LOS ANGELES -- With its upcoming generation of products, Volvo Car Corp. will increase its emphasis on all-wheel drive in product development and marketing.
Fighting for recognition in the cluttered near-luxury and luxury segments, Volvo will use awd to bolster its message of safety and performance, said Vic Doolan, incoming president of Volvo Cars North America.
"All-wheel drive is a strong differentiating point, and it underlines Volvo's safety commitment," Doolan said in an interview prior to the announcement of his new assignment last week.
But Volvo executives cautioned that the automaker will not try to copy Audi's heavy emphasis on awd as a brand differentiator. Audi's quattro awd system is installed on 80 percent of the cars the German marque sells in the U.S. market.
Peter Rask, Volvo vice president for global communications in Gothenburg, Sweden, noted that awd will not be the core of Volvo's marketing message. "The core message is safety, design and capability. But all-wheel drive is a big part of that," said Rask, who oversees vehicle launch plans and global brand strategy.
Behind Volvo's move away from its stodgy past is an increased promotion of performance vehicles. But performance and front-wheel drive don't mix in the minds of enthusiasts, because engine power and high cornering speeds usually overpower the ability of the front wheels to grip the road.
All-wheel drive could help cover that weakness.
"I've always looked at performance as being a safety feature in its own right," Doolan said.
The S60 and XC70 offer awd versions, but the S80, V70, S40 and V40 do not. The incoming XC90 sport-utility will be built on the same platform as the S60 and will use a modified version of the same awd system.
The next-generation 40 series, which will share a platform with the Ford Focus, also will come with awd. And Doolan hinted that future versions of the S80 and V70, which are based on the same platform as the S60, also could get awd variants.
Volvo U.S. sales through May were down 15.1 percent, with a 33.7 percent drop in May alone. Volvo sales in 2001 were up 2.0 percent.
Volvo's move is in line with market data that show consumers increasingly expect awd as an option for their luxury car.
Doolan said 9 percent of luxury vehicle sales, not including sport-utilities, feature awd, but 33 percent of luxury intenders are interested in awd.
Most of that population comes from current sport-utility owners who are moving back into passenger cars, but who want the versatility and range that awd affords, Doolan said.
Those figures are supported by data from market research tracker Allison-Fisher International. In fact, said Donna Miller, an Allison-Fisher analyst in Torrance, Calif., luxury intenders are demanding awd at a greater rate than for rear-wheel drive in their next purchase, at 27 percent vs. 17 percent.