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FIRST DRIVE: New Volvo drop-top

2006-02-09 07:33

New Volvo C70 coming here later in 2006

John Oxley

Dubai - Imagine the longest straightest road you have ever seen, its smoother than smooth blacktop disappearing to a horizon fuzzy in shades of black, brown and orange, blurred by heat haze.

Imagine desert dunes either side, as far as the eye can see, rolling dunes dotted with the occasional tree, camels clustered beneath branches as they chew on the choicest leaves.

Imagine a blue, blue sky, the sun beating down in winter temperatures in the high 30s, your mouth constantly parched from the dryness of it all.

Imagine one of the most beautiful tin-top convertibles yet launched, its 5-cylinder turbocharged engine eating up the kilometres as you chase towards that furry horizon, flat-out at an indicated 245 km/h on an empty road.

For me, of course, it's not imagination, for I'm in Dubai for the launch of the new Volvo C70, a luxurious new hardtop convertible that manages to look sleek and streamlined, avoiding the "big bum" look that afflicts other steel lid cabriolets.

At the same time it benefits from a chassis which is responsive, and from a 5-cylinder turbo motor that is energetic and powerful.

Good looking

The previous Volvo C70 was itself a good-looker, so its successor has to fight hard to not just replace it, but to attract new buyers in a market niche that has suddenly found lots of competitors.

On the tin-top cab front none of the most recent newcomers are in a league to challenge the Swedish debutant, for Renault's Megane CC, Peugeot's 307 CC and even the upcoming Focus CC all fall in a less expensive, less exotic mould.

The most obvious competitors are Audi's A4 Cabriolet and the BMW 330i Ci, but both of these are soft-tops, while the Beemer is ready for replacement.

Which leaves the Volvo, for a time, in a class of its own.

So how does the Volvo C70 measure up against two of the most popular four-seater convertibles on the market?

From a design viewpoint, not only is the Volvo the most modern, it's so very different from its two German competitors, with an elegance one expects from Scandinavia.

And to ensure it meets the standards one expects in this segment of the market, the car has been developed and will be built in a joint venture with Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina at the same plant in Uddevall, Sweden, where the previous C70 was made.

The new car is built on a modified version of the Volvo S40 platform - which also serves time in the crisp handling Ford Focus and Mazda3 - and thus benefits from high rigidity and modern suspension technology.

Corporate nose

The design follows closely on Volvo's latest corporate style, with a rounded nose, projector-type headlamps, and a strong shoulder line which runs the length of the vehicle, finishing up as part of the boot lid and finally the characteristic Volvo taillights.

As with all modern Volvos the back is sharply cut off.

With the top up there's a strong fastback shape, but much smoother than in other designs thanks to the fact that Volvo uses a three-piece roof which also takes up less space in the boot and also needs a shorter boot lid.

One of the bug-bears of folding steel roofs is that they steal from the boot room, but the Volvo's does this less than others, with 200 litres of admittedly odd shaped space - best for soft bags rather than conventional suitcases - with the roof down, or a useful 400 litres with the top up.

There's also a "ski hatch" in the rear seat to allow long objects to be carried.

Inside the car you know you're in a Volvo straightaway.

Firstly there's the super-thin "floating" centre stack first introduced with the S40, a beautiful aluminium masterpiece that I've waxed lyrical about many times before, but which loses nothing in the re-telling.

The dashboard is smooth and wraps around the driver and front passenger, moulded from soft-touch materials and trimmed with panels chosen according to the customer's whim - aluminium, wood effect and bauxite.


Special upholstery has been developed for the car.

The first, Vulcaflex, is a synthetic material with a skin-like surface structure and a high-tech feeling.

Vulcaflex is used both in combination with textile and with soft leather. Full leather upholstery in several colour combinations is a third option - and this will probably be standard on SA T5 versions.

The car is more spacious than most CCs on the market, with enough room for four adults, although those in the back will not find a lot of legroom.

Access to the back is also limited, although there's a practical control on the backrest so the seats can be moved forwards easily to facilitate entry to the rear seat.

The seats are quite comfortable, and an easy driving position is attained thanks to electric operation of the seats which adjusts height and reach, plus manual height and reach adjustment of the steering wheel.

There are spacious storage areas beside each seat, and several of them are linked to the car's central locking system using the remote control.

In addition, a completely new system is being launched - Private Locking - which allows some areas can be locked with the glove compartment key.

Safety equipment includes new door-mounted inflatable curtain airbags and an enhanced side impact protection system; as a curtain-style airbag cannot be fitted in the roof of a convertible, in the C70 the door-mounted airbag inflates upwards, increasing protection in a rollover incident.

The roof is opened using one of two buttons on the between-seats console, and it's unique in that the car only requires a free vertical space of 2 metres, and it doesn't matter if you're parked against a wall or another car.

Under the skin

Firstly, to make sure this new car handles as well as it looks Volvo has lowered the suspension by 10 mm at the front and 15 mm at the rear.

The Volvo's suspension is independent all-round, by struts up front and a multi-link rear.

There's a wide choice of aluminium wheels and low-profile tyres ranging from 7.5x16 inch with 215/55x16 tyres through two 7.5x17 inchers aluminium wheels (one polished) with 215/50x17 or 235/45x17 tyres to two 8.0x18 inch aluminium wheels with 235/40x18.

DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control System) is standard. The new bodyshell is much more rigid than before - and it's even stiffer with the top up - and this translates into an almost complete absence of scuttle shake, except on the roughest of surfaces, and much more precise handling.

There are three engine options available now - all five cylinders - although only the T5 will get to South Africa this year. A 132 kW diesel version will also be coming along later.

As with S40 and V50 models the C70 T5 uses a low-pressure turbocharged 2.5-litre motor transversely mounted across the engine bay.

Power output is a potent 162 kW and there's 320 Nm of torque, fed to the front wheels via an excellent six-speed manual gearbox or 5-speed adaptive and sequential manual automatic.

There are also two 2.4-litre non-turbo petrol versions, producing 103 kW and 125 kW respectively.

On the road

First thing you notice getting in is that the front seats are soft, supportive, and extremely comfortable for a wide variety of shapes and sizes of driver and passenger.

All the controls are well positioned, with those for audio and speed setting on the steering wheel.

First setting off one finds vision all round excellent - although this feeling can change!

The steering is electro-hydraulic with a light and controlled feel, and it gives plenty of feedback.

Opening the roof is easy, and it takes the electric motor and hydraulic pump 30 seconds to raise (and lower) it.

The C70 comes with a breeze blocker that fits over the rear seats to prevent wind buffeting; a bonus feature is that all the side windows can be raised so you sit inside a little cocoon.

On a warm day this means you can switch on the aircon and create your own cooled environment - or you can stay nice and warm on a cold day.

Guess which one we chose as the outside temperature gauge climbed from a starting point of 28 degrees and onwards and upwards as the day wore on!

As I said in the beginning we started our journey on long straight roads, at first well-populated, mainly by building site trucks, but thinning out to nothing when we turned off the main drag to Abu Dhabi and towards Oman and its mountains.

Eventually the road started to twist and turn, and the C70 rose to the occasion, the front wheels gripping hard onto the tarmac, the car demonstrating mainly neutral characteristics in the long sweeping curves, signs of understeer in the really tight bends.

But always feeling very safe, very controlled.

Volvo has resisted the temptation to make the chassis stiff and sports car-like; instead the accent is on comfort, and it shows when you get near the edge of grip and the tyres start to squeal as the inside wheel loads up and pushes forwards.

One thing to note here, though - those A-pillars are very thick, and sometimes you have to peer around them to see what's happening in front. You can even miss a car in the blind spot!

A unique feature of the C70 - and one which will come to SA - is its sound system.

Volvo's top-of-the-line system, Premium Sound has a high-class digital class D amplifier, Dolby Pro Logic II Surround, and loudspeakers from the Danish company Dynaudio.


Despite its premium positioning Volvo isn't messing around with the C70, and pricing is expected to be very competitive.

Volvo marketing and PR boss Andre Oosthuizen is talking in the region of R440 000 to R450 000 for the C70 T5, including the R20 000 sound system, which puts it well below its main competitors, and even below the outgoing C70 model.

Worldwide Volvo wants to pick up its action with the C70, and I see no reason why South Africa won't make a big contribution.

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