Volvo scores big win at NAIAS

Paul A. Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

It’s hard to beat a big win to start the year off right. And Volvo couldn’t have asked for much more when it was handed the crystal trophy, a panel of 54 U.S. and Canadian journalists declaring the Swedish maker’s new XC90 the North American Truck/Utility of the Year.

But that’s really just part of the good news that’s helping Volvo build traction. After years of struggle, it ended 2015 with an all-time global sales record while demand in the critical U.S. market surged by 24 percent. And with the XC90 SUV about to be joined by the even newer flagship, the Volvo S90 sedan, the Chinese-owned maker is looking to build even more momentum in 2016.

Winning the North American Truck/Utility of the Year trophy “is the trip of the year,” declared an elated Lex Kerssemakers, head of the maker’s U.S. operations. “There couldn’t be a better way to pave the way for the new S90.”

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The S90, which is making its formal debut at this year’s North American International Auto Show this year, shares its platform — known inside Volvo as the SPA — with the XC90. It eventually will be used for a variety of different mid to large sedans, coupes, convertibles and crossovers, with a second platform, dubbed CMA, for smaller models.

Both platforms were designed specifically to allow for a variety of different powertrain options —though that’s where Volvo has taken “a bit contrarian” of an approach, suggested Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo Cars. Where most luxury brands emphasize V-8s and even V-12s when defining their most upscale models, Volvo has adopted a unique, all-four-cylinder strategy.

Both the XC90 and S90 feature various turbo-four engines, with their high-performance models using the so-called Twin Engine, a plug-in hybrid making a more than competitive 400 horsepower. At the same time, it delivers the fuel economy of a much smaller, less sporty vehicle, as well as nearly 20 miles of driving in pure electric mode.

The maker isn’t abandoning its “core values,” its long-term focus, Samuelsson added. It has, if anything, set out the once seemingly unimaginable goal of making its next generation of products so safe that from 2020 on, “no one will be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo product.”

Now owned by China’s ambitious domestic automaker Geely, Volvo was among the first to introduce a forward collision warning system, more recently adding the ability to detect large animals, pedestrians and bicycles while also coming to a stop, if need be, automatically.

Volvo plans to further upgrade the system to allow semi-autonomous driving. That feature will be offered as standard equipment on the new S90, set to reach U.S. Volvo showrooms later this year.

Volvo’s push to broaden its core message is not surprising. During a media roundtable at the NAIAS, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said “We need to get to the stage where safety is no longer a competitive tool,” but something all manufacturers are expected to deliver.

Volvo executives bridle at that idea, contending they’re still on the top of their game and don’t intend to let up.

That focus, along with the launch of an assortment of new products, has clearly paid off. U.S. sales have been rebounding after the long drought that followed Volvo’s sale by Ford Motor Co. American buyers ordered 70,047 of the maker’s products in 2015, a 24 percent jump. Meanwhile, global sales pushed pass the 500,000 mark for the first time, reaching 503,127.

Volvo is betting that the new S90 will provide the sort of halo that will help it deliver another record for 2016.