The Shoe(s) Finally Drop
In writing, analogies help us mortar-together our often awkward brick-piles of facts and observations. And when a car designer tries his hand with analogies, you know he’s likely to tell it using props as well.
Volvo‘s senior vice president of design, Thomas Ingenlath, stood in front of a pair of narrow, white tables, with little white sheets covering whatever was resting on them. What’s his story going to be? And what are those small lumps under the sheets?
Smiling, he described premium brands traditionally approach the problem of fashioning a family of cars in different sizes: make the middle one identical to the biggest, but scaled down. Then—and no, this is not very clever—shrink the smallest one even further. With a whip of his hand, off went one of the little sheets to reveal three pairs of identical, polished black dress shoes. Except for their decreasing sizes and the dropping numbers above each pair—”90,” “60,” and “40.” This, Ingenlath explained, is not how Volvo is approaching its two upcoming model ranges, the still-secret XC60 and the two 40-series concepts we were about to see. As an analogy guy, I was getting excited.
With a flourish, the other sheet flew off. There’s the same big handsome dress shoe again under the “90” (if the shoe fits, well, you know.) However this time its “60” companion is more casual footwear—still nicely styled, but more relaxed. A lower heel; the top stitched from more breathable, open-pore leather. But next to that, below the “40” number?
A fancy white leather sneaker. I gasped. Then the sheets came off two white concepts cars labeled 40.1 and 40.2. The first is a crossover, though Volvo calls it a small SUV (the driver’s eye-perch is too lofty to be confused with mere vertically-puffed sedans). The other, the 40.2, is an unusually tall, liftback sedan. We expected this 40.1, with the production Volvo XC40 probably already in the pipeline toward an on-sale date later in 2017. But the 40.2 had us covering our mouths in surprise. Nobody knew about this one.
Both concepts resonate more with rock-climbing than tennis, more paddle-boarding than sailing. And way, way, younger drivers. Unlike the beveled, somber grace of the XC90 and the S90, the 40.1 and 40.2 are stark, fractured ice sculptures. With cleaved flanks and intense Thor’s Hammer LED headlights; war-paint black-and-white faces and fat taillights that look like they were paint-rollered on. The shoulder lines are impossibly high and scary sharp-edged; the concave light-catchers above the rocker panels look like blunt impressions from a 2×4; the 40.1’s black-plastic roof extension is half the size of a trash can lid. Though they’re festooned with Volvo design cues, you’ll never ever walk past them in the Neiman Marcus lot wondering, goodness gracious, wherever did I leave it? Later at dinner, we were asked which concept we liked better—most hands raised for the tall sedan, though Volvo’s priority (naturally) is the SUV.
Do I like them? Mostly. I like the audacity and crazy machete sculpting. But I’m not so sure about either car’s C-pillar. The 40.1’s roof appears to have declared war on its C-pillar and the 40.2’s reminds me too much of a startled Kia Optima.
Beneath the battling bodywork is the much talked-about CMA (Compact Modular Architecture) that’s a downsized version of the SPA (Scalable Product Architecture) of the 60- and 90-series cars. There’s a lot of similarity between their suspensions though the CMA’s is simplified, swapping coils for fiberglass leafs for its struts in front and multi-link in the rear. But our focus here was on Volvo’s electrified drivetrains.— Indeed, Volvo repeatedly stressed that CMA is “designed for electrification” and figures that the slide in battery costs—the automaker is predicting a 50 percent decline in price and volume by 2021 will virtually doom its diesel sales before long.
The jewel-like, plug-in, T5 Twin Engine drivetrain is delightful to ponder: a 180-hp, turbocharged, 1.5-liter inline-three, a seven-speed dual (wet) clutch transmission, plus a 67-hp electric motor strapped to one of the shafts (holding gears 2,4, 6, and reverse); Volvo claims about 250 hp for the entire system. If both clutches are open, the XC40 can drain its center-tunnel’s 9.7 kW-hr battery as an EV, giving a Euro-test exaggerated 31 miles (50 km); expect a lower EPA-rated range. Or in hybrid mode, the motor can put its shoulder into things alongside the engine. Cuckoo clock fans will particularly delight in the engine’s access to all seven gears while the motor is limited to the three on its shaft. It’s still a good thing, though, for keeping the motor in an efficient speed range. At the moment, a rear electric motor isn’t being considered; AWD is available only with a conventional, four-cylinder drivetrain. Still, it’s not inconceivable that the three-cylinder could later migrate into a 60-series car.
Along with SPA, Volvo has crafted two, very efficient and properly scaled automobile platforms from just about the minimum imaginable building blocks. And it’s a simple motto they intend to whistle for a while: When asked about growing the lineup into a convertible, for instance, the answer was unerringly a flat, Swedish “We’re only five years into our rebirth as a company. First, we have to establish our core product line.”
However by 2021, that lineup will include a full-blown EV version of the CMA, too, with a battery suitably expanded for a 217-mile (349-km) (again, Euro-exaggerated) range. Asked where that bigger battery will go, the answer was “under here,” pointing beneath the chassis, which might raise the car by a little over an inch. It gets vaguer: “Which end will the motor be on?” “Maybe the front, maybe the back.” Fast-charging stations? “That’s not something we’re fully in charge of.” Swedish humor, maybe. It’s obviously early days for this car which will be following the higher-profile SPA-based EV in 2019, with a much longer range.
What’s certain, though, is Volvo’s all-in attitude toward electrification. Eventually, the CMA cars are expected to grow to about a third of its total sales. That will become a big part of Volvo’s push of increasing sales from 500,000 to 800,000 cars per year, and its target to manufacture 1,000,000 electrified drivetrains by 2025.
Those are some big numbers to be chasing. Fortunately, Volvo’s got a cool pair of white leather sneakers that it’s already lacing up.