I’m in Sweden this week for the launch of a new car brand. The location: Gothenburg’s Lindholmen Science Park, a cluster of high-tech engineering talent and equipment nestled in a picturesque forested landscape. The purpose: understanding where Lynk & Co comes from, what it is and what it offers, and where it hopes to be headed. The connection between those things is Volvo, the 89-year-old Swedish marque that calls Gothenburg home and shares a parent company, China’s Geely, with the brand-new Lynk & Co.
"Connectivity to Lynk & Co will be what safety is to Volvo."
"Connectivity to Lynk & Co will be what safety is to Volvo," says Mats Fagerhag. He’s chief of the China Euro Vehicle Technology (CEVT) team of researchers who have been working for the past few years to unite the expertise and assets shared by Volvo and Geely (pronounced "gee-lee") into a new platform for developing the cars of the future. That platform is called the Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) and it underpins Volvo’s upcoming 40 series, but more importantly it’s the foundation upon which the new Lynk & Co cars are built.
It’s not often that you hear of a new car brand launching with an open API, sharing services, and the first dedicated app store for cars, but those are the top-line items on Lynk & Co’s agenda and press release. There is a vehicle making its debut here, of course — the hybrid Lynk & Co 01 compact SUV — but the pitch is grander than just this initial model. Geely wants Lynk & Co to essentially be a Volvo for millennials: reassuring and secure, but also perfectly integrated and synced up with our constantly connected lives.
What’s more, like Tesla, Lynk & Co will be going direct to consumers, cutting out the substantial cost of middlemen dealerships and both delivering and picking up cars for servicing right at the customer’s door. Geely claims that as much as 25 percent of a car’s cost can be sunk into dealerships, so while it will have flagship stores around the world, its primary distribution method for Lynk & Co cars will be direct. The company hopes to get the first Lynk & Co vehicles out to China in 2017, to be followed by the US and Europe thereafter.
Every carmaker is presently addressing the challenge of how best to work with smartphones and a more connected world, but Lynk & Co’s advantage is that it’s not layering technology on top of what it already has, high-tech is already at the heart of its design. Fagerhag explains that Lynk & Co cars will offer not only Apple CarPlay, MirrorLink, and Android Auto (in some markets), but also "every single one of our cars will have onboard telematics for permanent connection with the world via the Lynk & Co cloud." That connectivity is handled in partnership with Ericsson, which happens to have a couple of gleaming R&D buildings only a minute’s walk away from the CEVT headquarters, which is itself within a stone’s throw away from Volvo's facilities.
Knowing only the name Lynk & Co and some of the backstory of its parent company, I arrived in Gothenburg with a healthy measure of skepticism. It seemed to me like a Chinese company was trying to buy its way into Europe, and to a certain extent, that’s exactly what this venture is. But after a day of learning about the literal hundreds of years of automotive design experience walking through the CEVT halls and around the four global Geely design studios, I’m now much more open to the idea. After all, there’s nothing wrong with throwing money at a problem if it’s spent wisely.
If Fagerhag is the engineering godfather overseeing Lynk & Co development, his design counterpart is the decorated Volvo veteran Peter Horbury. Horbury received the brief for the Lynk & Co design in the fall of 2013: it had to be a design-driven brand (something he recalls with a grin of pure joy) with global appeal that should nevertheless look and be designed in a northern European style. And the first car to lead that charge had to be a compact SUV. That’s it. Everything else, as Horbury asserts convincingly, was up to his 400-strong design team to decide. "With this all-new brand, there was absolutely nothing," says Horbury. "No history, nothing to constrain us other than our own imaginations."
Tempted by the offer of a completely blank slate to build both a car and a brand on, many automotive designers "left highly influential careers at major brands to come here and work with me," claims the Geely design chief. One of the other things I discovered on this trip is that Geely is already responsible for making London’s TX5 hybrid black cabs, so the parent company does have some credibility that stretches beyond Volvo’s pedigree and the high level of competence in the CEVT and Geely Design studios.
So what is the Lynk & Co proposition? It aims to be the classic aspirational brand, slotting in between Geely’s own-brand budget vehicles and Volvo’s more premium-focused lineup. Speaking of the 01 SUV, Horbury says "this car gives a perceived value way beyond its price," giving away the ultimate goal of the initiative. The 01 has a bold and rather aggressive design, with its headlights protruding vertically as a signature visual feature. Horbury calls them "piercing twin blades of light." It has large wheels, low overhangs, enormous rear-view mirrors, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. But most importantly, it is loaded with tech, which can be accessed most readily via a center-mounted 10.1-inch touchscreen.
With a Lynk & Co car, you’ll be able to manage almost everything via a smartphone app, including providing digital keys to give access to your friends and family. The entire user interface within the car is customizable, including rearranging icons and functions to suit your tastes, and the highlight color will sync up with your chosen background image. The all-digital instrument panel is also rearrangeable. One last quote from the endlessly quotable Horbury:
"The perceived quality begins in design. Every single component that comes into contact with the customer’s senses must reflect the highest possible quality for the price."
Lynk & Co vehicles will be even smarter, though. They’ll be able to share data among themselves, including things like available parking spaces and the correct speed to go in order to hit the next green light just in time. There’s a 4G antenna integrated into the roof of the Lynk & Co 01, keeping it permanently connected with the help of Microsoft and Alibaba alongside Ericsson. The one, quite significant, downside to all of this effort is that it also reads like a manual titled "let's make a car with the most possible hacking vectors." In the connected world, greater convenience always comes with the tradeoff of greater vulnerability.
In branding terms, Volvo wants to keep its distance and Geely stresses that this is a wholly independent brand. But in reality, the same humans are working on both brands and their offices are right next to each other. Geely CEO Conghui An acknowledges this, saying that "along this journey, we can’t go without the help of Volvo as a good mentor." And Volvo itself knows that "a strong Lynk will also be good for Volvo" — which, admittedly, might be the nice way of saying that it’s better for Volvo that its new sister brand doesn’t fail miserably.
As someone who’s unlikely to ever be tempted to buy an SUV, I’m not ideally positioned to judge the Lynk & Co 01’s looks, but I like the intent behind this car and the tech-savvy approach. I also like that it’s highly distinctive, and as Stefan Rosén, head of advanced design at Geely says, Lynk & Co "would rather be something special to someone, than be bland to everyone." That is the sort of attitude we need more of in the car industry.
Lynk & Co wrapped up its debut presentation by rolling out an aggressive Lynk concept car, also built atop the CMA, showing off the flexibility and versatility of that framework. Its headlights were even zanier than the 01’s, and it was laden with nightclub-like illumination and other touches of design excess. That was just for fun, but the Lynk & Co plan includes a 02, a 03, and further models to complete a full range of cars under this new brand. Electrification will play a central role in all of them, including, it seems, some all-electric models — though the initial 01 is a more conventional hybrid affair with a 1.5L engine to go along with its battery-powered electric motors.
More of Lynk & Co’s strategy will be revealed tomorrow, October 20th, at the formal launch of the 01 and the overall brand in Berlin. That’s when Geely will divulge the full details surrounding its unique approach to marketing and distribution with Lynk & Co, and how the company hopes it will help transform the modes of car ownership and operation. Whatever happens, though, it’s quite obvious that Lynk & Co will be here for the long haul. The designers and engineers assembled in Gothenburg today tell me that they’ve already completed most of the work on the other cars in the range and it’s simply a matter of rolling them all out now.