PICTURE a Volvo.

You’re imagining a boxy, full-sized station wagon, right? Well, that classic shape has long been gone, but it’s about to make a modern comeback.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Volvo was America’s top-selling European import brand — and the first to surpass the milestone 100,000 annual sales figure. At a time when domestic manufacturers were beginning to abandon the traditional wagon market, wagons routinely made up one-third of Volvo’s sales, more so in such top markets as the Northeast or the coastal West.

Yet, as Volvo began to get trounced in American sales in the late 20th century by more upscale and sporty imports such as BMW AG and by more refined ones like Toyota Motor Corp’s Lexus, the brand decided it needed to ditch this utilitarian heritage in favour of a move up-market. This meant adding more sensuous curves and luxury features to its vehicles, as well as expanding into the burgeoning Crossover/sports utility vehicle (SUV) market. The company even, for a brief period of time, entirely ceased to sell wagons in the United States in the late aughts.

THE BOX IS BACK?

This summer, Volvo will release an all-new, handsome, full-size V90 wagon and an all-wheel-drive V90 Cross Country. They will join its mid-size V60 and V60 Cross Country in an expanded wagon lineup (in North America), even though those earlier models made up only 7.5 per cent of the brand’s sales last year.

The Cross Country will be available on dealer lots, but the V90 will be attained only through special online order. Volvo recommends flying to Sweden to take delivery — enjoy the free trip, with a friend, on Volvo — or they’ll gladly just ship it to your local dealer.

Why did Volvo continue to feed wagons to its customers, when the vehicles accounted for only one per cent of all its American car sales in 2015? First, wagon buyers tend to be the most affluent of any category; luxury brands, especially such striving luxury brands as Volvo, covet the opportunity to be loved by upscale consumers, which helps reinforce an insider message of discerning taste. Call it Stealth Wealth.

Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, the only other current exporter of large wagons to the US, confirms that the average household income for its E-Class Estate is the highest of any vehicle category it sells, though, as with Volvo, it’s nowhere near Mercedes’s most expensive vehicle. “They’re bought by people that can afford a lot more,” said Ciccolo of Volvo wagons. “But they’re not ostentatious.”

Second, Volvo wagon owners are among the brand’s most dedicated customers — advocates and ambassadors of key importance in luring consumers from competitive brands. “There are Volvo customers generally, and then the wagon customer is a unique subset of that,” said 26-year-old Thomas McIntyre-Schultz, who works in Volvo’s social media team and is the owner of a 2004 Volvo V70R wagon. “They tend to be our most passionate enthusiasts.”

LOYAL VOLVO OWNERS

This is certainly the case for 61-year-old Massachusetts banker Dick Anderson, who has serially owned 15 Volvo wagons over the past 25 years. “I’m interested in cars. I know what the competition offers. But at this point I wouldn’t even consider buying anything else,” said Anderson. “I am a loyalist.”

What is it that Volvo wagons offer this category of upscale consumer? “I think it is the versatility, the driveability, and there is some eco-friendliness to it,” said Anderson, explaining that the wagon’s environmental impact was far less than that of a big sport utility vehicle.

More important is the message the vehicle sends — or the one it doesn’t send — to peers and neighbours.

“I think it says you’re a thinking person. You think about safety. You think about value for your dollar, and you’re willing to spend for quality,” said Anderson. But the wagon isn’t flashy: “It’s quiet and substantial. It’s kind of like, I’m a player, but I don’t need to show off. I’m a thinking person, but I don’t need to prove it.”

STATION WAGONS WILL RISE

This niche, yet profitable, market has induced other manufacturers to jump into (or back into) the category here in America. Audi AG has just introduced its new A4 Allroad. Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc’s Jaguar brand just confirmed that its XF Sportbrake Estate will reach the US this year. Porsche AG’s Panamera Sport Turismo wagon should arrive around the same time, along with GM’s Buick Regal TourX, a rebadged version of a wagon sold in Europe by former General Motors Co subsidiary Opel, now owned by Groupe PSA.

The vintage wagon market appears to be heating up as well. Over the past five years, wagon registrations with classic car insurance leader Hagerty have shot up 1,400 per cent, nearly doubling in the past year alone. Vehicles from Chevrolet and Ford Motor Co lead the pack, but Volvo’s are just behind them, and the classic 240 wagon of the 1970s to the 1990s — of which over a million were made — are the brand’s top contender.

They’re part of a renaissance in collecting, as they tend to be owned by people aged 30 to 50, the next key generation of classic car collectors. Expect the 240s’ value to go up soon.

Many classic Volvo fanatics think the brand has turned too smooth in recent years, creating a wagon line that looks like any other. They also quibble with pricing, and they’re not shy about expressing concern, via social media, that the brand has gone too upscale with its latest entry: The V90 Cross Country is a US$55,000 (RM233,750) wagon that can practically drive itself.

“We have plenty of people who are upset about basically everything we make,” said McIntyre-Shultz. But as a classic wagon fan, he takes another approach. “The V90 is obviously different than other Volvo wagons from the past, but it definitely doesn’t disrupt that heritage,” he said. “It’s just another component you’re adding to that personality. Personally, I love the luxury features. To have a practical wagon that also gives me ventilated seats and a panoramic moon roof and 360 camera, that sounds awesome to me.” -- Bloomberg

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