If you’ve read the news lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that Volvo has killed the combustion engine. No, not quite, but you can’t blame the company for blowing its own trumpet a little.
Given the past year, and the risk of being labelled a traitor or enemy of the people, we’d wonder if any organisation would be truly happy about making the front cover of the Daily Mail. But that’s exactly what Volvo got on Thursday, along with sizeable coverage in the The Times and The Guardian. The reaction on social media was slightly more mixed, with many pointing out that the newspapers and other had massively misunderstood the announcement by Volvo. This wasn’t ‘pure electric cars only’ as a strategy, and manufacturers like Lexus already offer hybrids across their model range.
Perhaps there was a, justifiable, element of resentment from other brands, that Volvo has stolen so much of the headlines with this announcement. For a carmaker to be on the front page of multiple newspapers and not to have done something wrong – Volkswagen – is rather rare. But that is exactly what Volvo achieved yesterday. Granted many mainstream journalists got completely the wrong end of the stick, and believed Volvo would banish the internal combustion engine completely by 2019. However, we imagine Volvo’s PR department were still rather pleased with the coverage all the same.
The truth is virtually all major manufacturers are going to need to further embrace hybrid and electric vehicles, in order to meet the EU’s 2021 target of fleet CO2 emissions averaging no more than 95g/km. That’s quite a tall order, and therefore the more ultra-low and zero-emissions cars a manufacturer has, the lower their overall fleet CO2 average. This is why Volvo is not dispensing with internal combustion in 2019, but merely ensuring it becomes a smaller part of their model range and, where still offered, includes some form of hybrid system to further reduce CO2 outputs.
What Volvo has said, is that in the future there will be no cars produced by the brand that are solely powered by an internal combustion engine. That runs the full gamut of ideas, from a complete battery-powered electric vehicle, to plug-in hybrid, and then mild-hybrid. The latter consists of a 48v system, replacing the starter motor and alternator with one single electric motor, and allows for the engine to shutdown and coast, whilst regenerating power under braking. The vast majority of the power in a mild-hybrid still comes from an internal combustion engine, but the hybrid system will still help the car chip away at CO2 emission levels.
So no, it isn’t the end of days for burning fossil fuels, but it is a superb play by Volvo to gain a great deal of media focus – whether intentional or not. It’s the move of a company which clearly seems very confident. Under Geely’s ownership Volvo is flourishing, with the latest products like the XC90 SUV and S90 saloon winning widespread acclaim. Put it this way; if you had told us in 2010 that a Volvo estate would be one of the best cars we would drive this year, we’d have laughed. A lot. However, in 2017, it’s true – and we’re not even talking about a Polestar branded product.
So we’ve been seduced by the new products offered by Volvo, but the current marketing strategy is also appealing in a rather unorthodox manner. Take the recent ‘Human Made’ advert, for instance:
This doesn’t feel like a normal car advert. For a start, despite cars being present throughout, they somehow only feel like part of the story, rather than the main focus. Instead the ‘lifestyle’ – but not in a cheesy windsurfing or rock climbing way – is the key to it, painting a stereotypical idea of Scandinavian life. It also adds that slight feeling of hygge which, albeit a Danish and Norwegian word, means cosiness, safety and order. It’s meant to make you feel good, and it’s meant to cement that position of Volvo as a maker of premium vehicles.
Clearly it’s a strategy that is working, as the latest global sales figures show an increase in Volvo sales by 8.2% of the first six months of the year, compared to 2016. Some 277,641 buyers have got that little warm feeling of smugness since January this year, with the UK taking 24,519 cars alone. The biggest increases, and overall sales, have come from China where Volvo produces cars locally.
This is a world away from where Volvo languished under Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, with the firm running at a loss and requiring a sizeable Swedish government bailout in 2008 as the global recession hit. Contrast that today with impressive new models and a financial performance displaying a clear profit. Oh, and also being recognised as an ethical company by the Etisphere Institute – but take from that what you will, given that Starbucks and M&S were given the same honour…
So let’s be clear. Volvo will still be building and selling cars with internal combustion engines in 2019, and for as long as the model cycles last for those cars. The sky is not falling, petrol and diesel have not been banished from the earth, and increased electrification and hybridisation are something almost all manufacturers will be doing. It’s just that Volvo have been very clever in telling the world what they are going to be doing over the next few years. So if that means more things like the XC90 T8 Twin Engine, we’re more than ok with that.