Volvo eyes 'responsible' car buyers

Volvo V60

Volvo's chief executive is not wrong, nor is he dodging the question, as he answers with a query of his own.

"How many cylinders?" Haakan Samuelsson asks, nonplussed, as he gazes at the Swedish carmaker's diesel-electric hybrid car at the stand in Geneva.

"Who cares?"

To Mr Samuelsson, the question belongs to a not-so-distant past, when petrolheads with a taste for growling engines and burnt rubber were the arbiters of which cars were cool and which were not.

"Such owners want to signal 'I have an expensive car' or 'I have a sporty car'. Volvo should never do either of those. There'll never be a Volvo with a big V8 engine.

"Attitudes in society have changed. It's a bit like driving without seatbelts. Nowadays, such behaviour is just embarrassing."

Car identity

Volvo, which was once best known for its boxy and sturdy cars, would never make it onto such lists of "cool cars" anyway, of course, though if Mr Samuelsson's laid-back manner is anything to go by, he really could not care less.

"Car ownership is a lot about identity," he says. "And our customers are more interested in a different scene."

Nothing new there, perhaps, given that the Volvo-driving fraternity was never made up of petrolheads to begin with.

But this is not merely about them. This is about changes that could change the automotive landscape and the way we think about cars in general for good.

Caring consumers

According to Mr Samuelsson, Volvo-owners' attitudes have become cool in their own right, and not only in its traditional European and North American markets, but in China too.

Image caption Haakan Samuelsson expects to sell 7,000 V60 hybrids this year

Take Volvo's reputation for safety, perhaps its most powerful unique selling point in the West for years, which is now winning over new customers in Asia.

"China's got a one child policy, so parents there are very safety conscious," Mr Samuelsson says.

"So safety is still of utmost importance for Volvo," he adds, pointing to how Volvo is aiming for "zero accidents" for its customers by 2020 - or rather, by then "no-one should be killed or injured in a Volvo".

"We're the only brand that has credibility to formulate such a vision," says Mr Samuelsson.

Reduced impact

Or consider the environment. "People want to be responsible," he says. "And they want to show others that they are responsible, when it comes to the environment."

Much of this comes down to the notion of the family, which in China - perhaps more than in some of Volvo's traditional markets - is considered hugely important.

Chinese values are important, not only because of its emergence as a major market for Volvo, but also because the carmaker is now itself part of a Chinese family, as a subsidiary of China Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

In society, being responsible for your family means you will have to be considerate about safety, about the environment in which that family lives, and indeed about family economics - including motoring costs, Mr Samuelsson says.

And Volvo's V60, which the company says is the world's first diesel-electric plug-in hybrid in production, offers a package of solutions to such drivers, he insists.

The car is expensive to buy, at almost £50,000 in the UK, yet Mr Samuelsson expects to sell 7,000 of them this year.

For the buyers, it should at least be cheap to run, though, as it offers a staggering 155mpg with carbon dioxide emissions of just 48g/km, and a battery-only range of 30 miles (50 kilometres).

And at the same time, it can accelerate from 0-60 mph (0-100km/h) in "five seconds or something like that", Mr Samuelsson says.

Tough to reach targets

Combined with Scandinavian design features that aim to differentiate Volvo from German rivals such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, Volvo hopes to boost sales in China in particular, in part to compensate for weakness in Europe.

"Plans for the Chinese market are likely to reap dividends in the long term," according to an IHS Automotive analysis, "while the launch of new models should help in its mature markets."

The analysts are not convinced that Volvo's strategy will do enough to ensure it reaches its goal of selling 800,000 cars per year by 2020.

Instead, Volvo's sales will probably rise more slowly to 650,000 cars per year by then, from about 400,000 currently, IHS Automotive forecasts.

"However, with greater nimbleness and flexibility, this may not necessarily be a massive hindrance to its future," IHS Automotive observes in a report.

You can follow Jorn Madslien's coverage from the Geneva motor show on Twitter @jornmadslien.

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