Volvo: from boxy and boring to battery brilliance

Polestar 2
The all-electric Polestar 2, promising astonishing performance with zero emissions, goes into production next year

In the 1990 film Crazy People (probably a bit politically incorrect these days), Dudley Moore recruited a group of fellow patients in a psychiatric facility to create an honest advertising agency. One of the campaigns was for Volvo and the team of “creatives” came up with the line: “Buy Volvos - they’re boxy but they’re good.” It was a fabulous line, truthful and to the point. 

Being cleverly honest is not new for Volvo, with lines like: “The World’s Fastest Baggage Handler?” for its turbo estate, or “What to do when your family outgrows the Lotus”. Understandably though, it never used the term boxy. So its advertising was cool, its cars were not.

But in what has been a gutsy move by the automaker, Volvo has gone from being the nerd in the back of the class to the suave Swede playing the lead in the school play. But how exactly did it go from making the safest boxes on four wheels to what it is today, a company that has elegant interiors that would make Ikea jealous and its own electric car brand in the form of Polestar that is taking a direct aim at Tesla?

Things haven’t always been boxy. Think of the PV444 or the gorgeous P1800, the latter driven by Roger Moore as Simon Templar in The Saint and which Volvo described in an advert as: “It’s sort of a souped-down Ferrari.” There’s that honest advertising again.

Volvos don’t get much cooler than the old P1800

But in the mid-1960s, the Swedish company must have enticed a designer from a shoe box company because it all went rather square with the 140 series. Safe obviously, this is Volvo, but square. Things continued to be so square, in fact, that the 740 estate was one of the only estate cars ever made that could fit a standard EU regulation pallet in the back - take that, Ford Transit.

While the perception was that Volvos were typically boxy, beige and loved by accountants in brown suits, square did not necessarily mean boring. Who can ever forget the 240 turbo achieving reasonable success on the race track, but it was the 850 estate in the 90s that actually made boxy cool when it was entered in the scintillating British Touring Car Championship. Sadly, the estate did not fare too well on track, but it did a marvellous marketing job and in 1995 they switched to the saloon which won four races that season. The 850R, with its 257bhp and a sprint to 62 mph of just 6.9 seconds, made accountants look cool.

Along the road, Volvo also tried to be different with its 480ES in 1986, a wedge-shaped hatch that had pop-up headlights. It wasn’t a sports car, more of an alternative to the numerous Fords and Vauxhalls. It hung around until the mid-90s while more traditionally square executive models like the 740 and 960 were being driven by middle-managers who didn’t want a BMW or a Mercedes.

Fantastic US period advertising for the Volvo 242

Then the S40 came along and things started to change, initially under the ownership of Ford which pulled Volvo into its Premier Automotive Group along with Aston Martin. Volvo introduced the C70, a convertible coupé, to show it could do fun, slightly. Executive models like the S60 and S80 developed curves and when the C30 arrived with its sporty looks and optional R-Design package, it featured a floating centre console that you could have in trendy veneers. Volvo had turned its baseball cap back to front and was getting with it.

Things then went full skateboard park when Chinese automaker Geely took over Volvo in 2010. Sceptics of the deal have been proven wrong with a bunch of new models from the XC90 SUV to the top-selling XC60. Volvo has just launched the S60 saloon to join the larger S90 and the urban trendsetter XC40 took the coveted European Car of the Year title last year. 

They all feature elegant, stylish and simple Swedish interiors with touches like a small Swedish flag on the side of the seats. You can stream Spotify or some other music service through the Sensus infotainment system, check the weather or even in some cases have you shopping delivered to the boot of your car. It’s all rather cool, and safe of course; we are still talking Volvo, after all.

Volvo entered 850 estates in the British Touring Car Championship. They weren't that successful on the track, but it was a stroke of marketing genius

But if you want to be really cool then you need to have batteries, not just batteries but batteries and performance. Enter Polestar, which started out as Volvo’s answer to BMW’s M tuning division and Mercedes’ AMG go-faster brigade. It never quite matched its German rivals, which had something of a head start, so it’s trying something different, performance electric vehicles (EV). 

Its first electric car, the Polestar 1, is not a fully electric car though, it’s a hybrid coupé with serious performance numbers and a production run of just 500. Volvo’s push into the world of pure battery-electric begins with the Polestar 2 which it showed at the Geneva motor show in March and which goes into production early in 2020. 

According to Jonathan Goodman, chief operating officer at Polestar, it won’t necessarily be the technology that sets Polestar apart though, it will be the way you can use that technology to have some fun.

The Swedish company's badge incorporates the old chemical symbol for iron - but these days the brand is so much more than any old iron

“What I think will set us apart is a combination of the drivetrain with the chassis. The racing heritage of Polestar as a brand in the past has given us real expertise in the chassis tuning and set-up and I think that in that respect we are going to have cars that are going to be great quality cars with 400bhp but a great balance and set-up in terms of the chassis. That driveability is going to be one of the things that is going to set us apart.”

It sounds cool and, let’s be honest, the car looks cool, too. But, like Tesla, if you want to make an impact you have to be different, disruptive. There will be Polestar Spaces in major urban centres, simple boutique showrooms with Swedish style and no stock outside that a sales person has to shift to meet target. But Goodman says most of the business will be done online, from browsing to speccing, ordering and later arranging servicing, because online is where the cool kids play. 

And that is what Volvo has become, a cool kid. It’s wielded Thor’s Hammer, chucked away its boxy reputation and with Polestar is ambitious about its role in the battery revolution that’s heading the world’s way. It’s a very ballsy move for the Swedish brand, but one which we’re sure the suave Simon Templar would approve of - and he was definitely cool.

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