How to Ace/Flub a Product Launch : Volvo’s XC90 and Its 240 in the Automotive Press

The new XC90 in a fetching white.
The new XC90 in a fetching white.

Volvo’s new XC90 has been receiving rave reviews in the press. I use the word “press” loosely, because the plush life of a top-notch automotive journalist often involves being ferried all over the world to test new models in great style; this type of event usually features a generous free bar, and is known in the biz as a “press junket.” The idea is to not-so-subtly influence the deliberations of the automotive writer.

I’ve been paying attention to reviews of the new XC90 because it is an incredibly important car for Volvo, as their first new model since the obscure but deep-pocketed Chinese conglomerate Geely purchased the company from Ford for $1.8b in 2010 and proceeded to invest $11B in product development.

Looking at the reviews, I’ve noticed similarities that make it clear that some of these journos are paraphrasing right from the press release. This is a case of journalists telling the story their subjects want them to. Granted, Volvo paid for it: one blog candidly stuck this disclaimer in at the end of their review: “Volvo provided Design Milk airfare, lodging, and meals for attendance of this press event” which other reviewers notably omitted even though they attended the same press event. As Design Milk averred, “Volvo flew out groups of automotive, design, and lifestyle journalists to an empty seaside town off the coast of Tarragona, Spain, turning a whole resort into one giant Volvo showroom.”

The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk
The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk

It would be nice if the other blogs and magazines were more transparent about the swag they get from car companies. This is not just important to car nuts like me. If it is possible to get honest, objective reportage about something, then let’s do that: the truth is good, where’er it be found. When, ten years down the road, people like me can afford a car like the XC90, it would be great to look back at an honest review or two before making the decision to buy. As it is, you often don’t hear about a car’s worst traits until it’s being compared negatively with the model that replaces it several years later. You can’t blame the auto journalists for this, really: they need to stay on the good side of the auto companies so they don’t get scooped by other journalists on press events like this. Here’s an extreme example of this, where an auto journalist was bold enough to reveal the dishonest side of Ferrari’s marketing machine–and got himself banned from all future Ferrari tests as a result.

It hasn’t always been like this. Or at least, it wasn’t always this difficult for journalists to speak truth to power. Last week a friend passed along a review of Volvo’s 240 when it debuted in 1974. As this is the model of Volvo I own, I was particularly interested. Volvo’s XC90 can be read as another attempt (likely successful) to distance itself from this very car–not because the 240 was bad, but because it was so good. Volvo’s reputation for producing cars that are safe, square, and more than a little boring is built to a great extent on the 240. It wasn’t cheap, fast, or sexy, but Volvo managed to sell 3.2 million of them over a 19-year production run.

Volvo's 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn't a big fan.
Volvo’s 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn’t a big fan.

So, the 240 is legendary. But in this review, Archie Vicar (writing for the defunct Automotorist) doesn’t find anything special. Archie Vicar is a stodgy type, as you’ll see. From the review, it sounds like Volvo has come a long way when it comes to press junkets. Today it’s less stinking fish in the Swedish backcountry and more cava on the Spanish coast. Here’s an example in Vicar’s review (he’s writing in the defunct Autmotorist):

We travelled with SAS to Stockholm one sunny morning in June only to arrive in the midst of typical Swedish summer weather: rain and fog obscuring the retreating snows of May. Volvo’s press wallah, Gunner Jenssen, greeted us at the airport and took us in a taxi to our hotel where a long presentation took place over breakfast of herring, herring and sild with some schnapps to warm us up. The main points to interest motorists will be that the Swedes are pursuing their obsession with safety even further. I’d say the best way to ensure one’s safety in a car is to avoid getting in one in the first place. The Swedes’ view is to accept that if one must be in a car then make sure the car as is as joyless as possible.

They’re on a hiding to nothing with this safety lark, in my view. It’s one thing to improve such things as brakes but these safety-belts are a nuisance. I can’t imagine ladies wanting to crease their blouses by using such contraptions. And they are fiddly to deploy, especially if one has been raising one´s elbow. The other worry is that once these things are fitted it’s only a matter of time before some fussy politician-type insists we all wear them. I digress. You won’t catch me wearing them.

Vicar’s somewhat idiotic dismissal of the three-point safety belt (which Volvo invented and which has reportedly saved more than a million lives) brings us to the common theme between Volvo’s 240 and its XC90, the commitment that sets Volvo apart from any other car company: safety. Volvo’s Vision 2020 plan is an attempt to end all deaths in Volvo cars by 2020. Their ridiculously ambitious goal is for no deaths or critical injuries in Volvo cars by 2020. And the amazing this, they might make it. They have a plan.

This has been a meandering post: I started by talking about Volvo’s new XC90 and press junkets, then I talked about the beloved 240, and finally Volvo’s commitment to safety. But watch me, I can still bring this in for a landing. Volvo’s press strategy (much-improved from forty years ago) is genius, and I wish them the best as they try to attract customers in a crowded market. If they buy automotive journalists a few cocktails along the way, more power to them.

Before I bought my 240, I wanted it for its looks. I just think it looks gorgeous (I realize this is a matter of opinion). However, now that I own it I appreciate the vault-like, straightforward, and trustworthy way in which it’s built. Volvo has been thinking about safety longer than than anyone, and it shows. There’s something incredibly comforting about driving a car that was built by a company that often prioritized the safety of its customers over everything else–including profit margins.

It’s nice to see that Volvo hasn’t lost what has historically set it apart from the pack, and if the reviews are any judge, the XC90 will be a resounding success.