- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

Volvo, which means “I roll” in Latin, has mostly been rolling in reverse for the past couple of years as its sales plunge and the media continually report that Ford Motor Co. is intent on jettisoning the Swedish carmaker that's swimming in red ink.

But none of this fazes Doug Speck, president and chief executive officer of Volvo Cars of North America, who says he's good at compartmentalizing uncertainties.

“I'm optimistic about Volvo's staying power in this market,” he says.

Much of his optimism is sparked by Volvo's introduction of the new XC60, a crossover utility vehicle now on sale. The XC60 is Volvo's safest car yet. That's saying a lot for a brand that is the safety icon in the automotive industry. Volvo was founded 82 years ago with one of its principal commitments to customer safety.

“The XC60 is the best [vehicle] we've introduced since the XC90,” Mr. Speck says. “It's the most competitive product we've introduced in many years.”

The XC60 competes against the Mercedes GLK, Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Lexus RX350 in a segment that accounts for about 150,000 production units annually. But it's a growing segment as motorists are climbing out of big SUVs in favor of smaller vehicles that get better fuel economy and handle more like cars.

Volvo has set a goal of building cars in which no one will be killed by 2020. That goal takes a big step toward reality with the 2010 XC60, a vehicle that features City Safety - a system that automatically prevents you from colliding with vehicles front at speeds from 2 to 9 mph.

If the City Safety laser radar sensor located behind the rear-view mirror detects that the vehicle in front of you has stopped and a collision is imminent, it applies 50 percent braking power without your foot touching the pedal. The sensor actually begins preparing the vehicle to stop when you're within 30 feet of the car in front.

Drivers can manually override the City Safety when in superdense city traffic. However, the system is the default mode every time you start the car.

The City Safety sensor, which is in the windshield, can't spot pedestrians, cyclists or animals. A Volvo spokesman says a dedicated pedestrian safety system will offer that added protection in the coming years.

City Safety is still a big step forward because it also mitigates low-speed collisions from 10 to 19 mph if a vehicle in front of you brakes or gets too close. It will help to reduce the amount of damage to your car. In Europe, at least one insurance company offers XC60 owners a discount on their premiums with City Safety. U.S. insurance companies have yet to offer to reduce premiums for XC60 owners, but several are awaiting data to determine whether they should do so.

More than 75 percent of motor-vehicle accidents occur at speeds below 19 mph, says Adam Kopstein, Volvo's safety director. He also says 54 percent of accidents are frontal collisions.

I recently tried out the XC60 at Volvo's North American headquarters in Rockleigh, N.J. I aimed the XC60 at a balloon, which simulated a car, and drove straight toward the target. But the brakes actuated with my foot still on the accelerator with a half-g force, stopping the XC60 before I could collide with the balloon. That's impressive.

Despite financial difficulties, Volvo expects to sell 50,000 units annually around the globe. Mr. Speck is targeting 15,000 to 20,000 units annually in the United States. He acknowledges that some of those sales will cannibalize XC70 sales, but the overall sales increase will benefit Volvo.

Michael Cottone, brand manager for the XC60, says the average transaction price for the XC60 will be about $38,550. Mr. Cottone says the XC60 will be the least-expensive vehicle in its segment, about $5,000 less than the BMW X3 with all-wheel drive.

Some drivers may never experience the City Safety system as long as they own an XC60 - if they don't allow their attention to wander from driving or get distracted, Mr. Kopstein says. But what driver can honestly say they have never been distracted while behind the wheel of a car?

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