Will Volvo's S90 Become a Hollywood Hit?

Volvo S90 - H 2016
Michael Walker

Volvo S90 - H 2016

The automaker hopes its new luxury sedan will build on the success of the Swedish carmaker's XC90, the Motor Trend SUV of the Year and Truck of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show.

Gothenburg calling?

Swedish stalwart Volvo continues to shake off years of stagnation with winning new models — the ranch-saving 2016 XC90 was named Motor Trend's SUV of the year and the Truck of the Year at this week's Detroit auto show.

Now, Volvo's svelte S90 luxury sedan, unveiled in Detroit on Monday, is aimed at upping the brand's demographics and market share — currently 0.4 percent — while exploiting a chink in the armor of Jaguar, BMW, Audi and Mercedes: the challenged mid-level luxury sedan segment.

Sales of Mercedes-Benz's E-Class — slotted between the hot-selling C-Class and flagship S-Class — fell 25 percent last year. Mercedes debuted an aggressively updated E-Class sedan in Detroit this week loaded with cutting-edge tech that highlighted the increasing competitiveness in the high-margin luxury field — even within the ranks of a single company.

Given Hollywood's propensity for embracing cars of wonky provenance with sleek designs — here's looking at you Tesla Model S and BMW i3 — Volvo's S90 would seem a plausible contender to find a niche in the town's luxury car market, especially since, as a brand-new design, the S90 offers the luxury of scarcity once held by the now ubiquitous Model S. 

The S-90 is part of Volvo's plan to expand its offerings — seven new cars are planned through 2017 — using a scalable platform and an evolving design language, said Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo's director of design.

Volvo already possesses a robust autonomous program — it plans to have 100 fully autonomous vehicles on Swedish roads by the end of 2017 — but Ingenlath stressed the implementation would be gradual. 

"It will be a transition story, and that is where, bit by bit by bit, we have to adapt to the new functionality," Ingenlath told The Hollywood Reporter. "The main thing of course is the positive element of gaining time to do things other than steering." But self-driving technology has to evolve considerably before the driver and car can operate independently, he said. "In case of emergency you still have to be able to get into the loop."

Ingenlath joined Volvo in 2012 as part of the then-struggling carmaker's reinvention after suffering heavy losses — and former Scandinavian competitor Saab was dissolved. Tasked with making Volvo a plausible competitor amid global giants such as Ford, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, he focused on leveraging the cool credentials of timeless Scandinavian design. It was a tough sell at first.

"Two years ago I spent 80 percent of the interviews I was sitting in trying to convince people that the Scandinavian way of understated luxury will work," Ingenlath said, a design philosophy validated by the enthusiastic reception of the XC90.

Amid the expected Volvo-like austere woods and muted colors, the S90's design includes touches like a gleaming crystal gearshift lever. "Using crystal glass in a car interior could be seen as a tacky thing," Ingenlath acknowledged. "It's all in the way you do it. If we do chrome, we do it our, much more sophisticated way. We have our way of being different."

"The model of high-end luxury is about connoisseurship, it's about material quality, craftsmanship," Ingenlath added. "It's all about reduction: taking as many unnecessary elements away as possible and reducing it to the bare object."

Volvo has the luxury of experimenting because it is "not targeting a 50 percent market share," Ingenlath said. "We know our design will always be cherished by a certain mindset."

It will be instructive to see whether Hollywood's status buyers, who elevated Tesla to car of the moment, will embrace Volvo's hip minimalism.

The S90 goes on sale this summer. Pricing was not announced.