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Soaring US Volvo sales capitalize on company's sleek cars, new image

Volvo of America, adding fuel to its surging US sales drive, will unleash its all-new, high-tech 760 GLE in this country in late fall. This car is light years away from the sad design of Volvo's first US model, which hit the road some 25 years ago looking like a pre-World War II Ford.

Since then the company has made remarkable gains, and it has now added a turbocharger to its station wagon. Its sedans already had a turbo option.

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No longer the ''quiet Swede'' with slow uptake, drab interior, and little else, the Volvo GLT turbocharged 5-door station wagon, in addition to the 2- and 4-door turbo-boosted sedans, puts the worn-out, poky image to rest.

It's enough to make a motorist (and auto writer) sit up and take notice.

Rated at 127 horsepower at 5,700 rpm, the 2.1-liter, fuel-injected engine gives the GLT wagon wings. The wheelbase is 104.3 inches.

After driving both the 4-door sedan (automatic transmission) and station wagon (5-speed overdrive manual transmission), it's easy to see why Volvo is enjoying a surging demand for its cars at a time when so much of the world's auto industry is stalled in the breakdown lane.

The Swedish carmaker, which will sell around 72,000 vehicles in the United States this year, looks for a 10 percent sales increase in '83, according to Bjorn Ahlstrom, president of Volvo of America and architect of the Swedish carmaker's sharp US gains, including expansion into other fields. At least 10, 000 of the cars are expected to be turbocharged, up 14 percent from 1981.

Even the diesel is moving ahead, after being off the market in 1980 because of a row with the Environemental Protection Agency over emissions. In 1981, however, the company sold 8,000 diesels - 11 percent of total sales in the US. It expects to do better this year.

Volvo of America is a $2.5 billion company and a significant part of the $12 billion Swedish manufacturer.

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The first Volvos came to the US in the mid-1950s, but they never would have won a pennant for style.

But now, with an improved suspension, a turbo under the hood, and a practical design that can stand up to the US competition, both domestic and import, Volvo is capitalizing on its new image. Even a few police departments and taxi companies are looking at the cars. Volvo is pursuing the fleet customer and any one else willing to take a look. During 1981 Avis and Hertz added more than 2, 500 Volvos to their rental fleets.

Tourist deliveries - cars picked up in Sweden, driven on vacation, and then shipped to the US - also are up from a total of 183 vehicles in 1981 to many times that number already this year.

The highest-selling Volvo model is the 4-door DL sedan with automatic transmission.

With the starting price in the US not much over $10,000, Volvo considers its price position sound.

The all-new 760 GLE has a 5-inch longer wheelbase than the car it replaces and a new rear suspension system. The coefficient of drag, a measure of the slipperiness of the car through the air, is rated at 0.398, some 11 percent lower than the present GLE which is 0.447. A 10 percent improvement in mileage is forecast.

''The car is designed to be serviced, not just built,'' according to Mr. Ahlstrom.

Even so, the 760 GLE is still a front-engine, rear-drive car, not front-drive. To Volvo engineers, it makes sense. ''It's a trade-off,'' says Ahlstrom.

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