Volvo’s reputation can be summed up with an advertising slogan. "Nobody writes songs about Volvos." Obviously, it’s not come from the company’s own team – it’s a Sixties billboard from General Motors, promoting the Corvette Stingray – but it captures everything you think you know about the brand. Safe. Steady. But, ultimately, something you have less emotional attachment to than your fridge.
But that’s just changed. The Swedes have released a tranche of new models that don’t just escape the easy-does-it association, but pull off every automotive trick you’d expect from a car in 2017 and, more importantly, stand up as singularly desirable objects. Even more impressively, it managed this complete U-turn in just one generation of cars – it took more than a decade for the Skoda jokes to stop after VW took the driving seat in 1994.
There have been a few things that have fast-tracked Volvo’s renaissance. Chiefly, cash – a great big injection of it from the company’s new owner, Chinese car giant Geely. Then there’s its homeland. Scandinavia’s fertile ground when it comes to nurturing trends, from hygge and Noma to foraging and Acne, Volvo’s Gothenburg HQ keeps it in the heart of the fray. But, ultimately, the key to creating a desirable thing – whatever it is – is making it look desirable. And the man responsible for that is newly drafted German designer, Thomas Ingenlath.
He’s unusual for a car designer, because he’s not actually into cars. Well, not in the same way most designers are. Speaking to GQ next to a Volvo V90 built in the spec he feels best shows off its assets (above), Ingenlath says, "I’m not a petrolhead. For me, cars aren’t all about all about horsepower, driving performance and racing. I’m passionate about cars, and I’m passionate about the high value of design, but that doesn’t need to mean speed."
The idea that a good-looking car doesn’t mean a fast-looking car isn’t something that other car manufacturers have quite got their heads round (with the possible exception of Rolls-Royce), which gave Ingenlath a bit of a jump. "We consciously decided to move away from mainstream car design and not add any slashes or lines to the surfaces that make it look dynamic. We concentrated on creating something with substance in the proportions, not the detail, and you notice that on the road."
There’s no part of the V90 – or the XC90 and XC60, which are also Ingentlath’s creations – that expend any excess energy defining themselves, and that’s pretty much the only definition of cool you need.
It’s also a very Scandinavian philosophy, and one Ingenlath and his team consciously borrowed from fellow local producers like POC, Acne and even Absolut Vodka. "We don’t take direct inspiration, but are inspired by their philosophy."
Volvo’s philosophy has recently changed on a much more fundamental level, too – it’s pledged to stop the manufacture of petrol and diesel cars from 2019 in favour of electric and hybrid models, which will make it the first manufacturer to underline an end to traditional fossil fuel-powered engines. Ingenlath says, "Our core brand values will always be [focussed on] safety and Scandinavian design, but now Volvo has a stronger character. It was always on the edge of quirkiness, but we’re striving to create something desirable, characterful and on the shopping list. We are extremely proud of our interpretation of desirability and luxury, and it will carry Volvo into the future."
And it’s that completly unique interpretation of luxury that makes Volvo such a compelling proposition. The luxury is the proportions themselves. "We didn’t overload it or add a ridiculous line into the car to make it look dynamic. [Volvo] luxury is indulging in minimalism. It costs a price to do that," says Ingenlath.
Inside, there are traditional tropes like wood and leather, but the materials themselves are unpretentious. "We don’t aim to be too exclusive in the choice of our ingredients, but we want to present them in an exclusive way." The open pore wood trim, for example, was inspired by driftwood. "It’s not exclusive because it’s rare or expensive, but it’s very beautiful expression of nature and capturing it and working it into an automotive context is an expression of luxury and the Scandinavian experience.
When we explained this idea to [Chinese owners Geely], they said ‘oh God’ but they understood it when they saw it”, says Ingenlath.
Yet, there’s still decoration. All T8 twin engine versions of the XC90, S90, V90 and XC60 have a crystal gear knob, and both the S and V90 share its chrome switchgear. "The German companies I worked at would have seen such things as too much like décor. Decoration is not a negative word in Scandinavia, and that is where this sparkle comes in."
OK, so speed freaks and luxo geeks might not be ready to chop in their Ferraris and Bentleys for a Volvo just yet, and we’re not holding our breath for a tribute song. But that’s not to say that Ingenlath’s work hasn’t been anything short of revolutionary. Five years ago, Volvo was on the brink of oblivion, but it’s new generation of vehicles has interrupted the chain letter of received car design and delivered something truly unique. For the first time since The Saint’s P1800, Volvos are truly cool in their own right.