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There is only one name that stands above the rest when it comes to vehicle safety, and that is Volvo. However safety isn’t the only part of Volvo’s story.

by DANIEL WONG

Volvo does take a lot of pride when it comes to safety, and for good reason. After all Volvo did invent the three-point seat belt in 1959 and gave it away to the world for free, allowing other car companies to adopt their design. It is estimated that over a million lives owe their survival to the use of the three-point seat belt, which improved crash survivability rates by 50 per cent, and is recognised as one of eight patents that were of the greatest significance to humanity during the hundred years between 1885 and 1985. To underline just how significant Volvo’s contribution to occupant safety, despite recent advancements in the area of passenger crash safety, all these carefully engineered features are only effective at protecting occupants if they are properly belted in with a three-point seatbelt in the first place. 

Volvo has since continually pushed the standards of safety with the introduction of the world’s first side-impact airbags in 1994, designing seats that reduce whiplash injuries in the event of an accident, making curtain airbags a standard fixture on every model since 2000, and introducing a pedestrian bonnet airbag in 2012. Aside from introducing active crash safety features, Volvo also developed key technologies that would advert potential accidents such as the blind-spot information system that helped drivers keep a watch for any vehicle in their blind spot, and developed a sophisticated electronic Roll Stability Control system to prevent any possibility of a roll over. 

olvo is safety. A maxim that has been drummed into our collective conscience for as long as many of us can remember. Volvo is safety, as much as we are likely to hold to the belief that Toyota is to boring predictability what Alfa Romeo is to customer loyalty on roadside assistance. Volvo is safety, an association that had ingloriously formed a stereotype of being the car of choice for the unadventurous types, the doctors, the economics professors, parents of a growing brood, or the car first time drivers are handed with by their parents because they know it is safe and slow enough for their own good.

It isn’t all just carefully constructed marketing fluff. When the United States’ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety introduced the small frontal overlap crash test in 2012, several new cars were demoted from its top safety ratings as their crash structure wasn’t able to withstand the force of impact, as the crash structure of these cars weren’t designed to take into account the impact of a small barrier. Yet the first-generation XC90 managed to pass the test with its passenger cell uncompromised, earning it the organisation’s maximum “Top Safety Pick” rating. It was an incredible achievement for an SUV that was at the tail end of its lifecycle and designed in the previous century. The XC90’s owes its impressive crash structure to the company’s insistence of engineering their cars to their own internal requirements, rather than engineering it to adhere to the prevailing safety standards of its time. 

First XC90 marks a new era for Volvo
while the new generation continues on the winning formula of safety

Besides making cars operate autonomously, Volvo has also devoted plenty of research to several aspects of safety such as in-cabin sensors that are able to distinguish the driver’s level of concentration and focus on the road. To further their research in vehicle safety, Volvo built the AstaZero, the world’s first full-scale proving ground for future traffic safety solutions. Built over 2 million square metres, the AstaZero boasts its own city area and a 5.7km highway, which allows Volvo’s engineers to replicate all forms of driving environments and situations for them to thoroughly test and develop new safety technologies that would meet Volvo’s standards and requirements.

For all their contribution, technological expertise, and efforts in raising the standard of vehicle safety, there has never been a car maker that is so rooted in safety as Volvo is. That being said, safety wasn’t the only aspect founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson had in mind when they decided to venture into car production and formed Volvo in 1924. Instead Volvo’s founders originally envisioned a car that was tough enough to withstand life on Swedish roads and the frigid Scandinavian climate. There was no better testament of that goal than Volvo’s first motorcar, the ÖV4, which entered production in 1927. A year after its introduction, a Swedish driver duo was reported to have managed the 1360km Moscow-Leningard-Moscow Rally in an ÖV4 without picking up any penalty point.

Seeing that children are especially vulnerable in the event of an accident, and using insights into the physique of children, Volvo also went on to develop the world’s first booster cushion for child occupants in 1976. This development resulted with the introduction of the world’s first integrated booster cushion in the 1990 Volvo 960 and the two-stage integrated booster cushions in the 2007 Volvo V70 estate.

Clockwise from top: The world’s first pedestrian airbag makes debut with the Volvo V40; City Safety brakes automatically in the event of a sudden stop; 3-point seatbelt is a Volvo creation

Robustness and reliability has since become one of Volvo’s most endearing features, and it wasn’t just for their everyday cars for the family. While it is not uncommon to see classic Volvos such as the Amazons of the 1950s or a 1970s 240 sedan running around on the roads today, a 1966 P1800S coupe made history by entering the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Miles Driven by a Single Owner in a Non-Commercial Vehicle” in 2013 with a total mileage of 4,830,000km or 3 million miles. An incredible achievement considering that most coupes of its era rarely clock such significant mileage.

Robust construction and engineering aside, Larson made safety as a core value of the brand in 1936, though Volvo’s strive for safety was not to be reflected on their cars for the rest of the decade as World War 2 broke out shortly thereafter. As it was with most car companies in Europe, World War 2 did put the automotive industry on hold as manpower and resources were directed towards the war effort. Although much of Europe and Asia were still at war in 1942, Volvo’s engineers started work on what they would deem as a ‘post-war motorcar’. That car would become the PV444, which was introduced in 1944, just as Nazi Germany was on the verge of collapse. Volvo, who became a maker of luxury cars with the PV650 series of the 1930s, couldn’t have made a better car to highlight the company’s shift from making luxury cars in the 1930s to something smaller and more affordable for the post-war economy of Europe.

The PV444 was regarded as Volvo’s first car to feature a uni-body construction, with its headlining safety feature being its laminated glass windshield. It was the updated version of the PV444, the PV544, which later became the first car in the world to feature a three-point seatbelt in 1959.

Though the PV444 made its debut in 1944, supplies were still scarce to carry out series-production. In fact series-production of the PV444 wouldn’t start till 1947. Even so, that didn’t stop the public from clamouring for one, with some buyers willing to pay twice the price for one. Originally Volvo had planned to produce 8000 examples of the PV444, but demand was so great that Volvo ended up producing almost 200,000 PV444 before it was updated to the PV544 in 1958. However it wasn’t just families the PV444 found an audience with.

As it turned out, the PV444 was as much of a hit on the racing scene as it was on the dealer forecourt. Drawn by Volvo’s reputation for robust cars, the PV444 and its later iteration the PV544, became firm favourites with privateers who used the PV444 and PV544 to participate in everything from rallying to hill climb events, and racing events around Europe. The PV444 was the car Gunnar Andersson – later brought on to head Volvo’s motorsport division – drove to victory at the 4650km Gran Premio of Argentina endurance race in 1960. The PV544 on the other hand notched a notable win at the 1965 Safari Rally, at the hands of brothers Joginder and Jaswant Singh of Kenya. Volvo’s reputation in motorsports wouldn’t end at the PV444 and PV544, instead racing drivers continued to try their hands at racing just about any Volvo that had emerged from Gothenberg.

In 2008 Volvo debut their autonomous braking feature known as City Safety, which uses advanced lasers to detect any potential low-speed front-end collisions and apply the brakes autonomously to mitigate or prevent any collisions with the car in front. Volvo says the feature would be able to prevent accidents that takes place at speeds of up to 30kph, which statistic reveals that driver’s failed to brake in 75 per cent of reported collisions. Though such autonomous braking features are usually seen on high-end models, Volvo took the lead and installed the feature across their model range by 2012 (with the exception of the first-generation XC90). A recent report from IIHS found that the feature fitted to the S60 and XC60 models were instrumental in reducing the rate of rear-end collisions by 41 per cent.

While carmaker executives often make grandiose goals of being the biggest or most profitable companies in the business, Volvo instead set for themselves a more altruistic, and ambitious goal in 2007. The goal, called Vision 2020, was that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020. Though it sounds like a lofty goal, technologies such as Volvo’s City Safety, and a plethora of upcoming autonomous driving technologies could bring Volvo’s safety vision closer to reality than many would realise. Next year Volvo would be carrying out a groundbreaking project known as “Drive Me” which would see 100 self-driving Volvos being used on public roads in everyday driving conditions around Volvo’s home city of Gothenburg.

All-new XC90 doing rounds of autonomous driving research
driving on a typical Scandinavian snowy day
PV444 tackling a rally stage in Kenya
swanky P1800 coupè still looks the part

‘iiHS says that Volvo’s City Safety from the S60 and XC60 were instrumental in reducing the rate of rear-end collisions by 41 per cent’

Like the 200 Series, its successor, the 850 also became motorsports icon in its own right, even though it didn’t quite bring Volvo as many laurels as the 200 did. In 1994 Volvo entered the 850 in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) in station wagon form. Being the first and only factory race car in a station wagon form on a grid filled with sedan-shaped bodies, the 850 Estates cut an unmistakable profile that made them, and the brand they carried, instantly recognisable the world over. Although the 850 Estate BTCC racers only competed in 1994, with regulation changes the following year forcing Volvo to adopt sedans for its aerodynamic advantage, its unique shape had left an indelible in the motorsports world. It is possible that the 850 Estate BTCC racers had done more in elevating people’s perception of the station wagon than any other station wagon that had come before or since. 

More than just a footnote in Volvo’s story, their motorsport activities did give birth to several iconic performance variants. Just as how privateer racers were first drawn to the robustness and reliability of Volvo’s cars, Volvo themselves saw that there was plenty of tuning potential to be had in their cars. To satisfy Group A homologation rules in the 1980s for instance, Volvo produced 500 examples of the 242 Group A Turbo, a special 242GT coupe that featured stiffer springs, an intercooler, and more power on tap than the standard version. These limited edition 242GTs were highly sought after, though not just for their performance on paper, but their performance potential.

One unlikely motorsports hero from Volvo’s stable is the iconic 200 series. Though its angular shape was responsible for forming much of Volvo’s underserved reputation of building cars with the stylistic quality of bricks, the 200 series Volvos weren’t without its racing merits. The 242GT and 240 Turbo in particular were flying bricks that were as fast and tough as the description suggests. In the 1979 Repco Reliability Trail in Australia, four out of six Volvo 240s which were entered managed to finish the 14-day 19,000km rally, with the lead Volvo taking a fourth overall and class win. Whereas on circuit racing, the 200 series race cars managed to win the 1985 European Championship and German DTM title, and the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship for Volvo. Road-going 240s on the other hand were legendarily robust in its engineering and were easy to tune, which in turn spawned a huge enthusiast community, and made the 240 an ideal choice for grassroots motorsports events even until today.

In 1995 Volvo introduced a limited edition performance variant of the 850 sedan, known as the 850 T-5R, which came fitted with a 243hp/300Nm 2.3-litre 5-cylinder turbocharged engine which was developed with input from Porsche. In manual guise, the T-5R could get from 0 to 100kph in 6.9 seconds, quicker than a Porsche 911 Targa of its era, and capable of hitting 245kph. The T-5R became a sleeper icon with very little external detailing cluing passers-by into the Porsche fettled powertrain it packed underneath, and its limited run of production. Volvo followed up the T-5R a year later with a more powerful 850R, with 255hp and 350Nm, a 0 to 100kph boast of 6.7 second, and a top speed of 255kph. The R-moniker would continue to live on with the S70R and S60R, though the next chapter in Volvo’s performance cars would begin with the involvement of Volvo’s independent racing partner Polestar Racing.

Formerly Flash Engineering, a racing outfit competing in the Swedish Touring Car Championship (STCC), Polestar Racing as it was known from 2005, made its name in the Swedish racing series with two Driver’s and Manufacturer’s titles in 2009 and 2013, and an additional Manufacturer’s title in 2010. Competing in the series with Volvos, Polestar Racing managed to foster close ties with Volvo who eventually granted Polestar Racing the title of Official Performance Partner for Volvo Cars in 2009. In 2010 Polestar Racing catapulted themselves onto the international stage with the creation of the C30 Polestar Performance Concept hatchback, which boasted 405hp from a significantly tweaked 2.5-litre inline-5 turbocharged engine found in the T5 variant. Polestar Racing followed up this act with the S60 Polestar Performance Concept that had the S60 T6’s 3-litre inline-6 turbocharged engine boosted to 508hp. While prototypes, both cars – with Polestar’s striking blue paintjob – stirred the world, and signified that more exciting things were to come from Volvo.

Polestar Racing began their foray into Volvo’s road cars with ECU tuning for nearly every modern Volvo from 2008 (2005 for select variants of the venerable first-generation XC90). Even by managing to increase the engine’s power output, improve power delivery, Polestar says that these changes can be achieved without any changes in the car’s fuel consumption or emission figures. These performance gains were thanks to the fact that Volvo often built their engines with a higher performance potential than it was necessary for their standard passenger car models. An example of this performance potential is none other than the 4.4-litre V8 engine used in the first-generation XC90. In the 7-seat SUV, the V8 engine produced 315hp, however for the Australian V8 Supercar series, Polestar Racing used the V8 engine as a base for the S60 Polestar V8SC and created a 5-litre V8 producing 650hp. British supercar maker Noble Automotive took the same XC90 engine to Yamaha, who turbocharged it to produce up to 660hp for their M600 supercar.

The full grown fruits of Polestar Racing’s partnership with Volvo would materialise in 2013 with the 350hp S60 Polestar, of which only 50 examples were made and only sold in Australia. A year later the Australian market-only S60 Polestar is followed up by a similar S60 and V60 Polestar version that was available to American and select European market. Last month, Volvo had announced that they were expanding the availability of the S60 and V60 Polestar to 47 markets around the world and doubling its production to 1500 a year. 

Although Volvo’s future looks promising with the introduction of their 2-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged Drive-E engine family, which includes a twincharged petrol version producing 320hp and 400Nm of torque in the XC60 T6 and XC90 T8, Volvo has also contributed in improving the world we live in. Just as the world was realising that cheap oil couldn’t last forever and vehicle emissions were turning bustling city centres into unhealthy domains choked with pollution in the 1970s, Volvo came up with the world’s first catalytic exhaust emission control with the Lambda Sond in 1976. The oxygen sensor allowed engines to regulate the fuel-air mixture, which allows the catalytic converters extract pollutants from the exhaust emissions. With catalytic converters fitted, the amount of pollutants discharged from exhaust pipes were reduced by 90 per cent.

However cleaning up emissions wasn’t enough, in 1999 Volvo’s engineers came up with a revolutionary new catalyst-based radiator coating known as PremAir. The coating, which was first used on the S80 sedan, absorbs ground-level ozone through the radiator and converts it into pure oxygen. PremAir is said to be able to convert up to 75 per cent of surrounding ground-level ozone into oxygen, making the air that passes the car cleaner than it was entering it.

Modern-day Polestar racing division shows that Volvo is keen on doing motorsports again today
The infamous 850 BTCC race car piloted by Jan Lammers
Polestar S60 and V60 received lots of international praise

Like many car makers today Volvo too has an eye on the electrification of their cars. With Volvo moving onto a brand new two-platform strategy, with the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) used in the new XC90 and the upcoming Compact Modular Architecture (CMA), they plan to introduce plug-in hybrid variants across their entire range. The new range-topping XC90 T8 Twin Engine, with the front-mounted 320hp twincharged Drive-E engine paired with a separate electric motor over the rear axle, is first step in Volvo’s next-generation plug-in hybrid models. The plug-in hybrid models are a run-up to the company’s plan for the commercial introduction of their first all-electric car by 2019.

Though two years away, Volvo has already been testing and developing electric cars for quite some time, one notable example being Volvo’s involvement with the Swedish “One Tonne Life” project. Started in 2010, the six-month study done on one family was to see if it is possible to reduce a Swedish family’s CO2 emissions from the average 7.3 tonnes per person per year to a mere one tonne. The project saw the family adopting the use of Volvo’s C30 DRIVe Electric test car, which enabled the family to cut their transportation CO2 emissions by 95 per cent. With power sourced from hydropower sources, and a driving range of 150km, the C30 Electric was able to deliver enough range to cover the needs of the average Swedish family on their daily commute.

Under that Smurf blue bonnet hides a 350bhp motor

For all of Volvo’s engineering achievements, their name doesn’t come up in popular conscience all that often. Unfortunately Volvo’s understated image is down to Swedish culture for discretion and being humble of their capabilities. Swedes describe this character as ‘Lagom’, which can be best understood as ‘just enough’ or ‘average’. It is a characteristic that is seen not only in Volvo, but their socioeconomic system that tries to avoid the existence of extreme poverty or extreme wealth, and in the same way frowns upon individual display of excessive wealth. It is this ingrained humility in Swedish culture that has hidden away many of Volvo’s achievements and noble approaches towards making the world a better place for everyone. After all Volvo’s founders just wanted to make a car that would survive the toughest and harshest conditions, and on top of being safe for everyone. 

breakthrough Lambda Sond sensor is capable of reducing lots of harmful exhaust-polluting gases

‘The 242 GT and 240 Turbo in particular were flying bricks that were as fast and tough as the description suggests’