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Frasher's Odyssey

With the design of its XC90 SUV, Volvo had to navigate between the Scylla of me-too trucky styling and the Charybdis of station wagon wimpiness. Arguably it has done just that.

Doug Frasher didn’t want to design the Volvo XC90. It’s not because he’s lazy or anything like that. Rather, when the project came along, Frasher, who is the strategic design chief of Volvo’s Monitoring and Concept Center (Camarillo, CA), had just completed work on the S80 sedan and was hoping that someone else would be tapped to pen Volvo’s first SUV. But when then-head of Volvo design Peter Horbury asked Frasher to be one of only three people to submit a full-scale model, he realized it was an offer he couldn’t refuse–a lucky thing in light of the end result.

With the XC90, Volvo faced a vexing design problem: how to make a vehicle that is both as safe and sophisticated as a Volvo sedan while injecting enough testosterone to have it accepted as a “real” SUV. When work on the XC90 began in earnest in early 1999, the V70-based Cross Country wagon was just becoming available, so Volvo had an entry in the off-road wagon segment and couldn’t afford to make an SUV that looked like a taller Cross Country. “My effort was to make a design with a true, credible SUV character,” says Frasher. To do that, he started with the premise that an SUV has certain immutable characteristics: “A vehicle of this type has to have the high point pretty much over the C-pillar. If you move it forward and try to taper backward, which the other two concepts did, it starts to lose the ‘robust utility’ character. So, that was a very strong part of my basic proportion and the whole balance of the mass on top of the car.”

To make the vehicle unmistakably a Volvo, Frasher relied on the styling cues he had developed for previous models off of the same “P2” platform: the S80, S60 and V70. “I created this form language way back on the Environmental Concept Car in 1991-92. So I have my little bible on what I consider it to be,” he says. The most prominent feature of this form language is a decidedly horizontal “shoulder” that runs the length of the vehicle and gives a notched profile to the unique tail lights. Instead of softening this element to stay more in line with the slab-sided tendencies of most SUV designs, Frasher exaggerated it almost to the point of caricature. And in so doing, created distinct treatments for both the sides and the rear.

But the designer says that the trickiest bit was in the front of the vehicle. Volvo was determined to maintain its famous safety standards with the XC90, which meant that the front bumper area had to be stretched over a hefty crash member. To do this without making the nose of the vehicle look too long or bulky, Frasher employs two large black bumper “pads” that flank a body-colored bumper with an integrated air intake. These elements break up what otherwise might have been a huge swath of monochromatic plastic, and help to give the vehicle a more sophisticated, European look. “A lot of SUVs on the market tend to overplay the commercial truck look,”Frasher opines, “But I don’t think that is attractive and it is not what I wanted to say with this design.”

In January 1999, three Volvo designers began making drawings for what each hoped would be the shape of the Swedish nameplate's first foray into the crowded world of SUVs. Less than four months later, three full-scale madels stood in the Arizona desert under the microscope of executive evaluators who would decide which one would become the XC90. Here's a look at all three, an insight into the road taken and those that were not.

 

 This design by Anders Gunnarsson of Volvo’s Design Centre in Goteborg, Sweden, has a more upright, truck-like appearance than the other entrants. The “U”-shaped cradle under the grille and the four air intake slots in the bumper lend an air of commercial truck aggressiveness. However, the downward sweep of the roofline is more reminiscent of a station wagon.

 Designer Stefan Jansson’s model offers a more car-like front fascia, favoring body-colored components and a grille that would not look out of place on a sedan. The shoulder styling cue is flatter and less pronounced than on the winning model, and the roofline descends dramatically: an uncharacteristic trait for an SUV.

 Doug Frasher’s winning design for the XC90 is the latest stop on an unlikely road. In the early 1990s Frasher created a unique form language for the Environmental Concept Car (ECC) which he says “was allowed to be shown mainly because it was so different that no one would actually expect Volvo to follow that course.” But follow it Volvo did with the S80, which Frasher describes as “a literal interpretation of the ECC as a luxury saloon,” and the other cars based on the same platform. “The XC90 is yet another expression of this form language,” he says. Peter Horbury, Volvo’s former vice president and chief designer describes the SUV as, “Masculine but not macho; muscular, but not aggressive.” Frasher prefers to think of his design as the sophisticated James Bond in an SUV crowd that is otherwise populated by muscle-bound Schwarzeneggers.