Volvo joins awd parade

ROCKPORT, Maine - Volvo is joining the rush to all-wheel-drive sedans as it and competitors seek to cash in on what they're diagnosing as sport-utility fatigue.

Volvo Cars of North America Inc. will launch the 2002 S60 AWD model in November, a year after the front-drive S60 made its U.S. debut.

"The all-wheel-drive sedan market has really exploded," Jay Hamill, S60 segment manager, said at a press introduction here Aug. 21.

Audi of America is the leader among European automakers offering awd cars in the U.S. market, but sales also are growing in the segment for BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes and Volkswagen. At a lower price point, Subaru of America Inc. is enjoying record U.S. sales with its awd lineup.

Dan Werbin, the new president of Volvo's U.S. subsidiary, said Volvo hopes to capture buyers tired of driving truck-like sport-utilities. Werbin does not officially take over until Nov. 1, but he attended the U.S. press introduction. Meanwhile, he is still president of Volvo Cars Japan.

Volvo already offers the car-based, all-wheel-drive V70 Cross Country wagon. It will add a bigger sport wagon next year, based on the Adventure Concept Car from the 2001 Detroit auto show.

Lars Erik Lundin, vice president of new projects for parent Volvo Car Corp., said the company expects to sell about 40,000 awd cars worldwide this year. Volvo first introduced awd cars in 1996, he said. The company offered awd as an option on the old S70 sedan and V70 wagon, but it was rarely ordered.

Volvo expects to sell only about 1,000 S60 AWD models in the United States by the end of this year. Sales in 2002 should be around 6,000, Hamill said. The S60 AWD has a new electronically controlled awd system from Swedish supplier Haldex AB. The Haldex system will replace Volvo's older viscous coupling system in the V70 Cross Country within the next year or so.

The 2002 S60 AWD, with the most commonly ordered options, will have a suggested retail price of about $36,500, Hamill said. The final sticker price has not been set, he said. Except for the awd, specifications for the S60 AWD are similar to those of the S60 2.4T model. The 197-hp tubocharged 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine also is a carryover.

The S60 AWD is a bit of a contradiction. Volvo markets the front-drive S60 primarily on performance and sexy styling. It is the poster child for the company's "ReVolvolution" ad campaign.

But most customers associate all-wheel drive with off-road driving, traction and safety - in many ways, the opposite of performance. Motorsports fans know all-wheel drive is an important benefit for on-road performance, but now Volvo and its competitors have to convince the public.

Said Werbin: "The idea is not to take you off road, but to keep you on it."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com
Tags: AWD Volvo

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