Things might not happen fast. It took half a decade for Geely’s influence on Volvo to become evident to the public after the Chinese company bought the Swedish car maker in 2010.
But when the new XC90 landed in 2015, it became evident that Volvo and Geely were a pairing disinclined to mess about. The XC90 will be the oldest model in Volvo’s range in just two years’ time. With advanced platform sharing and streamlined powertrain design, Volvo is going places, and fast. The mood is light, its executives are happy and energised, and Volvo is a modest company, performing well. Last year it sold more cars than ever before despite having an unfinished range, and the likelihood is that, by the end of the decade, it will sell 800,000 cars a year.
Don’t mistake its modesty for a lack of ambition or direction, either. It intends that nobody should be killed in any Volvo made after 2020, and is “quite sure” that the diesel engine “cannot help” once it needs to make cars that produce 95g/km of CO2 or less without high NOx figures.
And so, then, to Lotus, which Geely has just required a controlling stake in. Those words – happy, energised, ambitious, decisive – are not ones I’d necessarily have related to Hethel employees when I’ve spoken to them lately. It’s not that there aren’t people there who could be all of those things, but with a struggling parent company like Proton, life is never going to be easy, which is why a lot of its talented engineers have moved elsewhere.
Lotus returned profits last year, it’s true. Remarkable enough, but it came against a background of little money spent on investment and fewer staff than it needs if it’s to rebuild its range. Lotus has been bumbling along, desperately needing great new cars to sell: the remarkable Elise has been a stalwart but, like an ageing athlete, you can’t keep calling on it forever. It isn’t expensive enough to return big profits, either. The Evora is, but it isn’t nearly good enough.
So while Lotus has occasionally had money thrown at it, and usually had great engineers, it has always been short of something. Sometimes money, sometimes the leadership to make sure it builds cars people want, sometimes both. There is no shortage of car makers currently proving that, and if you make a desirable car with a desirable badge, people will buy it. And folk would buy Lotuses, if it only gave them a reason to do so.
What Lotus needs, then, is that energy Geely has given to Volvo - both the drive and the investment. I guess we’ll find out over the coming months whether Geely thinks it can afford to be as hands-off as it seems to have been with Volvo after the course has been set. But my guess is it’ll be a few years before we see how well that path has been steered. Hopefully, this time, at long last, everything will come good for Lotus.