HAVING A CAR in New York City is an oddity, either an indulgence or a marker of being from somewhere else. Even though I grew up in the city, we always had one. My mother’s family was military, but they settled in California when she was in high school, and she carries the state’s love for cars. She still talks about learning to drive in the Mojave Desert in her father’s tomato-red 1956 T-Bird Convertible; in the family album, right next to photos of her children, there are pictures of her 1967 Sunbeam Alpine drophead coupé, its hood hand-painted with hippie mandalas.
My relationship with cars has always been less emotional. I got my first car when I moved to California in college, a practical Honda Accord with faded paint and low mileage. I traded it in a few years later for a Civic, a stick shift which I began learning to drive as I left the lot. After spending most of my 20s living in Europe, where my driving was limited to rental cars — tiny little Fiats and Citroëns that I drove over switchbacks in the Alps and in the mad traffic of Palermo — I returned to New York and bought a Saab. I loved its hatchback, which reminded me of my grandmother’s Datsun. But it was a lemon that had to be towed off the Manhattan Bridge the second day I had it.
When my daughter was born, we traded the Saab for a silver Audi A4 wagon. It had a turbo engine that was almost useless in the city, and its low-profile tires constantly blew out on potholes. But it felt like freedom when you finally did hit a highway. We drove it for years until we moved to the beach in Mexico; there, we bought an old, lifted-up black Jeep with tinted windows, perfect for banging around on dirt roads washed out by the summer storms.
The pandemic unexpectedly returned us to New York City. My partner drove the Jeep back from Mexico, where it promptly died — thankfully on a Brooklyn street corner rather than while he was crossing the Sonoran Desert. We replaced it with a Volvo XC90.
We picked the car for practical reasons. With three kids, there are only so many SUVs with a pop-up third row that are small enough to street park in Brooklyn. Plus, Volvos are known for being exceptionally safe. Many of the features we have come to see as standard for cars originated with Volvo, including the shoulder belt, rear-facing car seats, and side-impact protection. Safety is one of the company’s core values, and over the past 10 years they’ve worked toward the admirable goal that no one is killed while driving (or being driven in) a Volvo.
Despite my other family members’ relationships to cars, I did not expect to love one. As I got to know our Volvo, I began to feel a distinct form of endearment. If not love, it felt like something. The feeling started with the doors. The doors of a Volvo make a noise that others don’t make — a thick, satisfying, and reassuring thunk. I spoke to the head of safety at Volvo, a taciturn Swedish engineer, and asked him if the sound was engineered to elicit my emotional response. He almost smiled, then explained that they use a higher grade of steel in their frames for safety and that the thunk was likely due to its weight. He did seem concerned when I likened driving a Volvo to driving a tank, until I clarified that I meant a very sporty tank.
Further emotions developed as I got to know the interior design of the car. The functionality embedded in each detail felt so deeply considered and graceful. I could sense the imprint of a thoughtful human’s attention to each feature, from the pop-up booster to the latches that maneuvered the third-row seats.
My only quibble with the XC90 has been its engine. My time living on the delicate Mexican beach deepened my distaste for driving a car that consumes gas. So when I was recently invited to Ghent (where Volvo’s factories are) to drive Volvo’s newest offering, the all-electric C40 Recharge, I responded with legitimate enthusiasm.
Many of you have probably driven an all-electric car already. I had not. I was completely unprepared for how wildly fast they are. Without a combustion engine, the response time of the pedal is immediate, and I was thrown back against my seat several times while accelerating. Aside from being fast, the car is also sleek; on the freeway, I got a thumbs-up from a very excited Belgian truck driver.
Alongside an expansive computer system developed with Google and a one-pedal drive system, the car maintains a raft of innovative safety features. These include a 360-degree parking camera, assisted braking, and pilot-assist driving. The safety engineer told me that they’ve rigorously studied the balance of how to provide computerized assistance while also keeping drivers engaged in the process of driving. (I assume this is to avoid the horror stories we hear about drivers crashing because they were sitting in the backseat, lulled into disengagement by the deceptively named “autopilot” feature offered by other electric cars.)
Volvo has set a target to be all-electric by 2030. Other luxury carmakers have set slightly less ambitious goals, but they’re all headed there; the writing is on the wall for combustion engines, as it should be. At the airport, I couldn’t help but notice that every single luxury car being advertised was electric. When I returned home to my XC90, its door sounds and design were still satisfying, but its combustion engine now felt even more pronounced, like I’m carting around in a dinosaur. I’ve turned my dreams toward the C40, which feels like the future.
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Skye Parrott Writer
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.