is Polestar. This started out as a tuning firm and racing team that specialised ini Volvo Cars. It was then bought by Volvo to become the company's in-house tuning arm, like BMW has M Sport and Mercedes-Benz has AMG. Now, it's been developed further, and still deals in performance, but is Volvo's electrified performance brand.
It's half-stand-alone and half-linked, with Volvo sharing the next generation platforms and electric motors with Polestar. And although styling is similar to that we've seen from Volvo in recent years, the two are going to diverge with the next few models, differentiating the two Swedish brands.
Key to this is the next model due from each. The Polestar 3 and Volvo EX90 are both due next year, are pure-electric large SUVs, and will feature huge driving ranges alongside short charging times. These are the flagships for the two manufacturers as each accelerates its efforts to become a leader in electric vehicle sales.
These aims have been laid out by Volvo as such:
- 50% of Volvo Cars' sales to be pure-electric by 2025
- 1 million electrified cars from Volvo on the road by 2025
"We are determined to be the first premium car maker to move our entire portfolio of vehicles into electrification. This is a clear commitment towards reducing our carbon footprint, as well as contributing to better air quality in our cities."
Håkan Samuelsson - President and CEO, Volvo Car Group
Clearly there are some manufacturers such as Tesla that are electric only already, but switching an established brand from internal combustion engine models to an electric only line-up is a huge task, and one that Volvo is targeting sooner than any other.
Despite a desire to lead the way in electrification, Volvo's long-established and continuing aim is to be the market leader in safety. It has a long and proud history in this area, and will continue to work on making Volvos as safe as possible.
In the past, it was elements such as the development of the three-point seatbelt, which instead of patenting and making a fortune on, Volvo gave away to other car makers for the sake of safety. Well over a million lives have been saved and protected by this gesture in 1959.
Going forward though, hardware is being added to Volvo models that looks to prevent accidents rather than protect against them. Already there are a host of radar sensors surrounding most new Volvo models to give drivers a better sense of where their car is on the road. All new Volvo models are restricted to a top speed of 112mph as well for both safety and efficiency reasons.
Next up is the addition of LiDAR systems within Volvo models, which constantly scan the road around the vehicle to give the car a picture of what is happening at any given moment. It not only enables safer application of driverless technology when the laws allow, but it also means that all the driver assistance systems have a much better idea as to what is happening, either enabling the car to step in and help prevent an accident, or warn the driver against impending trouble.