Volvo Cars boss Hakan Samuelsson thinks the sedan, declared dead on arrival by most automakers, still has plenty to offer in the post-gasoline era.
"I wouldn't be surprised as we move toward electric cars if market forces cause a comeback for smaller sedans, especially if you don't need the size of an SUV," Samuelsson said in a recent interview with Automotive News.
Those might be considered fighting words to a company that counts SUVs for nearly two-thirds of its global sales, but Samuelsson sees electrification changing consumers' mindsets, especially younger drivers.
Samuelsson told Automotive News "the move toward electrification will probably make people think about air resistance again."
"People who are interested in longer range cannot ignore that lower-riding cars are better for this," he said.
It's one reason Volvo bet so big on the S60 sedan as the first car to be built at the automaker's $1.1 billion campus off Interstate 26 near Ridgeville. The first all-electric S60 will begin production at the site in 2022 and Samuelsson — CEO of Volvo Cars — said it will be among a stable of electric vehicles that will account for 10 percent of global sales.
He'd eventually like to see electric cars making up half of annual sales, with hybrid vehicles accounting for the rest. But Samuelsson realizes the combustion engine isn't going away soon, especially in the U.S. market. So Volvo will continue making gas-powered S60s in South Carolina.
"The conventional car will still be the base," Samuelsson told Automotive News. "But if we only had that, I would be more skeptical about the growth prospects in America. Both (hybrids and electric vehicles) will help us grow. And it is not just about sales; it's about building the brand."
Volvo reported its best October for U.S. sales in 15 years last month, putting 8,807 vehicles into American consumers' garages — 20.2 percent better than a year earlier. The XC90 and XC60 SUVs were the top sellers, but the S60 finished a strong third with 2,193 sales.
"Our lineup continues to impress American buyers," said Anders Gustafsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars USA. Gustafsson noted the company "has posted a sales gain in 20 of the last 21 months."
Through October, S60 sales totaled 14,522 vehicles in the U.S.
Volvo aims to export half of the S60 sedans it builds here to foreign countries through the Port of Charleston. Exports, which started in February, have accounted for about 10,800 cars through October, ranging from a high of 2,589 vehicles in August to a low of 204 in May.
Stephanie Mangini, spokeswoman for Volvo's S.C. plant, said the fluctuations are normal.
"We adjust our production volume during the course of the year as necessary," she said. "We are currently producing the expected volume based on market demand for the year and are exporting 50 percent of the cars built here."
Volvo plans to add production of its XC90 to the Berkeley County plant by 2022, bringing the automaker closer to its goal of building as many cars in the U.S. as it sells here.
And despite the move toward electrification and smaller, more aerodynamic, cars, Samuelsson said the possibility exists another big vehicle could be in the works for the S.C. campus.
"There might still be room for an additional SUV," he told Automotive News. "Let's see."