‘Hi, we’re Volvo. Remember us?’

February 20, 2015, 8:02 PM UTC
Detroit Hosts Annual North American International Auto Show
DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 12: Lex Kerssemaker, Senior VP Product Strategy and Vehicle Line Management at Volvo, introduces the new XC90 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on January 12, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 5000 journalists from around the word will see approximately 45 new vehicles unveiled during the 2015 NAIAS, which opens to the public January 17 and concludes January 25. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson—Getty Images

For automobile enthusiasts of a certain age, a first glance at the grille and flowing lines of a 2015 Volvo XC90 luxury sport utility may evoke vague, pleasant recollections of a classic sports car from the 1960s, the Volvo P1800.

In an era when Scandinavian furniture was all the rage, the P1800 came to epitomize Swedish automotive design.

The P1800 sports coupe helped to usher in a parade of Volvo models in the U.S., sedans known for safety, practicality and ruggedness. The brand gained worldwide renown, attracting the Ford Motor Co. (F) to acquire Volvo Cars in 2000 for $6.45 billion. Fallout from the global financial crisis forced Ford’s sale of Volvo to the Geeley Group of China for $1.8 billion.

Five years after Geeley’s purchase, the XC90 today represents Volvo’s determination to recapture the brand’s American mojo, where its roughly 300 retail dealers have been nearly despondent as they wait for new models. Consumers seeking a rugged, sensible car from abroad increasingly have chosen Subarus, which (incredibly) today outsell Volvo 10-to-1 in the U.S.

Last year, U.S. sales were about 57,000 units, down almost 8% from a year earlier in a market that was up nearly 6% from 2013. At its peak in 2004, the company sold about 139,000 cars in the U.S. By 2020, Volvo hopes to sell 800,000 cars globally, compared with 466,000 last year, a record high driven by sales in China.

“A lot of people grew up in Volvos. We’re not a damaged brand,” said Bodil Erikson, a Swede who is chief marketing officer in the U.S. “We’ve fallen out of mind.”

Geeley, a maker of cars and other goods, has put its financial muscle behind an $11 billion capital program to launch a new era of vehicles, starting with the large SUV built on an architecture it calls SPA, which stands for scalable product architecture.

The first generation XC90, introduced in 2002, was a phenomenal success story for Volvo. Ford, in fact, admired the vehicle’s engineering so much that it borrowed XC90’s mechanical underpinnings to create its Taurus large sedan, which uses Volvo-designed innards to this day.

The new XC90 was designed to convey “Scandinavian authority” and “understated confidence,” according to its chief designer Tisha Johnson. The selection of materials and the shaping of surfaces throughout the car were inspired by objects like the Wegner lounge chair and Orrefors crystal vases.

In three versions, starting in price at about $49,000 and ranging up to about $55,000, XC90 will contend against large luxury SUVs like the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz M Class and Infiniti QX60.

Volvo executives report the automaker will replace seven of its sedans, station wagons and crossovers during the next four years, a promise that should warm the hearts of its dealers.

Because the Volvo brand has shrunk in size over the last decade, it can’t match competitors with advertising buys such as a multi-million dollar commercial during the Super Bowl. Grey Group, its agency, instead devised a guerilla Twitter campaign during this year’s game and another tied to Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. More advertising will come toward summer, when the cars arrive at dealerships.

The automaker’s Chinese owners are staying quietly in the background, at least for the moment, allowing Volvo’s Swedish heritage and image to shine.