Why the Volvo XC90 changed the modern face of Volvo

Published: 26 August 2014

Volvo is a brand that’s quietly undergone some serious change in recent years. From a purveyor of boxy practicality through an attempt to inject some R-flavoured, BTCC-hooning sporting excitement; from a Swedish outpost of the Ford empire to Chinese ownership. Volvo’s seen it all over these past three decades.

I’d argue that one model has done more to recalibrate the brand than any other in recent times. Forget the wedgy 480 ES, the tyre-scrabbling 850 R and the more sophisticated aesthetic ushered in by the broad-shouldered Peter Horbury era S60. Scando-fans everywhere, I present: the XC90 crossover.

Why the Volvo XC90 was a game changer for Volvo 

The Volvo XC90 arrived in 2002 like a breath of fresh air, a prescient sign of the automobile adapting to customers’ changing needs.

It was identifiably a Volvo – the bulging shoulder lines, charismatic rear lights and sense of solidity all present and correct – but advanced the Swedish brand’s DNA in a zeitgeisty way. It was taller and more upright for the now-popular 4×4 vibe, but you wouldn’t mistake it for anything other than a sensible Volvo.

The clever thing about the XC90 was how it built on the brand’s pillars: it was wholesome family transport and still had safety at its core, but introduced a style that was absent on generations of set-square upright estates.

The XC90 was the perfect riposte to the wantonly function-over-form Volvo 144, 245, 740, 940 boxiness. Even its latest estate, the 850, was styled like the Tate Modern.

Forget the Qashqai – it was Volvo who reformed family transport

Five years before the widely lauded Nissan Qashqai, Volvo launched into the family-friendly crossover market (albeit at a more expensive, less accessible premium price point). And while the likes of the contemporary BMW X5 and Mercedes M-class came with five seats only, the XC90 introduced seven seats as standard.

To children of the 1970s raised on rear-facing pop-up boot seats in the back of a Volvo estate, the extra pair of chairs – facing the correct way – was a revelation for their children.

Sales grew correspondingly and the XC90 became a byword for stout, middle-class values. Just look outside the gates of schools in affluent areas to see how finely attuned the Volvo is to the needs of Middle England.

Which is why the XC has survived as long as it has. At 12 years old and counting, it practically has grey hair and a pensioner pass. But even after a decade on sale, Volvo was still finding 5000 UK buyers for its XC90 each year. Admittedly, they are now attracted by whopping discounts to attract buyers in the crossover’s dotage. The XC90 rarely bothered the best-in-class for driving manners or road tester appeal.

The new 2014 Volvo XC90 – due to be unveiled later today – can’t come soon enough. And it’ll be interesting to see whether it can propel Volvo back near the top of the family transport lists.

Come back to CAR Online to see the new XC90 for the first official pictures.

By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet

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