Volvo Car Corp. showed a five-door hatchback this week in Geneva featuring the world’s first pedestrian air bag. The Swedish carmaker is counting on such innovations to burnish its safety image and help double sales.
The V40, Volvo’s first model designed under owner Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. of China, has an air bag that ejects from the hood to protect pedestrians from injury. It also has a backswept headlight and panoramic glass roof to give it a sporty look.
Volvo is targeting the hatchback at potential buyers of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s 1-series, Audi AG’s A3 and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz A-Class as the carmaker tries to push into the premium market. Volvo will need to fill other gaps in its product lineup and replace aging vehicles to meet a target of lifting annual volume to 800,000 by 2020.
Old models and holes in Volvo’s product portfolio highlight the high development costs in the auto industry and the difficult choices facing an automaker that is not part of a larger group. Volvo sold 449,255 cars last year. That compares with 1.3 million at Audi, itself a unit of Volkswagen AG, which delivered 8.27 million vehicles across all its brands.
The V40 “is an important model for the brand as it further progresses along the road to making Volvo a more viable premium-brand competitor,” said Jonathon Poskitt, head of European sales forecasting at LMC Automotive in Oxford. “For Volvo to really take the fight to the likes of Audi and BMW, it will need to look to roll out this new, sharper styling to the replacements that come over the next few years.”
Volvo, which will start building the car in May, targets annual sales of 90,000, mainly in Europe, where demand is strongest for small cars in large urban areas. The model won’t be sold in the U.S.
Volvo dealers are hoping for a vehicle at the other end of the spectrum for American buyers: a big, luxurious sedan that can challenge BMW’s 7-series, Audi’s A8 and Mercedes S-Class.
“We’re missing that next step up in the luxury line,” said Randy Pullen, the general manager of a Volvo dealership outside Atlanta, Georgia. “We have to create a broader selection of product.”
Gothenburg-based Volvo is also missing a subcompact car and facing a growing need to replace aging vehicles. The XC90, its largest crossover, will be 12 years old when it’s renewed in 2014. The S80, its biggest sedan, will be nine years old when it’s revamped in 2015.
The S40 and V50, Volvo’s smallest sedan and station wagon, are both eight years old, and the company has yet to announce when they will be replaced. Volvo last year pulled them from the U.S. market because of poor sales.
The average lifespan for models in Europe is about seven years, according to Michael Tyndall, an auto analyst at Barclays Bank in London.
“We have not made a decision on whether to go further up and down” in the various car segments, Chief Executive Officer Stefan Jacoby told reporters March 6 at the Geneva auto show. Volvo intends to focus in the coming years on “core” cars, such as the midsize S60 sedan and crossover XC60, its two bestsellers, he said.
Volvo is talking with other carmakers about sharing development costs for future compact cars, Jacoby said, declining to identify the candidates.
In China, Volvo’s fastest-growing market, the Swedish company needs more cars with an extended wheelbase to appeal to the chauffeur-driven market, said Bill Russo, a Beijing-based senior adviser at Booz & Co. Mercedes, BMW and Audi all offer models with extended wheelbases in the market.
“If Volvo will significantly grow its business, its next stage of development has to be to bring a higher level of localized cars to this market, and I think that’s where they’re headed,” Russo said.
Volvo makes the longer S80L model for China at a factory co-owned by former owner Ford Motor Co. and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. The Swedish carmaker aims to open its own plant in Chengdu in late 2013, and plans a second factory in Daqing. The Chinese government must still approve the assembly.
In the U.S., Volvo’s largest market, the company needs more fuel-efficient cars, which are becoming increasingly important amid high gasoline prices, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, California, which tracks sales and price trends. Volvo should also consider bringing diesel cars, which have “contributed greatly” to VW’s growth, to the U.S., Toprak said.
Geely bought Volvo Cars from Ford for $1.8 billion two years ago in the biggest overseas acquisition by a Chinese automaker. Ford sold Volvo as part of a broader strategy of exiting European lines, after selling Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover to focus on its American brands.
Geely later lured Jacoby, who at the time headed VW’s U.S. operations, to take over as CEO. Volvo’s sales peaked in 2007 at around 460,000 vehicles before plunging during the financial crisis and global recession that followed.
Pullen, the dealer near Atlanta, said Volvo’s design has improved under Geely and new products are being developed faster than under Ford.
“I think they’re doing a lot of the right things,” he said.