Swede Sunlight

Volvo's curvaceous C70 is now available in drop-top form, custom tailored for those who are more passionate about style than speed.

V olvo debuts new open cars with about the same ease and frequency that Great Britain crowns new monarchs. The very first Volvo, in 1927, was a dour little four-seat open car known variously as the PV4 and OV4. It wasn't until almost 30 years later, in January, 1955, that Volvo unveiled its second convertible, the justifiably rare fiberglass-bodied Volvosport P 1900. And thanks to Sweden's balmy Mediterranean climate, both of Volvo's two open cars met with an eerie silence in the marketplace. (Yes, yes, a handful of custom P1800 soft-top conversions appeared during the '60s, but these were not built by Volvo. Their source was an enterprising Long Island, New York dealership, Volvoville, which more recently began producing stretched Volvo limousines.)
It's not surprising, then, that with the unveiling of the C70, Volvo's third-ever convertible, Gothenburg has wheeled out its very best gravlax and akvavit. For its zealously loyal ownership body, as well as for open-car fans everywhere who believe there's always room for one more convertible, the debut of this pleasing ragtop is cause for celebration.

The Sensual Volvo

At the C70 convertible's introduction, Volvo's chief stylist characterized it as "the Volvo to fall in love with." Now, if you're one of the crashworthiness-is-next-to-godliness Volvo tifosi, that remark will only confuse. To you, every Volvo grommet and lock washer is cause for adoration and rejoicing. For the rest of us, however, the C70 convertible must merit our love the old-fashioned way - it must earn it.
At first gawk, this soft-top tourer scores high on the Covetability Scale. It is a handsome, concise, muscular shape that, unlike so many open cars, looks graceful and tucked-in whether the top is up or down. No mean feat, that. In profile, the C70's massive top is almost half as large as the car itself, allowing full headroom for rear-seat passengers. But to achieve this, the top had to be extremely carefully modeled in order not to look clumsy, cumbersome, or um...over the top.
Mission accomplished - this fully automatic push-button top is superb. It opens and shuts smoothly and quietly in exactly 30 seconds. And perhaps inevitably, as befits a safe, safe, safe builder like Volvo, the C70's no-horseplay top mechanism cannot be operated unless the C70's transmission is in Park and the emergency brake is engaged. When open, the lavishly insulated top - in Sweden, what else?-is completely concealed beneath a large folding boot lid, giving the car a very polished appearance.
With the top down at highway speeds, front seat riders are well protected from the airflow. As has become de rigeurthese days, Volvo has a matte-black, perforated wind-blocker accessory that is mounted behind the front seat. It's tempting to assume that this open car, like so many others, was simply an afterthought - a chopped-top C70 coupe. Right, in some ways - wrong, in most ways. For reasons of commonality and economy, the convertible inevitably shares many components with the coupe. However, Volvo says that from the outset, the convertible commanded equal consideration during the conceptualization and preliminary forming of the twin C70 models. To achieve good proportions, the convertible exerted a strong influence on the coupe's greenhouse shape. The result is that the C70 is a styling winner, in both coupe and convertible forms.

A Targeted Tourer

Aside from being a complete convertible in its own right, the C70 is something more as well - a very precisely aimed piece of marketing. In Volvo's view, the convertible buyer has some exceedingly well-defined preferences that differ from those of the coupe. The convertible's unique equipment, character and performance run deep, defining a significantly narrower niche.
You may have noted that in operating the convertible's top, we mentioned the necessity of putting its automatic transmission in Park. Does this mean all C70 convertibles have automatics? What about us bad boys and canyon racers?
Let's have it said once and for all: The C70 convertible is a thoroughly winsome automobile, but there is no mistaking it for a sports car. This is, as George Bush would have it, a kinder, gentler European touring car. It should be grouped with the convertibles from Saab and VW, on the modest side, and with the highly successful Chrysler Sebring convertible, on the showier side. With this convertible, Volvo's marketers have in mind a leisurely driver who cares a good deal more about the crashworthiness of "passive" safety than the spirited performance and aggressive crisis-control capabilities of a car with exceptional "active" safety.
Accordingly, a manual transmission is not offered with the C70 convertible in the US, period. We hotspurs can always hope that, as with the Mercedes-Benz SLK, market pressure will finally dictate a manual gearbox option further down the road. Then again, if a major portion of your driving takes place in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour sludge, an automatic is probably the best solution anyway. In either case, the automatic-only convertible will be seen as a mild-side tourer, not a wild-side interceptor.
Underscoring this point, in Europe two levels of chassis tuning are available, "Comfort" and the more aggressive "Dynamic," but the US model gets only one...and it ain't the Dynamic. Similarly, the convertible will be sold with only a light-pressure version of the coupe's transverse-mounted turbocharged five cylinder engine.
Where the higher-compression coupe engine makes 236 horsepower at 5100 rpm, the convertible has 190 horsepower at 5200 rpm. And while the coupe makes 243 lb/ft of torque at 2700 rpm, the convertible delivers just 199 lb/ft at 1800 rpm. Result: The convertible accelerates to 60 mph in a middling 8.5 seconds.
Doubtless, Volvo has a business plan that justifies this car's mild state of tune. And to be sure, the majority of American drivers probably wouldn't know what to do with the Dynamic suspension anyway. Yet given its underachiever specs, it's hard to believe this attractive convertible would not benefit from a stronger whiff of sporting character. In the past five years, one European builder after another has begun moving in on the performance image typified by BMW, to each's benefit on the showroom sales floor. Put another way, not everyone wants a Dodge Viper, but just knowing the car exists adds a little something extra to every Dodge Neon you see foozling by. And as evidenced by low-volume rockets like "Thor's Lightning Bolt," the late Volvo T-SR, Gothenburg certainly knows how to stir the enthusiast libido. Why not add a pinch of pepper to this "sporty" C70 convertible, if only to tease the very teaseable egos in the country-club parking lot?

Bits And Pieces

If Volvo's new convertible inhabits the gentler side of the touring-car spectrum, its amenities place it among the front rank of mid-luxury cars. Volvo characterizes its convertible as "extroverted, an enjoy-life car." Rightly so. Its interior delivers everything convention requires in this price class, including really gorgeous black walnut trim.
What's more, its amenities are delivered in an understated and pleasingly no-fuss way. The interior and dashboard are finished in light, low-contrast earth tones that, in the Scandinavian mode, are both soothing and orderly. Switchgear is handsome, with round-edged forms and good tactile sensitivity. The dash is laid out following contemporary convention, and besides a tech and speedo, you'll find fuel and water temp gauges, a digital clock and an outside-temperature readout, warning you of icebergs in the seas ahead.
The four-speed automatic transmission - much of the competition has moved to five-speed automatics - delivers drive to the front wheels in three modes - Sport, Economy and Winter. It also has a torque convertor lock-up for third and fourth gear to stretch mileage.
Where poor driving conditions are common, the C70 can be ordered with optional TRACS electronic traction-control system.
As befits the C70's touring nature, its seats are sporting and supportive, though a good deal less so than some severe wraparounds with stiff lateral bolsters. Similarly, their cushioning is not hard-ass in the prevailing German mode. Rather, these seats are on the gentle, welcoming side. They won't make the fiercest canyon racers happy, but they're nonetheless quite insistent on keeping you in your place. Very nice.
The C70 steering wheel is excellent - small in radius, with thick wrapping. Given this car's character, steering effort and quickness is just right. The engine note is pleasingly throaty and grumbling - and one can only imagine how satisfying this car would be with the stronger high-pressure engine aboard.

The Payoff

You've read this far - now we're going to reward your patience. The C70 convertible is a real standout in two specific areas. Its first area of strength is predictable - safety. Its other strength, however, is a truly extraordinary open-car sound system.
Based on the 850 platform, as it is, the C70's safety provisions encircle you with front and side airbags, as well as delivering the expected seatbelt pre-tensioners, knee bolsters and progressive-collapse crash structure. But in a convertible, one of the greatest threats to its occupants is a rollover. Accordingly, besides standard SIPS (Volvo's Side-Impact Protection System), this convertible features the new ROPS (Volvo-exe for Rollover Protection System). In combination with the use of high-strength steel in the windshield frame to help it act as a rollbar, the C70 also has not one but two spring-loaded rollbars mounted side by side in the space behind the rear seats. Normally retracted beneath the convertible-top boot, these rollbars are triggered by a variety of threats: If the car rolls beyond 40 degrees side to side, 72 degrees in pitch fore and aft, or its suspension unloads in "free flight," in 200 milliseconds the rollbars are deployed to roughly the same height as the windshield frame. By this method, all front and rear passengers are protected vertically in a rollover. Should your ROPS sensors read these roll, pitch or unload values without a rollover, a Volvo dealer can repack the rollbars...telling you to try harder next time. Similar systems exist in other open cars, but Volvo ROPS - used in conjunction with seatbelts, of course - looks to be a valuable addition.
Just as significant - indeed, unique in open cars - is the spectacular C70 convertible audio system. Listen...and we mean it literally this time. You have never heard car audio in a convertible that sounds like this Volvo exclusive. The balance, the quality, the palpable presence of this sound is so good it may make live concerts obsolete. So what does it really matter if the C70 convertible doesn't get the good engine, the good transmission, the good suspension? If you take your audio straight, no chaser, this tourer's got enough cranium-cracking aural horsepower to break the sound barrier standing stock still in the parking lot.
Which is where serious sports car drivers will want to leave this one, handing the keys to a lady who wants an open-air ride to the salon and later, to the club pool, toenails asinine.
The thought of which leaves niche marketers smiling, we think....

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