During the last few months we’ve immersed ourselves in several of Volvo’s most dynamic models. Our goal, to learn about how the marque is positioned in 2012 and why you might chose to go Scandinavian rather than one of the marque’s more prolific German competitors.

The cars we drove over a 3 week period, covering nearly 2,000 miles, were the V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar, XC60 D5 R-Design Polestar and all-new V40 D4.

When the XC60 was launched at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show it was billed as one of the ‘sportiest’ Volvos ever made, so we chose the most performance oriented R-Design version with the 2.4-litre 5-cylinder diesel engine (D5) – enhanced by the optional Polestar Performance Upgrade to achieve 227bhp.

The V60 was an easy choice – no less than the 324bhp six-cylinder turbocharged petrol T6 R-Design Polestar complete with all-wheel drive – the fastest model in Volvo’s range.

And finally the V40 D4, Volvo’s first all-new model since being taken over by Chinese motor manufacturer Geely Automobile. We chose the most expensive variant, the £26,795 175bhp D4 SE LUX, complete with 17-inch alloy wheels and 205/50 tyres.

Perceived status

After an early flirtation with Italian cars (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari) our driveway has mainly been home to a succession of German cars – Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi, and like many people I’ve decided more than once ‘not’ to buy a Volvo.

Most often this was due to their perceived dynamic shortcomings, but they were never in my mind truly ‘premium’ products. Volvo was also saddled with a legacy of being seriously ‘uncool’ – like the geek at school who could recite the periodic table backwards, but had no athletic prowess or sense of style.

Clever, but boring..

There was a blip during the early ’90s when the name might have conjured up images of Rickard Rydell, leading a field of British Touring Cars in a boxy 850 wagon, but that was a long time ago, and the memory has been steadily erased by a stream of wardrobe-carrying Volvo estates and the ghostly absence of the marque from British motorsport.

Volvo XC60 D5 R-Design Polestar: Not as capable dynamically as the BMW X3 or Audi Q5, but more spacious and the one we’d choose for a longer journey.

Volvo’s were safe, sensible cars – the type of car which, in the U.S., preceded minivans as the soccer mom’s wheels of choice. If you were a guy, owning a Volvo went hand-in-hand with wearing a corduroy jacket and checked trousers. Jerry in The Good Life had a boxy Volvo 240 Estate, and he was a poster-boy for the emasculated male.

But much of that changed, oddly enough, when Volvo embraced the SUV.

When the XC90 arrived in 2003, it was the first Volvo I can remember with a waiting list, where prospective buyers would pay premiums to jump the queue and own the hottest Chelsea Tractor on the road.

Volvo’s were, for the first time ever – cool, and the 7-seat XC90 made the perfect billboard for the Swedish car maker, with celebrities such as Jennifer Garner, Avril Lavigne and even the mighty lothario Sven Goran Eriksson driving (and being papped) in their XCs.

Nowadays, driving on the road in the stylish new V60 feels just as discerning and credible as a C-Class or A4, while the XC60, especially in R-Design guise, would feel perfectly at home in the company car park next to an X3.

Volvo’s image really has turned a corner, but is this merely the result of some clever brand marketing or do the cars drive any better than before?

Out on the road

The upside of Volvo’s ecologically responsible and safety conscious image is that other drivers treat you even-handedly, with little or no axe to grind.

I’m so used to driving behind the blue propeller badge that I’d forgotten just how peaceful the road could be when you’re not at war.

Drive a Porsche, BMW or Mercedes and you’re ramming your success down other people’s throats. Drive an Audi and you add to this misdemeanour with your retina-burning day-time-running lights, which are guaranteed to incur the unsolicited envy of every Mondeo and Insignia driver you pass.

XC60 D5 R-Design Polestar at Goodwood Motor Circuit.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along? Well maybe you can in a Volvo.

There’s an overriding sense of neutrality about driving a Volvo that allows you to slip through enemy lines, like a United Nations medic. This might sound like the dull and characterless Volvos of old, but in practice it’s liberating to just get on with your day-to-day business without the baggage of badge-envy.

Driving feel & Dynamics

Our first experience with the Volvo S60 came as something of a surprise, here was a dynamic and attractively styled Volvo that held its own around the Top Gear track at Dunsford whilst feeling genuinely fun to hustle.

For the first time in living memory, Volvo didn’t have to call upon on a bonkers-turbo-setup to bring a smile to your face.

Volvo V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar: The V60 has transformed Volvo’s dowdy image with one of the best looking estate cars on the road. T6 is not the best version to drive though.

But our time in the 329bhp range-topping V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar reminded us of the old adage – “sometimes less is more”. Despite the extra power, stiffer chassis and bigger wheels – it was less fun than the 215bhp S60 D5 we drove around Dunsfold. Heavier, more remote, less fun to steer and hampered by an auto box that felt at least a generation behind those fitted to the S60’s rivals.

The XC60 D5 R-Design Polestar is likewise undermined by several old-school flaws. Driven quickly, there’s the ever-present shudder (or scuttle shake) when cornering, reminiscent of our ’97 Land Rover Freelander. There’s more roll than a Q5 and nowhere near the agility of an X3, yet slow the pace down and drive within its means and you’ll find the same quietly confident demeanour shown in the S60/V60.

You can trace the renaissance of Volvo purely using these three models.

Back in 2008, when the XC60 was launched, Volvo had stopped posting profits (since 2005) and parent company Ford were looking for a buyer. Volvo developed the XC60 despite limited resources, but inevitably were forced to re-use technology which was developed many years before. It looked good, but wasn’t all new.

The S60/V60 arrived at a time when Ford had ceased investing and the business was being acquired by Geely. Nevertheless, the S60/V60 is a very capable product, with only a few obvious shortcomings (i.e. auto gearbox) compared to its competitors.

Two years on and the V40 has landed into one of the most competitive segments in the motor industry (C-segment), we drove it around Goodwood Motor Circuit last month and its driving dynamics were a revelation compared to anything Volvo has produced in the past (S60/V60 excepted).

It’s a little heavier than the class norm (77kg heavier than the VW Golf GTD and BMW 120d) and quicker than Merc’s new A-Class (7.9 secs to 60 mph for the V40 D4 against 9.2 secs for the A 200 CDI).

But make no mistake, the V40 is a real contender for class honours. It drives as sweetly as you could want and shows just what Volvo are capable of, given the freedom to pursue their own path.

Characteristics of the Volvo gene

Volvo define the main attributes of their brand as; Safety, Quality, Environment, Design – with a side-order of Sustainability.

Safety – is at the heart of everything Volvo does, where this used to mean passive stuff like safety cells, crumple zones, child safety seats, front head restraints, collapsible steering column, side-impact protection and airbags. Now it also includes some of the coolest active safety systems such as collision avoidance, pedestrian detection with auto brake, and driver alert control to help prevent accidents in the first place.

Rather than removing responsibility from the driver, these systems in practice heighten awareness of what the driver should be aware of. In the XC60 and V60 we drove it was like having an extra person in the car, looking out for any dangers that might have been missed. But rather than a nagging back seat driver, it’s more like a friendly co-driver who wants to keep you safe while you’re having fun.

Volvo’s emanate a strength that comes from a clear and decisive design choice – the quiet confidence of a brand which knows it’s got skills, but doesn’t feel the need to prove it.

Most of you will probably agree that Design – is a hugely important feature of the latest Volvos. Everywhere we went in the XC60 and V60, we received admiring (and in some cases, envious) glances. Both are well balanced in their design, easy to look at from every angle and the sort of car you look over your shoulder at when you’ve parked and are walking away.

Volvo’s are now built to a level of Quality – that matches Mercedes, BMW, Lexus or Jaguar – Audi are still ahead of the pack (in tactile quality), but not by much, so the choice boils down to personal preference.

The challenge is even closer with the new V40, which feels good enough to topple the new Mercedes A-Class (especially for rear occupants) and is nearly a match for BMW’s 1 Series.

Let’s skip Environment – and Sustainability –, because they have much less of an effect on what it feels like to own a Volvo. Every car maker has been forced to focus on the whole-life cost of their products and build a sustainable development framework to mitigate their corporate liabilities.

The final value, that in my mind elevates Volvo into the top-tier, is Confidence –. Not the over-confident swagger of some marques, but instead the quiet confidence of a brand which knows it’s got skills, but doesn’t feel the need to prove it.

From their innovative floating centre consoles, clever safety solutions to a strong sense of social conscience – whether it be pedestrian safety, sustainable production or that friendly road presence I mentioned earlier. It’s evident in all modern-day Volvos and provides a welcome contrast to the brash and boastful German marques.

Like it or loathe it, the Twilight saga and the immensely popular pairing of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, has helped reposition Volvo as a ‘cool’ brand.

DNA Rating

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  • The aim of the DNA Rating is to convey how well a car is likely to perform against expectation. It’s a subjective viewpoint, but nonetheless provides an important insight into the expectations created by brand and the experience delivered in practice.   Consider it the Ronseal Index, a way of understanding how closely it delivers “..exactly what is says on the tin.”

* * *

When the S60 was launched in 2010, Volvo tried to change our perception of the brand overnight with the ‘Naughty Volvo’ campaign. They filmed a series of videos, under the tagline ‘As Naughty As You Want It’, designed to communicate the shift in Volvo’s DNA from functional to fun.

The campaign featured such un-Volvo-like images as a man running naked in the snow, and an experiment to find Europe’s most promiscuous country, but in practice the ads merely served to confuse and did little to convey the capabilities of their newest model.

Since then they’ve chosen to focus on safety, sustainability and design, emphasising the individuality shown when you purchase a Volvo. But when you speak directly with Volvo’s executives, you find a quiet confidence that not only are their cars an alternative choice, they’re also now class leading in several respects.

The V40 for example, shows that Volvo has learned a lot from Audi and BMW on the details, the surfacing and overall quality of everything the driver and passengers come into contact with. It’s a quality product which delivers on Volvo’s promise of a premium compact car.

But Volvo are a small company compared to their competitors, and the overhaul of the range will take time.

The XC60 is the oldest of our trio, created at a time when the company was owned by Ford and investment was scarce. If we judged the brand’s performance against expectation, purely on the XC60, then we’d score it a 6 out of 10. Most will be more than happy with owning it, but the competition from BMW, Audi and Mercedes are stronger in almost every way.

The S60/V60 is a far more competitive proposition. Sure, there are several components that lag behind the class best (auto gearbox, power steering), but in other respects its better – I’d choose it for handling over the Audi A4, looks and visual appeal over the 3 Series or C-Class and for overall ownership its in the top 3 in the class. We’d score the brand 7-8 out of 10, perhaps more, depending on the expectations you start out with. If you’re looking at buying a car in this segment, then you’d be foolish not to include the S60/V60 on your list.

Then the V40. As we said when we first drove it, this is a car that will change people’s perception of Volvo as a car maker. We’d score it a 9 out of 10 on our Ronseal Index – you will be surprised just how good it is, and on that basis we’ve given Volvo an 8 out 10 overall.

The competitiveness of the range is still patchy, but every step the company has taken over the past 4 years has produced a dramatically better product, so on that basis we can’t wait to see what happens next.

If you thought Volvos were merely safe, well made and practical, then you should take a closer look and re-acquaint yourself with the range in 2012. The DNA is sound, all they need is a ‘hero’ car to keep the brand in our mind’s eye. Over to you Volvo Motorsport and Polestar..

Volvo’s are friendly looking cars, unlikely to trigger the same level of adverse reaction from other road users as their rivals from BMW and Mercedes.

Images: Volvo, Red Square Images, SkiddMark.

Further Information: Volvo Owners Club Forums, Volvo Forums.

Written By

Steve Davies

Steve is an investor, private equity advisor and former Partner at KPMG, PwC and Bain.   Most importantly he's a life-long car enthusiast, mountain biker and active sports enthusiast. He designs and builds technology platforms and is the architect behind Transmission.

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