Coming soon: Made-in-China Volvos

Volvo was once the car of choice for America's suburbs and campuses.

Except for the company's brief fling at producing a sports car, the Volvo came in two models — a boxy sensible sedan and a boxy sensible station wagon. Volvos were reliable, comfortable, very safe and politically correct.

While Volvo was — and is — Swedish, it was for all practical purposes an American car. In 1973, the United States became Volvo's largest car market, and in 1999 Ford bought the company for $6.4 billion.

Unfortunately, Volvo also contracted whatever it was afflicting the American car industry and it, too, began losing money. Maybe it was because Volvo began selling an SUV that was not boxy and sensible, but actually kind of scary-looking.

Ford, after selling Land Rover and Jaguar, put Volvo on the block. The buyer was a Chinese auto company, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, and the price was $1.8 billion, which tells you something about how our auto industry got where it is.

Last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest car market. An average price of $17,000 a car might have something to do with it. Geely is a supplier of inexpensive compacts and subcompacts to that market, and apparently sees Volvo as its ticket to the market for larger, more luxurious cars.

"I think Volvo is a tiger," said Geely chairman Li Shufu, discerning a virtue in Volvos that has eluded Western motorists.

Geely's own models have names that are fanciful, almost surreal — the Kingkong, the Free Cruise, the Shanghai Maple, the Beauty Leopard. And the company's emblem looks like a stylized set of toes.

Li has ambitious plans for Volvo. He wants to be selling a million of them a year within four to five years. He will still build them in Sweden, but is planning a $900 million plant to make them in China. He would sell 400,000 of them there — about the number Volvo currently sells worldwide — and 600,000 in Europe and North America. And he wants to add two or three bigger luxury cars to the lineup.

A few hurdles may stand between Geely and those ambitious production and sales figures. The Wall Street Journal points out that the company has little experience selling cars outside of China or running foreign manufacturing operations.

Volvo is fondly thought of in the ivied halls and leafy streets of the United States, and Geely's slogan shows that the new owner's heart is in the right place: "Save no effort to satisfy customers forever."

© Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

Coming soon: Made-in-China Volvos 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 6:33pm]

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