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Behind the Wheel / PAUL DEAN

Elegant C70 Almost Manages to Melt Volvo's Iceberg Image

June 25, 1998|PAUL DEAN

Swedes rarely display a penchant for fluorescent underwear or aquavit martinis, not even in their land of midnight misplacement, where some Friday night parties could be made to last several days.

Bjorn Borg. Greta Garbo. Gunnar the Viking. Not a stand-up comic in the bunch. And remember, it was Sweden that invented the rutabaga.

Given this admittedly stereotypical lack of national effervescence, what is a nice, stodgy company like Volvo doing mucking around in the frivolous, impulse-driven market for convertibles?

If the 1999 Volvo C70 convertible is any measure, it intends to do very nicely, thank you.

Here is a four-seater soft top--virtually the first in the 70-year history of Goteborg-based Volvo--that is far from flashy, and sensual only around the edges. But it does capture a distinctive European elegance, combining dignity with an appealing design that almost does away with the severe, functional, iceberg image of the marque.

FOR THE RECORD - Dings and Scratches
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 30, 1998 Home Edition Highway 1 Part W Page 15 Financial Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing Roadster--The Volvo C70 convertible reviewed by Paul Dean (Behind the Wheel, June 25) was pictured, to answer the many complaints we received from readers. The C70 appeared not with the review but with the chart illustrating every 1998 and 1999 convertible available in Southern California. We apologize for not offering a better road map to the image.

At a base price of $42,995, this cabriolet, due to arrive in California showrooms next month, is not exactly a budget purchase. Especially when compared with the similarly sized, equally handsome BMW 323i for $7,000 less. Or the hairy-wristed Ford Mustang GT convertible at $24,000.

The C70's five-cylinder engine, albeit turbocharged, fringes on the venerable and produces only 190 horsepower. Mitsubishi's Eclipse Spyder GS-T does much better than that, squeezing 20 more horsepower from an engine with one less cylinder.

Yet Volvo has never been a company that builds according to price and pace. It caters to thoughtful owners who prefer sturdily built personal transportation: mature, even over-engineered cars that deliver broad safety margins, quality interior finishes and furnishings, and technological innovations that are the products of careful research, not responses to quick-and-flimsy desires to be different.

Buyers want Volvos to last, to age gradually and age well, to represent a common-sense purchase. All of which, in the past, has led to the perception of Volvos as professorial beasts of boredom wreathed in clouds of dog hair and Old Holborn pipe tobacco smells.

*

Until now. More accurately, until last year, when Volvo got off its glacier and gave us the 236-horsepower C70 coupe, all sporty curves and flourishes with performance on a par with the big dogs. Now comes this truly dramatic convertible guaranteed to flatten fears that Volvo might renege on an expressed want to tug all its offerings into the 20th century.

The C70 convertible is built on the same platform and suspension as the coupe but with a power train borrowed from the S90 sedan and V90 wagon. They also were introduced last year but with chunkier styling that shows traces of Volvo's plodding yester-image.

All of the external sheet metal--with the exception of hood and headlamps--is exclusive to the soft top. Better yet, the car was designed and engineered as a convertible, which means considerable chassis bracing, boron super-steel for the windshield frame, reinforced door rails, a steel wall behind the rear seat and a horseshoe-shaped rigidity zone surrounding the rear passenger area.

How stiff and hefty?

That additional steel has the C70 convertible weighing 300 pounds more than a C70 coupe with its coin holders full of quarters. A chunk of that weight is built into a pair of spring-loaded rollover hoops, ready to snap into place like a bear trap should the car exceed preordained tilt levels. Even, God forbid, when the car is airborne.

For the time being, this front-drive convertible will be available only with the 190-horsepower five-banger mated to a four-speed automatic. The engine is adequate in acceleration, capable in its mid-ranges, but no neck-snapper when times should be getting exhilarating. The transmission is smooth, effortless, but could use a downshift button to make interesting roads a little more fascinating.

Less docile Volvovians have already been heard muttering that the C70 would be a more pleasurable--certainly a more rampageous--convertible if equipped with a manual transmission and the 236-horsepower engine of the C70 coupe. Volvo says it is on its way.

On the other hand, a certain amount of gentility is to be desired in a sophisticated convertible that, says Volvo, will have as many women as men in its buyer body.

"We designed the C70 convertible to be an enjoyable driving experience and a work of automotive art," says Helge Alten, president of Volvo Cars of North America Inc.

Volvo's first dabble in convertible art was the 1927 OV4 Jakob. Car heaters had yet to be invented, ice-fishing was more popular than topless motoring in locales that close to the Arctic Circle, and only 200 OV4s sold before Jakob froze to death. Next was the 1956 Volvosport P1900. Sixty-eight of these creaking, cracking, flapping fiberglass roadsters were sold before Volvo yielded the plastic-bodied field to the Chevrolet Corvette.

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