Elegant C70 Almost Manages to Melt Volvo's Iceberg Image

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.

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.

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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.

Third time around, the market, the design and the charm seem perfectly aligned with Mars. Materials and techniques for keeping drafts, rain, smog, noise and fast-food smells away from the inside of a convertible have never been better. Same thing with keeping refrigerated and heated air--and your pine deodorant fragrances--from spilling out.

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Here's how the C70 scores in specific areas of Ragtop Rules:

* The rear window is glass, is equipped with a de-mister and won't fade to umber after two summers in the sun.

* Speed-bump cowl shake and driveway chassis flex were noticeable on our test car, but a Volvo spokesman explained that it was a hand-built prototype and that production models would fit tighter than undersized Levi's.

* Wind protection with the top down is superb. If your toupee is thumbtacked tight enough, you might not need a John Deere baseball cap. We certainly didn't raise the optional wind deflectors.

* Raising and lowering the lined lid is a one-button, fingertip operation with a 30-second interval between fully covered and stark naked.

* A CD sound system is from Alpine by Dolby out of Dynaudio. It is 400 watts with 14 speakers, which is quite enough to keep Charles Osgood safe from jackhammers. But we do wish Volvo would find a way to put visual considerations ahead of audio optimums and lose that obtrusive speaker atop the dashboard. It sticks out uglier than a fever blister.

Talking of speakers: Others, positioned low and forward in both doors, do a perfect job of reducing storage space to just enough for a very small cell phone. Talking of space: Trunk space, even with the top up and out of the way, is for duffel bags only. We tried and failed to get a 19-inch television in a box stowed back there.

A fully equipped C70 (premium sound system and wind blocker are about the only options) rides well and rumble-free with Pirelli P6000 tires on 16-inch alloy wheels (18-inchers are available upon request) showing more spokes than the average gun carriage. Brakes are four-wheel discs (anti-lock, of course), with the suspension carefully tuned for comfort driving. Handling ranges from benign to peppy, depending on the mood and input of the soul behind the wheel.

But the steering needs work. It is speed-sensitive, but at dawdle speeds the car is heavy on the wheel. Holding slight turns at freeway paces reveals a tendency for the steering to tug itself back to dead center. Only at 70 mph and above will the car steer and track fair, true and neutral.

With a Volvo, crash-worthiness is a given.

Durability and reliability continue to rise far above industry norms. And let us not forget that Volvo was the first car builder to install six-digit odometers. Because in the '50s, the competition simply wouldn't hit 99,999 miles without a new or rebuilt engine.

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The Good: Clean breakaway from the Swedish blahs without tampering with Volvo's traditional strength and safety. Glass rear window that should last as long as the car. Sophisticated looks and elegant equipment: tight and cozy with top up, very cool with top down. Poised to party without getting vulgar and noisy about it.

The Bad: Steering on the lumbering side. Could use more places to put things, including luggage.

The Ugly: Check out that speaker on top of the dashboard.

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1999 Volvo C70 Convertible

Cost

* Base, $42,995. (Includes power top; leather upholstery; front and side air bags; automatic climate control; four-speed manual transmission; anti-lock disc brakes; alloy wheels; cruise control; traction control; heated seats; power windows, seats and mirrors; glass rear window with defroster.)

* As tested, $45,430. (Adds premium sound system, wind blocker and destination charges.)

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Engine

* 2.5-liter, 20-valve, turbocharged, inline-five producing 190 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, front-drive, four-passenger convertible.

Performance

* 0-60 mph with four-speed automatic, 8.8 seconds (as tested).

* Top speed, 131 mph (manufacturer's test).

* Fuel consumption, city and highway, 19 and 26 mpg, with four-speed automatic (Environmental Protection Agency estimate).

Curb Weight

* 3,630 pounds.

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.
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