Fascinating first morning in Shanghai, where Volvo is ramping up to the unveil of its Concept Universe tomorrow. We’ve just had a briefing from Peter Horbury, Volvo’s head of design - and from what he’s saying, the jumbo concept (a full five metres long) is likely to be one of the talking points of the Chinese show.
Why? Because it's likely to really challenge everyone's perception of Volvo. “We could easily have done another three-box, generic sedan,” said Horbury, “but we’ve been brave enough not to copy the others. This is no Mercedes, BMW or Audi. And it’s different enough for us to ask if it will be accepted. That’s what will happen at Shanghai; we will have people on the stand, discreetly asking those who see the car, ‘Do you think this could be a Volvo?’”
Volvo’s problem is that it desperately wanted - needed - to sell cars in China, even before it was taken over by Geely. It sold 30,500 vehicles here last year, and wants to shift 200,000 per year by 2015.
But the firm’s marketing bods acknowledge that Chinese buyers are still going through a phase of ‘conspicuous consumption’, where you want your neighbour to know how much money you earn. And what are commonly regarded as Scandinavian luxury values - understatement, simplicity - don’t really sit with a market that’s keen on bling.
By the sounds of it, the Universe is a car that will try, in Volvo’s own way, to trigger an emotional response from Chinese buyers. The cabin won’t be shown at the show, but we were told today that porcelain is among the materials used in its detailing. And that the rear cabin is in a different colour to the front, to enhance the experience for those sitting in the back (another potential nod to China, where the ‘chauffeured’ market remains huge).
No visuals have been released yet (the sketch shown above is one of the early conceptual drawings from project designer Jonathan Disley). But to give you an idea of what could be coming, at this morning’s presentation there were numerous mentions of Volvo’s PV544.
This is likely to be a car, then, which looks back into Volvo’s heritage - beyond 1970s boxiness - and tries to find its next future. A big leap indeed - can’t wait to see it.