As a former Volvo owner, the teaser photographs Volvo has leaked of its sexy new mystery machine worry me, frankly. The company released a coy video that features their natty lead designer sketching a few swoopy lines on paper and intoning, in a voice as bassy as James Earl Jones's, that Volvo's 'vanilla' days are behind it. No longer content to be considered bland, the Swedish automaker is hinting that the Concept C coupe they'll debut next month at Frankfurt is the first phase of a broader transformation.
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If we read between the lines, that means a serious sexing up of the brand. And therein lies the problem. Call to mind the Volvo owners you've known, the earnest, mustachioed suburban fathers--men who took pride in Volvo's legendary crashworthiness, who performed scheduled maintenance with religious assiduity, and who (you suspected) delighted in the spectacle of respectable ordinariness, motoring to the aquarium, at or near the speed limit, kids in the back, securely belted atop vacuumed upholstery.
No one ever bought a Volvo because it gave him a tingling in his loins, or because it looked like a jungle cat, exotic, crouched, and powerful.
↑ But as you can see, the face of the new Volvo is menacing, with an aggressive stance, vengeful slit eyes, and a protruding snout. It looks like a robot panther, crossed with a shark, crossed with a cruise missile fired in anger to address an historic grievance.
Image: Richard Spiegelman | Flickr
↑ The face of the old Volvo--this is a 1982 DL, much like my beloved first car--is that of an intellectual beaver, looking up from its newspaper. To many, Volvo's modesty testified to its common-sense virtues: safety, economy, and reliability. Lack of sizzle was proof of the steak.
Now, Volvo's placing a heavy bet on sizzle. The Concept C Coupe is first major initiative of Volvo's new head of design, Thomas Ingenlath, since he took over last year. Revitalization is clearly on his mind. While some Volvos of recent years have been well received, none have approached its iconic designs of the 1970s and '80s. The company, bought for $6.5 billion by Ford in 1999, was sold to China's Geely Automobile in 2010 for just $1.8 billion.
Volvo's problem may lie in its choice of metaphor. Vanilla is plain, but Volvo did vanilla extremely well. While it embarks on a pursuit for a more distinctive brand flavour, you have to ask how many good ones are up for grabs. Chocolate, espresso, and Rocky Road (BMW, Audi, and Land Rover, let's say) are already taken. If there's less competition for wasabi or dill pickle, there may be a good reason for it.
John Bucher, who in 1995 bought a 14-year-old Volvo DL from an earnest suburban father, is senior editor of Yahoo! Autos Canada.