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Letter from Europe: 1998 Volvo S70 Saloon

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

16 September 1998

As regular readers may recall after 11 long years I finally changed cars. Not an Earth-shattering event by any means but pretty historic in our family where cars tend to be kept for rather a long time. But, patriotism is one thing, rust is another. For over 20 years I faithfully supported Rover.

If only the locals had ever studied a subject under the heading RUST. If only..had they been honest at least they would have called all their cars the Rover Emmenthal (a Swiss cheese full of holes of the uninitiated) and then we would have known what to expect. This way we, my daughter and I, just watched in desperation as our cars slowly dissolved under our very eyes. You might say that 11 years is a long time but like a fool I believed the PR man who assured me that after two false starts in the late 80s cars were fine. When 11 years on I dared to suggest to the very same PR man that all was not well he merely said "Good Heavens, you should have sold it years ago!" How about that for belief in your product?

Consequently the purchase of another Rover was completely out of the question. They may be owned by BMW but how long will it take for the German engineers to teach their colleagues in and around Birmingham that RUST does not sell? As they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time.. -never again.

So the hunt was on for an alternative. A long European trip was looming and I was rapidly running out of time. After studying the "Good, the Bad and the Ugly" section in the back of CAR Magazine we finally decided on a Volvo S70 2.5T.

volvoHow times change?! For decades Volvo was the butt of motoring jokes, supposedly safe but boring, boring, boring and handling like the T34 tanks of the Russian Army back in 1945.

The little Volvo, the one made in Holland, was so bad that when road test editors were asked to take them home they always parked them somewhere else to protect their street cred. Don't believe me? Ask any motoring scribe in Europe. When the ultimate bad car list of the 20th Century is finally written the Volvo 343 will take its place alongside the Wartburg from East Germany, early Datsuns from Japan, the Yugo from you know where, the Renault 9/11 from France and those horrendous Skodas. American readers will of course have their own favorites, which mercifully never made it across the pond. As you can see we had enough lemons already. Still, enough of all that, it was time to pack and head for that great marvel, the Channel Tunnel.

The Volvo came from an exceptionally friendly dealer in Slough, England, just round the corner from Heathrow Airport. The MD, Charles Slaughter did run the extra mile to change a malfunctioning radio/CD in record time and enabled us to catch the train for the 35 mile ride under the water on time. This may sound like an old gramophone record but unless you are desperate to see the white cliffs of Dover stick to the tunnel. What I love is the total lack of hassle. You drive on, you drive off, and hey presto you are on your way to anywhere in Europe.

golfOur destination was Zurich in Switzerland. It looked very far so we started studying the map to look for a suitable place to stop for the night. Except for one thing. We did not count on the Volvo's cruising abilities. As a Volvo is normally associated with doddering elderly housewives, it did not attract any attention from the men in blue. Whereas in the Ferrari, I spend at least half my time looking out for the bad guys at a near legal 140 km/h. In the Volvo we were cruising at 159 all the way with no trouble at all.(Tickets get expensive in France at 160 and VERY expensive at 200km/h) If you think you are another Schumacher in the making, just make sure you have an AWFUL lot of money on you. Forget cheques and credit cards, the French cops were not born yesterday. Anyway, St Quentin, Reims, Metz, Strasbourg, Colmar, Basel and just 7 hours after leaving Calais we were having a well-deserved drink at the Dolder Grand-what the British would call a great pub. It is in fact nothing of the sort; it is a grand old hotel with a very difficult 9 hole golf course to boot.

golfOur next stop was the legendary ski-resort of Kitzbuhel, home of the one of the fastest downhill runs in the World. Luckily here too the natives invested in a tricky 9 hole course based round the last few hundred yards of the Olympic run so a good time was had by all. In case you are wondering what is all this stuff about golf in an article on The Auto Channel, let me make a confession- I am a recent convert. Consequently I dream about birdies. Those who play golf will understand, those who don't never will. I did not until recently.

The Volvo in the meantime was running like a dream and using very little fuel into the bargain. There are three modes- E for economy, S for sport and W for winter. As 100 miles per hour was easily attainable in "E" there was little point in cruising in "S". This resulted in a fuel consumption which was a lot nearer to 30 than to 20 miles per gallon, after 300 miles -480 km- there was still plenty left in the tank. I don't know about you but 300 miles seems like the sort of distance after which it's nice to stop for a coffee.

Driving through Austria is -theoretically- a Mary Poppins type experience, lots of beautiful mountains, rivers, BSE free cows, good beer, wiener schnitzel and friendly natives in lederhosen. In case you've never been to Austria these are heavy leather shorts the practicality of which is completely lost on me. Terribly handy apparently when after a few drinks the locals dance and slap themselves on the bottom. Each- hopefully- to his own. Unfortunately the polizei spend most of their time trying to bolster the local economy by trapping innocent tourists with their radars. As speed limits change every few yards from 100 to 70 to 50 to 70 to 50 and so on it is literally impossible to observe them all without breaking suddenly and causing monumental pile-ups. Of course when they are needed to sort out congestion, they are nowhere to be seen. Take a place like Zell, Austria and see that it is a complete Zoo during August. Tens of thousands of people, some of them exceedingly shady looking but the cops are miles away in search of a few extra shillings. Pathetic. How we escaped a fine is a miracle but after several frustrating out made bearable only by the brilliant AC we got to our destination near Graz.

From here it was only a short hop to Budapest and the nearby Hungaroring, scene of the Hungarian Grand Prix. The race itself was exciting and a good time was had by all. Too good for some of the appalling Schuma! cher supporters who lurched around in their Dekra hats in a permanently drunken stupor and invading the track whilst the cars were still on the track to celebrate their hero's victory. Michael-whom I interview every year during the traditional Marlboro press conference- was in fine form and displayed an excellent sense of humor. Pity it deserted him so badly two weeks later in Belgium.

Teammate, Eddie Irvine is F1's most eligible bachelor with good looks, millions in the bank, a private plane, three Ferraris in the garage and a helicopter. I don't think it gets much better than that! We had a good laugh when the subject turned to fitness and I had a chance to ask Jean Todt about his. The two drivers thought it was hilarious as Jean's idea of keeping fit is playing Nintendo in an air-conditioned office.

The return journey was a drag. Europe in August is wall to wall with cars and of course driving habits differ hugely. You have big fat German businessmen in their autobahn cruisers pushing everybody out of the way, you have timid East Europeans some of them still in pre-historic Trabants, the Dutch with their caravans, it is essentially a pretty dangerous mix calling for extreme caution. Must admit it was good to see the signs for Calais after a very long drive. The Volvo never missed a beat. It isn't perfect of course, no car is but the silly things-such as the positioning of some of the switches- one can get used to.

What is amazing how Volvo have managed to change direction without losing some of their "Volvoness". They have retained their image for safety but managed to add dramatically better dynamics and styling. They have entered their cars in saloon car racing-with huge success- and have had the courage to come up with exciting new shapes such as the C70-winner of the convertible category in The Auto Channel's first ever Cars of the Year Award. I have yet to drive the new S80 but early indications are favorable. Which, in a roundabout way brings me to the Nissan Altima I have been driving recently in California. It had 80 miles on the clock when it reached me so it was interesting to observe the build quality. Perfect. Not a rattle anywhere. And yet there was something missing. I've mentioned it in the past and Nissan themselves are fully aware of it- they have to raise their profile, just like Volvo they have to put some excitement back into the product. Call it street credibility if you like. I am sure that they have some exciting new products in the pipeline but there is no doubt in my mind- they have a tough job ahead of them. Volvo has done it, would you believe Skoda has done it, let's hope Nissan can do it. Soon.