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Volvo Carves Safety to Its Soul

Volvo has long been associated with building safe cars, but as rivals roll out vehicles with more safety features, it becoming difficult for the Swedish automaker to stand out. This is why the automaker plans to carve the word 'safety' to its soul and to all of its products and wares so much so that it would be impossible to remove.

The Swedish automaker was an early safety leader, "And it still is showing leadership in some areas," said Brian O'Neill, the former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "But it's hard to even say who's a leader anymore (because) there's so much competition."

Anne Belec, the CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, says safety is the "soul of our brand," and the automaker, owned by Ford Motor, welcomes the competition. "Everyone else's interest in safety all of a sudden elevated what we stand for," she said. "We've never deviated from our core message of safety."

Still, Volvo said last week that it is changing ad agencies to "move the brand forward" and "leverage... our rich heritage in safety." It replaced the Euro RSCG with Arnold/Nitro. The first assignment will be campaigns for Volvo's highest-volume models - new versions of the V70 station wagon and the XC70 crossover SUV.

Volvo sales were down by six percent in 2006. Belec said that the drop was not unexpected because the company sold out of the old version of its flagship S80 sedan - the new one went on sale in February - and the C70 coupe. Nonetheless, luxury rivals Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW posted solid gains in 2006.

Volvo has tried to broaden its appeal beyond safety to performance, but it did not take. Although V-8 engines will still be offered, the performance-oriented "R" models are being phased out this summer. "Call it a brave attempt," said former CEO Victor Doolan, who retired in 2005.

Belec noted that with the S40 small sedan, Volvo did a series of computer-simulated frontal crash tests without the engine installed. The engines were then designed to fit within the empty space that remained so the cars would have as much space to absorb crash forces as the larger S80 sedan.

Still, safety remains the primordial reason why aficionados stick to Volvo. In a February survey of luxury vehicles' purchasers, safety was the attribute most often mentioned among Volvo's "above-average" qualities. Below average in the poll by GfK America were traits including acceleration, distinctive looks and "fun to drive," all of which Volvo had hoped would broaden its image.

"Our cars aren't ugly boxes anymore, and we do offer V-8 performance, but in the end, we are about protecting people," Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston said. "We're rather proud of who we are and where we're going." Doolan added Volvo continues to emphasize safety, but the message may be getting lost. "The message is right, but I don't think it has the frequency they need."

Meanwhile, Honda has been aggressively pitching safety after announcing that it would eventually make a long list of safety features standard equipment on all of its models. By the end of 2006, all Honda and Acura models except its two sports cars had side air bags, side-curtain air bags and anti-lock braking systems as standard equipment. All light trucks have stability control standard. Its cars and trucks have front ends designed to minimize injury to pedestrians and to prevent taller vehicles from riding over smaller ones.

The Japanese automaker said it is not trying to usurp Volvo's image. "Competitors always look at one another's ads, and in developing our 'Safety for Everyone' advertising, we did not study any one manufacturer more than any other," Honda spokesman Jeffrey Smith said.

Volvo can make the same claims as Honda and was, in fact, the first automaker to install both side and curtain air bags. "I think it's going to be very difficult in the short term to take the safety crown away (from Volvo) because it's so well entrenched and the perception is so strong," Doolan said. But, "It shouldn't be taken for granted."

"There's no question its part of their culture, and I think it always has been," O'Neill said. "Volvo clearly has some good safety technology, and Volvo and Saab have the best whiplash prevention. It's something the Swedes took more seriously than the rest of the world."

Fredrik Arp, the CEO of Volvo Cars in Sweden, said that the safety of its vehicles goes beyond equipment. It is built into the cars. How people are injured in crashes is factored into every aspect of design, he says. "Seven air bags is not really what we're talking about."

Carl Nash, one of the founders of the Goleta, Calif.-based Center for Injury Research, said that the Volvo XC90 SUV did better than any of the dozens of other vehicles the group has tested for roof strength in rollover crashes. "Philosophically, the (Volvo) engineers asked the question, 'How do people get injured in rollovers?,'" said Nash, an auto safety professor at the George Washington University.

In the industry where most vehicles get high scores in the crash tests because they are equipped with the latest safety technology, the Swedish automaker should concentrate on every auto part, not just on the Volvo fan clutch. "There's no reason that we can't stand for something beyond safety," Johnston said. "That's an ongoing project that will take awhile. But our core is still safety."

About The Author Glady Reign is a 32 year old is a consultant for an automotive firm based in Detroit, Mi. she is a native of the motor city and grew up around cars hence her expertise in the automotive field.
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