GLT Turbo helps Volvo zip into the jet age and brighter image

Vroooom! That's the sound of the 1981 Volvo 2-door Turbo as it shoots up the Interstate on-ramp and blends with the traffic flow. Indeed, the Swedish carmaker is trying hard to revamp its image, yet not change it entirely. It still wants to be known for its tanklike construction -- safety and all that. But it also wants to get in step with the times.Simply, the company which supplies jet engines to the Swedish Air Force also wants to compete in the jet age here on earth.

The GLT Turbo is part of the image shift.

"A turbo brings out the kid in every motorist," asserts Joseph L. Nicolato, head of the US car division and a 25-year veteran with Volvo in the US. "I think the Volvo Turbo is the most exciting car we have in the line," he adds. And he's not kidding.

The company expects to get a 4-door version of the Turbo sometime soon.

What Volvo is trying to do is show it has another level of technology by marketing a turbo, a popular trend these days. The Volvo is a relatively heavy car (more than a ton and a half) and carries five people. "That's almost a big car by today's standards," asserts Mr. Nicolato.The turbo gives a little zip to the car, he adds.

Volvo also is trying to brighten up its cars, both inside and out.Not only is the upholstery and interior decor showing more life, but the company is experimenting with outside striping in the Turbo. That's a tremendous departure for the firm.

The new dressing was a long time in coming. It took the Volvo management many years to even begin to understand the American mentality -- and it's still learning. The Swedes are naturally conservative. Back in the early days -- Volvo sold its first US cars in late 1955 -- there was no air conditioning, no power brakes and steering, no tinted windows.It took a monumental effort on the part of the US sales company over the years to sell the parent firm on how it should approach the US market.

The Japanese, who sold 1.9 million cars in the US alone last year, were never found wanting on this score. They discovered very early in the game what US motorists wanted in a car -- and then they went ahead and supplied it.

Still, the Swedes -- Volvo and Saab -- are not the Japanese and they aren't competing on the same level, by any means. The Japanese have a huge car capacity in Japan and are either building or talking about new assembly plants in other countries, the US included.

By comparison with Toyota, for instance, Volvo is small indeed and only builds about 300,000 cars a year worldwide. Toyota sells double that number in the US alone each year. Thus, Volvo couldn't supply a runaway demand even if it wanted to. About 210,000 of the total Volvo production are what the carmaker calls its "big cars," the 240 and 260 series.

While it could build more cars if it wanted to, the excess capacity is slight.

The US now gets less than 60,000 cars a year but Volvo hopes to boost that number beyond 60,000, and maybe even to 65,000 to 70,000, in the rest of the '80 s.

The company is aware of what happened to the French carmaker Renault 20 years ago in the US; and more recently Fiat.

"If Volvo were to wind up sales to 100,000 a year," says Mr. Nicolato, "there is concern as to whether it could sell them in an orderly manner and provide the after-sales service."

Volvo's top-of-the-line car is the 262 coupe, a pricey luxury car to some people. Designed by Bertone and selling for around $21,000, the 262-C has limited appeal, and Volvo has a limited capacity to build the car, anyway.

One of the nicest cars to drive -- besides the Turbo, of course -- is the 5 -door GLT wagon with its sports-sedan flair. Indeed, the GLT wagon blends practicality and smooth handling for pleasure awheel.

Some years ago the Swedish company had an idea to assemble cars in the US, but the worldwide auto crunch in the mid-70s forced it to revise its plans.

Looking down the road, Mr. Nicolato says the company isn't likely to switch to front-wheel-drive despite the worldwide interest in the concept. While fwd has space, packaging, and traction advantages in small cars, it also has some drawbacks, among them the weight distribution between the front and the rear.

"Volvo feels that so long as it builds the kind of cars it builds today, there is no advantage to fwd," reports Mr. Nicolato.

The company expects to market a turbocharged diesel in 1982 which gives no decrease in fuel economy from the standard 5-cylinder diesel that Volvo buys from Volkswagen today. Numerous aluminum components also are being tested as well as a 4-speed automatic transmission with lockup converter and a computer-controlled gasoline-fueled turbo.

"The best drivers around, using a manual transmission, have been unable to beat the automatic in fuel economy," says Mr. Nicolato. A 4-speed automatic with a fifth speed that is engaged with an electronically timed solenoid is also under test.

Volvo may not lead the pack, but it has its eyes on tomorrow, nonetheless.

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