Tuesday, December 18, 2012

FTFY Files: Volvo

Somewhere in the years leading up to The Great Financial Gaming, Volvos became beautiful.  The stunning and short-lived Peter Horbury-designed C30 coupe and Pininfarinaesque C70 convertible mark the recent beginning of the end of function-over-form Swedish boxcars.  The current fleet challenges Audi for sheer no-gimmicks beauty.

But all is not well in the land of the manic-depressive sun.  Ford's ownership tenure turned edges into curves and shrank staid midsize Volvo platforms to the nimbler, svelter compact Focus-derived C1 chassis but also introduced piggish trucky things to the line.  Current Chinese master Geely Holding is mulling over yet another brand refocusing, at once shaking its head over the slow-moving SUV line while considering a larger, more expensive Volvo sedan for the Chinese prestige market.

This Unhumble Car Czar does not pretend to understand brand perception in China, but does know that what China covets in automobiles increasingly dictates what the rest of the world drives. This is not due to any vast Communist plot, but rather because China continues to modernize and multiply despite baby quotas and has enough bucks in the bank to bolster, buy-up, and just plain make or break faltering established automotive brands. 

The Chinese reverence for the tri-shields of Buick surely saved that once and future iconic American luxury brand as General Motors flamed out under decades of mismanagement, leaving the once-muscled-up but lately unloved plastic-clad Pontiac brand to perish.  Volvo's reputation for solidity and safety earned it adoption papers from the world’s emerging economic powerhouse while the sheer clownishness of the Hummer brand earned it nothing but a one-night flirtation and walk-of-shame into oblivion.

So what to do with a brand with a once-well-loved market identity clouded by a decade of big-box marketing schizophrenia?

#1. Remember your Corporate Memory
As in, “Hey Volvo.  What’s made you special after all these years?”
Well, you are usually more reliable than other European brands, which makes you worth more money than, say, a VW ... and a screaming bargain compared to, say, an Audi.  You usually eschew the inane trendy overcomplications of the trying-too-hard premium German brands, which makes you cost less money than, say, a Mercedes.  You have happy, decades-loyal owners in the multi-million-mile club.  You come up all stars on those government smash-up tests.

In other words, you’ve built solid, practical cars that that make a compelling case for costing a little more than American or Asian snoozemobiles but you’ve never attempted to social-climb with the bleeding-edge bankruptcymobiles.  You've spent your existence plowing your corporate mission into keeping your customers safe while your peers have in many cases depended on lawsuits to reinforce this value.

There will always be a market segment that profoundly appreciates that.

#2: Think about the Future

SUVs are practical for small parts of the market segment.  Their short-lived market stardom was sheer trendiness, but now the only trend-setters driving them around are leftover soccer moms who can’t afford to trade in.  Volvo: Ditch your XC line, and consider ditching all-wheel drive altogether.

You’ll be left with quick, sensible front-wheel-drivers, and their sensible drivers will be better served by modern snow/ice tires when the weather turns truly intractable.  All-wheel drive adds weight that defeats fuel economy and complexity that defeats the long-term cost-of-ownership advantages of a Volvo.  Sensible drivers in sensible front-wheel-drivers simply don’t benefit from it.

Next, bring the V40 to the United States.  It’s your gorgeous C30 with two extra doors and one extra seat, all of which will make it a sales smash this time around if you base under 30k with a turbo four or five rocking 220 HP.  Former compact SUV intenders will snap it up as more of them realize they were just sitting up higher and listing left and right more before. 

Bring the V70 back to the U.S for those who need to haul more stuff or people.  The third-row jump seat should address those buyers who were only buying large SUVs for occasional extra passengers.

Where does this leave the S60 and 80?  Merged, from a marketing standpoint.  Except for the slightly tighter rear seat and trunk, the S60 eliminates the need for the S80.  How’s ‘bout a single sedan that competes in the C/E range for those markets that favor sedans?  Make a wagon out of it in markets where wagons work.

You should be able to accomplish this compact/midsize line strategy with just two platforms, or consider a single scalable platform ala VW.

Meanwhile let the Chinese Volvo market experiment with big executive Volvos if they insist.  Maybe long-wheelbase luxo $200k Volvos will fly off the showrooms in Shanghai some day, but until then just get back to doing what you do best in the rest of the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

From Our Boxier Boxster Files: MKVII Volkswagen GTI

What has the power-to-weight ratio of a Porsche Boxster and twice the seating-plus-one at half the price? Why the new MKVII Volkswagen GTI, seen haring around Berlin recently and coming to a showroom near you ... but as always in the U. S. of A., not soon enough.

VeeDub's newly larger, lighter, more powerful People's Sturm & Drang & Left & Righter marched before a critical crowd of dour continentals in the city of beer by the yard: dour possibly because of the early sales success of Ford's boy-racier Focus ST or the coming onslaught of FWD competitors from Mercedes and BMW ... or dour just because this is Germany, where cracking a smile in public is two social infraction levels below picking your nose.

Considering the Focus ST has been expertly styled for the Fast & Furious crowd and the policemen who tail them and considering that competing German marques will reliably find ways to price themselves out of the sales segment, VW might work some grins into its sales forecasts after all.

There was nothing wrong with the old car that a better U.S. dealer service network couldn't fix, so for now stateside early adopters have a bigger, lighter, more-balanced car to consider along with the same long-term ownership variables as days gone by.

The new car should be ever-so-more chuckable after the diet (aluminum roof and more high-strength steel) and redistributed pooch (the engine sits closer to CG). A minor horsepower bump and major torque swell (to 258 Audi A3esque ft-lbs) should allow MKVII of the world's favorite people's punch-in-the-atmosphere to parry well with its upstart hot hatch competition.

According to Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn, VW plans to overthrow Ford and Toyota as the world's largest car maker within the decade.

German auto execs often state grand things in very plain language, whether you're talking Juergen Schrempp having a laugh over his clever ruse in the Daimler-Chrysler Merger of (non- ... ha ha ...) Equals or Winterkorn telling the world that VW is going to take over the world by 2019.

GTI Gen VII looks to be a great conversation opener for that world domination discussion. Let's raise a double dopplebock to the hope that reliability and a capable dealership network in the U.S. figure into the plan.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Swan Song for a Sexy Swede

Drop a silky-smooth shrieky Swedish turbocharged inline five onto a Ford Focus chassis and swaddle it in crushable Scandinavian art and you get a Volvo C30: a hot hatch priced like a GTI that always ran with a different crowd.

A quick coupe that played the no muss, no fuss sophisticate to the bare-knuckled parking cone terrors from other makers, preferring to waft down motorways effortlessly and carve curves with a breath of body roll before tightening up and slingshotting through. An automotive Venus de Milo that made public art wherever it was parked, a location which was increasingly "unsold on the dealership lot" -- hence all the past tense here -- artwork increasingly curated and maintained by guys who chain smoke and wear penny loafers and Hawaiian shirts to work.

It's hard to tell whether the broad-shouldered body sculpting that demanded middle-rear-seat-robbing capacity killed this three-door coupe or corporate safety culture that demanded the inboard location of just two rear seats for occupant protection instead of trying to squeeze three like everybody else. Choose the excuse from either marketing department or just admit it was hard to get in back there. Or admit that this small Euro hatchback capable of the same track numbers as the original Porsche Boxster might have been more successful had it been marketed to the two-seater crowd, which never expects much in the way of cargo space and would be grateful for the two extra hard-to-get-to seats if also ungrateful for the fixed roof overhead.

History will conduct the autopsy: Aztek or Ghia.

As your unhumble car czar votes the latter, get one while you can if you don't need five seats. Just ignore the balloons and free popcorn and check the ashtrays before you drive off.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Brief State of the Car Czar Address

It's been three years since your UnHumble Car Czar appointed himself the nation's car czar during the confusion of a socio-economic-upheaval. No drone strikes means the boss approves.

Issuing edicts to large corporations in a blog has gone well to-date, with the following blog-and-you-shall-receive orders filled:

Industry: Don't Fall for the Smug Car (I am the Car Czar, 1/3/2009)
Industry: Leave the Hummer in the Ditch (I am the Car Czar, 1/3/2009)
Car and Driver: Heal Thyself (I am the Car Czar, 1/10/2009)
BMW: Not Rocker Buttons ... Paddle Shifters (I am the Car Czar, 1/31/2009)
Wendy's: We Want English with That (I am the Car Czar, 12/16/2009)
Chevrolet: Drop a Z06 Engine in a Corvette Convertible (I am the Car Czar, 3/15/2011)

Visit this page infrequently for updates.

Still working on getting Brian Barnhardt out of racing and mandatory plaid seats out of reasonably-priced GTIs.