A major design overhaul is underway at Volvo – which last week became Ford’s sole remaining premium European car brand. Spearheaded by senior vice-president & design director Steve Mattin, the first real-world incarnation of this look – including a brand new logo to match – is the production XC60 shown at Geneva. But there’s much more to come. Guy Bird caught up with the British-born 43-year-old in Sweden to gauge his feelings about Ford’s relationship with Volvo, reveal secrets of the next S60 and a possible V30 too.

j-a: Given the news of Jaguar and Land Rover being sold and the rumours about Volvo, how do you feel about Ford now?
I think Ford understands what it has to do with Volvo as a brand. You’ve heard Ford CEO Alan Mulally clearly saying Volvo is moving to a more premium position and with two luxury brands disappearing there is only Volvo as a European luxury brand so Ford knows it has to invest. If you don’t invest short term you don’t get results long term. And all our products are global.

j-a: How are you moving Volvo’s brand values forward?
We know design is one of the key selling points of any premium brand but design didn’t used to be one of the three core values of Volvo. It was an attribute but it was never a fundamental part. Volvo has this ‘brand triangle’, with ‘safety’ at the top and ‘environmental care’ and ‘quality’ on the other corners but now in the middle of this pyramid we have ‘modern Scandinavian design’. This is where we can really differentiate. Being a fairly small company we need to attract people to the brand and make them aware of us.

j-a: So how will ‘modern Scandinavian design’ translate into future Volvos?
It’s something we’re developing now, if you look at what it was known as in the past, it was certainly about functionality and simplicity. We wanted to take that a step further and bring in an expressive element into modern Scandinavian design. Everyone knows it for the bent plywood chairs, very simple forms, but in Scandinavian architecture and some products, things are moving on and we want to be at the forefront. What’s missing is more subtlety and emotion. We want a little bit more complexity but without just being decorative, still having a reason for whatever we do.

One example is our new interior floating centre stack. Up until now it’s always been conventional in the sense of running parallel with the car line. We wanted to give it a twist by not only angling it towards the driver but also creating this asymmetrical shape that widens towards the top and adding refinement with a metal frame around it.

j-a: What are the design cues of Volvo?
It’s the shoulder line, the vertical front end, the V-shape of the hood, the truncated shape of the front end [when viewed from above]. We have a transverse engine so you’ve got a certain length of front overhang so you can chop off the corners in this way. If you have a very short front overhang you don’t need to. The proportions are different, and we need to emphasise that as much as possible to our advantage.   

A lot of carmakers tend to angle their front ends backwards to get a certain slope, but we keep our nose as vertical and as far forward as possible. There’s a certain dignity in this approach. You don’t want the emblem pointing up to the sky you want it to be proud, bold and angled towards whoever’s looking at it. It fixes a lot better in the framework grille when it’s vertical too.

j-a: How are you developing these cues?
One thing we’ve added on the XC60 is what we call ‘DNA lights’ to emphasise the grille’s verticality [and that act like single quotation marks on either side of it]. If you’ve got a very horizontal grille and headlamp you haven’t really got much to stand out from the competition. The idea is to have them as daytime and night time running lights so you can spot a Volvo coming down the street.

j-a: The XC60 looks curvier from the side too?
Fundamentally there will be a big shoulder line that sets us apart but we want to get a lot more subtlety and sensuality into the way we actually construct the exterior forms. What we tried with the XC60 is to have an undercut at the front that opens up and sprays out the shoulder at the rear – like a coke bottle. But it won’t necessarily become a distinctive part of every vehicle. Our ‘XC’ vehicles will have a slightly different character to our ‘S’ and ‘V’ ranges, some might be slightly cleaner and some, because of their volumes, will be more sculptural.

j-a: You redesigned the badge too. Did that idea ruffle feathers?
If there’s been a consistency in the emblem for 40 years, then suddenly you say I’m going to make it three times the size, throw away the box surround, expose it and stick it on a plinth, there is bound to be a shock factor. They either love it or hate it. Some people jumped on board straight away and some people said we need to be more conservative, we shouldn’t stand out on the market place, but that’s exactly what we need to do.

j-a: Do you think Volvo’s mixed sales results of late has created an openness to try something bolder?
That was clear. Once you’ve had an evolutionary DNA for a generation of vehicles it is time for the next step. That’s one of the reasons you bring someone in from the outside rather than just promote someone from the inside [Mattin joined Volvo in 2005 after 17 years at Mercedes-Benz]. It’s very easy from an external viewpoint to see the strengths and weaknesses and develop on them.      

j-a: So what is the new Volvo face about?
It’s saying look at me, I’m proud of what I am. I am respectable. We need to send a clear message that we are a premium brand moving higher up the segmentation. If you look at our past we’ve always had this understatement, which is very much connected to the Swedish mentality of never exaggerating anything. We need to break out of that and give a self-assured confident look that has maybe been missing. That’s maybe one of the reasons why our vehicles have blended into the streets and haven’t had the sort of impact we need. We’re putting a lot more emphasis on design, detailing and quality but without going being over-sporty or aggressive because that’s not part of the brand’s culture or values. At the end of the day Volvo is a car built for people – families are still our main customers.

j-a: What do Volvo’s future product plans hold?
If you look at the portfolio of our current range it’s clear to see where the gaps are and where we have expansion possibilities. We’ve seen there is a downsizing trend, and the XC60 is the starting point for downsizing the XC range. Our strengths are in the V and XC ranges. If you go into the coupe area and really sporty cars you are in the deep end with the Germans talking about performance and that’s not where we set our profile. But in the XC and V ranges where it’s about functionality and practicality you’ll certainly see expansion.

j-a: Is there room for a XC30 or V30 then?
We’re always looking at every opportunity. We have sketches of every option and are working quite intensively on full-size models on a couple of new programmes to fill some of those gaps but whatever you do has to have a business case behind it.

j-a: What about the S60?

The current model is an underachiever The next big design step is the new S60 in late 2009. The front is where we’ll really push the brand to make the visual difference.

j-a: But it will be a classic saloon, no?
Not exactly, it’s a lot more of a coupe profile compared to today’s car. But the different proportions of body to glass [like from the XC90 to the XC60] you’ll see a lot of that in our future products as well.

j-a: In five years’ time where do you see Volvo?
I think it will be a different brand and hopefully one people really get excited about from a design perspective, whereas today it’s maybe not on their radar screen.

In the past the typical cliché of a Volvo customer had 2.2 kids and a Golden Retriever – probably a music teacher – but we’re breaking out of that now. We’re seeing a lot of not only younger but also single people getting into our cars. They’re becoming cooler cars to own.

Guy Bird