The first Chinese-made car, after a decade of fits and starts, false alarms and failed dreams, is finally on sale in America.
This pioneering vehicle is the product of a subsidiary of Geely, a Chinese automotive manufacturing conglomerate. Perhaps you have heard of this subsidiary before: Volvo.
Yes, this is the same Volvo Cars Corporation that was founded in Sweden in 1927. But in 2010, it was bought by Geely from Ford Motor Company.
Geely has only been in existence since 1986, when the company began making refrigerators. It was started by Li Shufu, who early on expressed a desire to enter the auto industry. It started with motorcycle manufacturing in 1998 and moved from there to autos a couple of years later.
In the early 2000s, Geely, along with other Chinese automotive companies such as BYD Auto, Great Wall and Chery, among others, started looking seriously into building cars it could sell in North America and Europe. In 2006, Geely began exhibiting cars at auto shows such as Frankfurt, Paris and Detroit.
Reaction was tepid, at best. The learning curve for aspiring Chinese automakers was steep, and there were other barriers to entry in these markets – not the least of which was the lack of dealer, parts and service networks.
Geely solved the problem by approaching Ford, which had taken over previously independent Volvo a few years earlier, and had soon decided the marriage didn’t work. So Ford didn’t need a lot of convincing to sell Volvo to Geely, even though it meant a fast-track for the Chinese automaker to gain the knowledge, expertise and experience to enter any world market.
Volvo is still nominally independent under the Geely banner, able to design, engineer and market its products pretty much as it wishes. But Volvo is, technically, a Chinese company; this is an advantage, because every other international automaker that wants to enter the Chinese market must do so only through cumbersome “joint ventures” with existing Chinese companies.
While Volvo began building cars in China, designed for Chinese tastes and needs, almost immediately after Geely purchased it, the first Volvo earmarked for export to the U.S. market didn’t get spit out by the assembly line until 2015.
That car, the S60 Inscription, is an interesting product. It is essentially the same S60 sold worldwide (and built in other Volvo plants in Sweden) except that Chinese tastes required that it be stretched by three inches to give it more rear seat legroom. (The Chinese motorist is usually obligated to bring parents or in-laws along, as back seat passengers). Volvo realized the stretched S60 met all the emissions, safety and other marketing needs of the basic S60 – with the added cachet of potentially class-leading back seat room against competition from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and others.
Even parked next to each other, it is difficult to distinguish between a regular S60 and the stretched S60 Inscription – except for the exterior paint. S60 Inscriptions – at least the first batch, which just went on sale in the U.S. – all adorned in a satin-y gray exterior paint. It is not unattractive, but the one-off scheme does signal something is up. The S60 Inscription comes with a number of popular features standard such as 18-inch alloy wheels, navigation, walnut inlays, rear park assist and camera, and a turbocharged engine capable of up to 37 m.p.g. fuel economy.
Its base price starts under $40,000, according to Edmunds.com.
The S60 Inscription offers all the attributes one associates with a Volvo, as well as a measure of stability that its slightly longer wheelbase gives it, over a standard S60.
“It is the first car made in China, and imported here,” said Dean Case, a Volvo spokesman at a launch event in the San Francisco area this week. “It is also not a product of a joint venture. The 50-50 joint venture requirement for every other automaker is not necessary for Volvo.”
But how much of a “true Volvo” is it?
“A Volvo is a Volvo,” Mr. Case said, “no matter where it is built.”
August 28, 2015