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NEW CAR REVIEW
Volvo picks paradise to introduce C70 coupe/convertible
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

HANA-MAUI, Hawaii (SNS) – If anybody wants a sporty vehicle but is torn between a flashy coupe and a convertible, the Volvo C70 might be the most attractive answer to such a compelling question, because it offers the best of both worlds.

Volvo’s clever idea for replacing its popular convertible, and its recently-shelved but never-quite-popular-enough two-door coupe, is to come out with one model that accomplishes what both tried to do.

With room for four full-size occupants, the C70 has a three-piece retractable roof, which, frankly, looks better than either of its predecessors ever did.

Volvo will introduce the car as a 2006 model in April, because production started just before the end of 2005, but the changeover to 2007 models will soon follow.

Unfortunately, that means the C70 won’t be eligible for North American car of the year awards because the 2006 winner has already been named, and because it is being introduced as a 2006, it won’t qualify for the 2007 award.

That’s too bad, because after two days of serious driving, the C70 seems too good to be true.

Volvo is aiming the C70 at the Audi A4, BMW 3-Series and Saab 9.3 convertibles, and it compares well to all of them, including in price. At a base price of $39,305, the C70 is priced right amid that group of convertibles, but along with its turbocharged engine and standard six-speed stick, the C70 is a great-looking coupe that transforms into a convertible with the push of a button that causes the three-section roof to sandwich itself and disappear beneath the rear deck.

Designer John Kinsey created a stunningly long and beautiful roofline, tapering gently from the windshield back to the rear deck. It had to be a long roof, because the C70 is a genuine four-seat convertible or coupe with legroom and headroom for actual humans in the back seat, beyond small kids or those interested in self-torture.

There are great looking coupes that become convertibles, and great looking convertibles that have hard tops. Usually, they look distinctly better one way or the other. But with the C70, you could argue either way.

Personally, I think the coupe has a slight edge, because it is a genuine hardtop, with the windows going down to create a pillarless opening on both sides. But I am open to discussion, and I must admit I was pretty much caught up in the whole fantasy thing.  

If the C70 is a fantasy on wheels, the introduction took on a surrealism of its own, because Volvo introduced the car to the media in Hawaii. More precisely, at the Hana-Maui Hotel, on the easternmost tip of the island of Maui.

Only a couple of roads circulate from the hotel either way from Hana around Maui, and those roads are so tight and twisty that there are over 600 turns in one 35-mile stretch along the craggy, black, volcanic shoreline, as well as up to the 10,000-foot Haleakala Volcano.

Performance and agility are well-tested on such roads, and by a Maui tradition of one-lane bridges. Many of the roads are only one-lane wide, and all of the bridges are one-lane, one-way, only. A sign on one side informs traffic it must yield to any traffic coming the other way, while the oncoming lane has no such rule.

Amazingly, it works well, even though smiling locals seem to think yield instructions are for visitors only, and come barreling through, right-of-way or not.

Such surprises make the driving a bit more exciting, beyond swerving and darting around all those tight turns with dense foliage instead of shoulders on either side in some places, lava-rock bluffs and 500-foot cliffs flanking you in other places. After two days of such antics in the C70, it was time to work.

At our cabins, I fired up the laptop, and opened the large double doors, to leave the screen doors onto the securely raised balcony as the only barrier for the breeze that cooled the 80-degree temperature as it accompanied the intoxicating sound of the waves crashing against the lava rock shoreline 50 yards away.

The rhythmic pounding of the surf is both awesome enough to inspire you and soothing enough to insure a great night’s sleep. OK, it’s paradise, so maybe the writing can wait, because we don’t want to be late to the luau on nearby Hamoa Beach, complete with a traditionally roasted pig, with a live band and Hula dancers performing by torchlight.

Hamoa is the normal, popular beach, not the black-sand volcanic beach right in Hana, or the red-sand beach in an isolated little cove about a 20-minute hike on a breathtakingly treacherous trail north of the resort.

Liability concerns prevent the hotel from recommending the red sand beach, and free-spirited oneness with nature prevents some of the swimmers from wearing traditional swimsuits.

Or any swimsuits, for that matter.

Three of us pale, male, mainland media waifs ventured over there and stood casually amid a few men, women and children on the beach. A swimmer who had been snorkeling back and forth in the lagoon suddenly walked out of the water toward us, and turned out to be a well-conditioned mermaid-type apparition wearing ONLY a snorkel.

With considerable effort, we focused our attention on the crashing waves, and the awkward moment was relieved when a couple of playful whales leaped high out of the water, just a few hundred feet beyond the reef.

Is this paradise, or what? In this setting, we’re examining an ultramodern and high-tech Volvo C70. On the other hand, the car was as special as the setting. Chief designer Kinsey, who works at Volvo’s studio in California, was a finalist with designers from Sweden and Barcelona for the S40 sedan.

"I thought I had a real good design for the S40," said Kinsey, whose favorite pastime is to do a little surfing before heading into the studio, "but when my design didn’t win, I made up my mind to win this one."

And he did, with impressive attention to detail, earning himself a trip to Italy, where he worked with car-body specialist Pininfarina on details for the retractable roof. "The challenge was that in replacing two cars with one, it first had to be a credible coupe. It had to attract convertible buyers, but also those who drive coupes exclusively."

Incorporating all of Volvo’s legendary safety elements was a major project, even though the C70 start with the very impressive S40 sedan. As a two-door coupe instead of a four-door sedan, the support of the solid "B" pillar between the two doors on each side is gone, so extra support from an aluminum safety beam was built into the doors. Various cross-members stiffen the chassis, and the rear half is a horseshoe-shaped structure, surrounding the occupants with a safety perimeter.

With the emergency brake on, push a button on the console and a large aluminum panel atop the trunk opens on rear hinges, then the top lifts, magically separates into three sections, and as they move back on robotic arms, they stack on top of each other, then disappear into the opening, which itself disappears when the panel clicks shut.

It takes 30 seconds, and it is a mechanical marvel to watch. Once down, nobody would guess this flashy convertible could possibly have been a coupe just a minute before, or a minute later.

Volvos have become stronger performers with continually improved handling as well as shapely appeal in recent years. The C70 will certainly not disappoint in that regard.

Under the hood is a 2.5-liter, in-line, five-cylinder engine with a turbocharger, side mounted to be secure in that well-designed safety zone.

The turbo comes on smoothly, and the engine delivers 218 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque. The car is quick and agile, with precise steering and steady power. The six-speed manual transmission seems perfectly suited to the car, but the five-speed automatic has a manual shift gate as well, for those who like to pick their own gear.

On the twistiest of Maui’s roadways, I found the stick was preferable for swift driving – no surprise – but the reason was the turbo allows the engine to pull smoothly from 2,500 RPMs, meaning you don’t have to strain those overhead-camshaft valves at high revs to be in a sufficient power band.

My co-driver on the introduction runs preferred to run the car at screaming-high revs close to red-line in second gear, while I chose to let the turbo whir to build torque up from lower revs in third. His way was edgier, mine far smoother, but both methods work well.

Power front buckets come standard covered in "FlexTech," which is almost a neoprene-type surface that feels like suede but is impervious to damage in normal to heavy usage – including a bird that apparently dive-bombed the back seat while I was wading at the black sand beach.

Also, a six-CD changer on the high-performance audio system, leather steering wheel and shift knob, auto-dimming mirror, 17-inch alloy wheels, and Volvo’s DSTC stability control system are standard. So is the ROPS system of pop-up rollbars that instantly join the Boron-steel windshield pillar to give rollbar protection at both ends of the occupant compartment, in the extremely rare case of a rollover.

Obviously, a buyer could choose to upgrade via several packages, or by adding features such as leather interior, rain-sensing wipers, a 910-watt audio, heated seats, gas-discharge lights, navigation system, 18-inch wheels, automatic transmission, and metallic or pearlescent paint.

All of that can jack the price pretty well, as is the case with any car’s option list. What goes unseen as standard equipment is the superb attention to safety details. Side airbags and side curtain bags are standard, as is the structural horseshoe and the extruded aluminum door braces.

Volvo safety manager Thomas Broberg said he doesn’t really worry about the national or insurance institute crash tests, because Volvo’s own safety laboratory in Gothenburg, Sweden, involves tests and safety demands beyond any country’s one-time testing statutes.

Volvo says it will sell 16,000 C7 models worldwide in calendar year 2006, even with the late start. The car is hotly anticipated to the point that 2006 models are expected to be sold out before they reach the showrooms.

If you want one of the first ones, put in a claim. If you can’t get one of the 2006es, just consider it another part of the fantasy. While you wait for an ’07, fantasize about four days in paradise, with crashing waves lulling you to sleep, whales jumping out of the ocean, and a fantastic looking coupe that drops its top more smoothly than even the snorkeling mermaids in the nearby lagoon.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.