Although it's raining in sheets, we're sitting in the new 2006 Volvo C70 with the top down. The jungle-covered Hana Highway was dry and sunny a minute ago, but the weather changes fast on the rainy side of Maui.
We pushed the button for the C70's new retractable hardtop 10 seconds ago, but it's not even halfway through its dance yet. With 11 servos, four hydraulic pumps and three glass and steel panels to coordinate, the complex contraption takes 30 seconds to transform the C70 from an open-top convertible into a hardtop coupe. Twenty seconds later we're soaked, but the roof is up and the C70 is back on the road.
Other than its leisurely deployment, there are few drawbacks to the C70's new retractable hardtop. It's the highlight of the 2006 Volvo C70, but the entire car is new, sharing only its tailpipes with the old version. Well, that, and a personality that favors comfort over performance.
Wider, shorter, lower
Five inches shorter and nearly an inch wider than the previous model, the 2006 C70 also has a 1-inch-shorter wheelbase. Although it shares its front-wheel-drive platform with the S40 and V50 wagon, the C70 has wider front and rear tracks and sits a few tenths of an inch lower.
Reinforced steel was added throughout the structure of the car. The stronger metal improves crash protection but combined with the added weight of the hardtop, this C70 is 322 pounds heavier than the old soft top. With the roof up, the extra steel makes the new C70's skeleton twice as stiff as the outgoing C70 convertible.
Dropping the top reduces the car's stiffness by 15 percent. Doesn't matter, it still drives 100-percent better than the old C70, which had the structural integrity of a sock. There's less wheel hop over bumps and the windshield doesn't shake like it's going to rattle itself loose over potholes. Volvo says the A-pillars could even support the car's weight if it rolled over.
Independent suspension front and rear keeps the ride quality comfortable even with the standard 17-inch wheels and low-profile 45-series tires. Eighteen-inch wheels with even lower-profile tires are a $995 option. Either setup offers plenty of grip and there's standard stability and traction control if you manage to break the tires loose.
Not quite a sport coupe
The C70's electrohydraulic steering system does a good job of isolating minor bumps but a bad job of transmitting road feel. Its light weighting feels fine at low speeds, but the steering doesn't get any heavier, or more direct, when you're going faster. The extra curb weight doesn't help its agility either. The added heft gives the car a more stable and refined feel; just don't expect the nimble handling of a buttoned-down sport coupe.
Like most of its competitors, the C70 is reasonably quick but hardly fast. Its only engine is the 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder also used in the S40 sedan and V50 wagon. With 218 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 236 pound-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm, it measures up well against similar convertibles like the Audi A4 3.0, BMW 325Ci and Saab 9-3 2.0T, but it can't match the German sixes for smoothness or sound. With the optional five-speed automatic transmission, the C70 will hit 60 mph from a stop in 7.4 seconds according to Volvo.
With so much low-end torque, the C70 pulls away from a stop quickly, yet torque steer is minimal. The C70 won't put you back in your seat at highway speeds, but it won't leave you out to dry when you're passing either. Other than a stiffer-than-normal sport shift gate, the five-speed automatic transmission works well. Stick with the standard six-speed manual and you'll save yourself $1,250.
Looking the part
Top up or down the C70 is a handsome car; behind the wheel it's even better. There's no learning curve with the C70's interior. It's the same design used in the S40 sedan: Headlight switch to the left, clear analog gauges directly ahead and a standard ignition on the right. Dual-zone climate controls are easily accessible on the slim panel center stack.
Plush power seats are standard up front. So is a thick-rimmed steering wheel with auxiliary stereo and cruise controls. The C70 comes standard with aluminum trim and a six-disc CD changer. A 12-speaker Dynaudio stereo system ($1,550) and a DVD navigation system ($2,120) are both stand-alone options. Our car didn't have the optional navigation system but the Dynaudio audio system could make the seats vibrate with the top up or down. After six hours of seat time all we would ask for is a little extra seat bolstering.
Despite its shorter wheelbase, the 2006 C70 adds nearly an inch of front legroom. Rear legroom is down half an inch, but both measurements are still the most you'll find in an entry-level luxury convertible. A more relaxed seat angle and improved shoulder room make the rear seats bearable for average-sized adults.
You may have to wait 30 seconds for the top to make its entrance or exit, but that's it. There are no latches to unhook, no windows to roll down, nothing. Just press the brake pedal, hit the button and everything else falls into place.
With all the moving parts involved you would think it would be noisy and more mechanical, but it's not. Putting the top down causes the rearmost panel to lift up, making room for the middle panel to fold into place while the front panel slides in between the other two. And they don't just fold away, they stack themselves neatly into the trunk underneath a hard-shell cover.
Wind shear with the top down is barely noticeable, surprising given there's no wind blocker used. Volvo says it will offer one later, but we don't see the need unless you're particular about hairs out of place.
But the C70 needed more than just a cool roof and great seats to compete. Volvo being Volvo, it went big on safety with pop-up roll hoops, whiplash-reducing seats and two separate side airbags for your chest and head. Stiffer-than-conventional airbags, the head curtains remain inflated longer to better protect against side impacts.
Every C70 comes standard with Flextech upholstery that Volvo says resists weather and fading better than traditional fabrics, as well as being more comfortable in the heat. We don't know about the heat, but it shrugged off the rain just fine. You can go with full leather for an extra $1,395.
There's plenty of storage throughout the cabin and many of the compartments lock along with the door when you leave the top down. It's a good thing, too, since there's only 6 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk. Put the top up and the trunk space increases to nearly 13 cubic feet, more than most of its competitors.
Category of one, for now
Volvo likes to point out that the C70 will be the only four-seat hardtop convertible on the market when it goes on sale in April. The novelty won't last, however, as two other four-seat hardtop convertibles, the Volkswagen Eos and Pontiac G6, will be available around the same time. Neither will approach the 2006 Volvo C70's nearly $39,000 base price, but they're not likely to match the C70's comfort, safety or feature content either.
The real competition comes from Audi, BMW and Saab. However, their base models all cost about as much as a well-equipped C70 and they're not any faster, better-looking or more luxurious. Add in the C70's hardtop and the Volvo is no longer an afterthought, it's a serious competitor.