The XC60 is the safest car Volvo has ever produced, according to its Swedish manufacturers. Which is quite an assertion when you consider Volvo has made safety its top priority since the middle of the last century when one of their engineers, a nice Swedish chap named Nils Bohlin, patented the three-point safety belt. A few years later Volvo started making cars with very long, slightly odd-looking rubber impact bumpers for the American market, then a little while after that it became the first company to add a third brake light to the back of its cars.
Finally, in the 1990s, the Swedes attached acronyms to the product range, and lots of them: SIPS (side impact protection system), WHIPS (whiplash protection system), BLIS (blind spot information system), ROPS (rollover protections system). Each acronym a little more clever than the last. When you drive the XC60 midsized crossover SUV it is not hard to be impressed by all this kit and feel very safe and sound.
So, as traffic whizzed past me on the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I marvelled at the little orange lights that flashed beside each wing mirror letting me know a car, a potential threat to the serene driving experience I was enjoying, was hovering somewhere out of sight in my blind spot. Then one can be admonished by the lane departure warnings that blipped at me every time I switched lanes without using my indicators, and feel a little comforted by the Collision Warning with Auto Brake (CWAB) system which fires a beam at other road users (yes, a laser) and works out the relative distances between the XC60 and the traffic swelling around me on the E11.
Once the CWAB system has launched its non-aggressive weapons system at other cars, it will automatically apply the brakes to slow the car down if it thinks you are heading for a crash and will even attempt to bring the XC60 to a complete halt on its own if it truly thinks you are not paying any attention. It is not a fail safe system, and Volvo says you should not rely on CWAB, but it is nice to know it's there if you need it, or if you have a senior moment and forget to apply the brakes.
And then there is the mildly amusing driver alert system which senses when you may be driving erratically and advises you to take a break by flashing a graphic of a cup of coffee at the driver. How very Swedish. Now, however, comes some very unSwedish news. Volvo, the car maker that made banks look like insecure, fly-by-night facilities (how right they turned out to be), now believes "safety is boring," or at least that's what Stephen Odell, the company's new British chief executive was quoted as saying recently in an American newspaper.
Odell, who took over as CEO in September last year, now wants to reposition Volvo as a brand known for its stylish, luxurious products (rather than just being a maker of safe, ever so slightly boring cars). He also believes those high- earners to whom this car is pitched - and whose wealth has probably suffered more than a minor dent over the past few months - now want a set of wheels that makes their consumption a little less conspicuous. Odell even has a name for this move in customer tastes. He calls it a "shift from overt consumerism to non-overt consumerism."
Unfortunately, for Odell, the car I had been loaned did, however, make me feel fairly out there, although only because of its colour, which was Terra Bronze according to Volvo. It looks marvellous in the picture above, but in the flesh the colour was a little more, shall we say, dirty than dashing. That aside, the Volvo is, without doubt, a handsome car and one that already makes good on the "non-overt" promise. Its styling screams cool chic and whispers class all at the same time. As does its six-speed automatic transmission, which delivers power in the most smooth and intelligent way imaginable. At whatever speed you choose to drive, the transmission always finds the right gear and when you do put your foot down the car accelerates in a most orderly fashion.
Inside, the car is kitted out with much of what you would expect from a premium offering: funky two-tone leather (sandstone beige, apparently); big sound delivered by those Danish delights Dynaudio to a 12-speaker system; quick, no fuss iPod connectivity; Bluetooth integration; an easy-to-use satellite navigation system and some kit you wouldn't necessarily expect, like a rear parking camera to help guide you into a tight spot and integral booster seats in the back for your many children to hop into.
So, this is, undoubtedly, a well-packaged car. It is well-styled, cleverly designed and, dare I say it, brilliantly executed. It is understated and elegant, and is equally at home tucked into a space in a hotel car park or mucking about with the boys at the rugby club. But, bizarrely, I wonder if it really has enough flash to attract the additional customers the car maker needs to put the company back in the black? Not quite I think.
Existing Volvo customers will love the XC60 because it is such a great example of Swedish engineering, but casual shoppers might have their head turned by something with a few more swoops and dashes from another manufacturer. Which would be a shame, I think, because the XC60 is a delight. firstname.lastname@example.org