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RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL

Open-and-shut case

No question: Pininfarina tricked out the retractable C70 T5 -- and Volvo will never be the same.

July 26, 2006|DAN NEIL

A few years ago, I spent some time in Stockholm during the midsummer holiday, a time when sturdy and sober Swedes emerge from their homes and go to the beach in huge and appallingly pasty numbers. It was then that I began to formulate my latitudinal theory of nakedness.

Close to the equator, nakedness doesn't even register particularly, because it's hot and such exposure seems perfectly natural and organic to the setting. It's clothing that seems perverse. If you've ever spent time on a topless beach in, say, Brazil, you know that the rush of nudity wears off in about five minutes. Then it's time for cocktails. However, the farther north you go, and the more the natives tend to be bundled up against the elements, the greater the shock and titillation when they finally do take off their clothes. Which is why the sight of a naked Canadian lumberjack is so enthralling. Or is that just me?

To the point, then: There is something inexpressibly illicit about a convertible Volvo, a Nordic brand that has spent much of its history buttoned up to the chin, literally and figuratively (the sleek, be-finned Frua/Ghia-designed P1800 of the 1960s being the exception that proves the rule). Just consider the ideography of the company badge, the grille with the left-to-right slash across it, so much like the forbidding red circle-and-slash symbol. How Lutheran can you get?

Then along came the C70 convertible -- the previous generation of Volvo's four-seat cabriolet from 2000 to 2005 -- that could, in moments of sun-kissed promiscuity, peel back its canvas top to reveal its fleshy cargo. Good heavens, Ingrid! Look away!

How much more shocking, then, is the new C70 T5, equipped with its naughty retractable hardtop? Here you have an altogether proper-looking two-door coupe, an attractive car but in no way provocative and certainly offering no clue (like a canvas top) that it's capable of such immodesty. And yet, at the touch of a button, the seemingly solid roof luridly disassembles itself into three pieces, which then arrange themselves in a stack before descending into the trunk space, after which the deck lid clamshells shut on top. It's a 30-second mechanical burlesque, a servo-motor striptease. All the car needs is a red velvet curtain to duck behind.

Fortunately -- and unlike so many sun-starved Swedes on the beaches of the archipelago -- the Volvo looks good naked. The C70 is the platform twin of Volvo's S40 compact sedan and V50 wagon, and it shares those cars' close-coupled conformation and handsomely beveled shoulders. A graceful, lazy line flows across the car like poured varnish. The C70 is, however, 5 1/2 inches longer than the sedan, with the extra length composing the car's extra-large bootie call, which accommodates the retractable hardtop. Even with the top up -- which is how it will spend most of its life -- the car looks great. The deployed top has the weightless curvature of an architectural span.

Not surprising, really. The C70's styling was a joint effort between Volvo design and Pininfarina, the famed Italian coachbuilder, which took up residence at the factory in Uddevalla, Sweden, to construct the car.

While this is the first time Pininfarina has built cars outside Italy, the partnership is not unusual. Retractable hardtops are extremely tricky to engineer. Among the challenges: The seals between panels have to withstand beating sun and driving rain, yet come apart easily, quietly and quickly, for thousands of cycles. Also, the devices consume unwholesome amounts of trunk space. The C70, for instance, has a 13-cubic-foot trunk with the top up. It's half that when the top is stowed. Then there's weight. The C70 weighs 325 pounds more than the S40 sedan, which has two more doors. As cool as these two-in-one cars are, retractable hardtops do have some trade-offs.

And yet "retractables" -- a coinage more parallel to "convertibles" -- are becoming commonplace. The next BMW 3-series coupe will be a retractable, replacing both the coupe and the convertible this fall. The new Passat-based Volkswagen Eos has a five-piece top mechanism that even incorporates a glass panel, like a sunroof. Perhaps the slickest installation is for the Mazda MX-5. The top retracts in 12 seconds, doesn't consume any trunk space and adds a mere 85 pounds to the weight of the car.

Which brings me to Dollo's Law. Named after 19th-century Belgian paleontologist Louis Antoine Marie Joseph Dollo -- also famed for his pioneering work in the field of extra-wide business cards -- Dollo's Law states that evolution is progressive, that abilities gained, and structures lost, are not reversible over time.

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