SANTA BARBARA, Calif.–"This time we kept the toy, and threw away the box!"<br /><br /> That tongue-in-cheek assessment of Volvo's new C70 coupe comes from Peter Horbury who, as design chief for Volvo, is the person most responsible for the way the car looks.<br /><br /> And it looks terrific, as should, but may not be obvious from the photos. "May not" because while this car photographs well, and looked very pretty on a turntable at its Paris Auto Show debut last October, it takes on a whole new appeal when viewed on the open road. Its curves please from any angle.<br /><br /> Hakan Abrahamsson, C70's project director, allows that the old BMW 6 series coupe may have been an inspiration for the car. And I'm not the only one who sees similarities, especially where the rear roof pillar meets the body, to the current BMW 850 coupe;<br /><br />ironic, given the C70 is based on the Volvo 850.<br /><br /> Horbury's design team was given relatively few engineering "hard points" for this project. They had to start with the front-wheel drive 850 platform, but unlike most coupe projects, they weren't required to chop a sedan, or retain the windshield, body panels, or support structure from a donor car.<br /><br /> The result is a completely unique body which, despite its sleek profile, seats four adults with ease.<br /><br /> The C70 coupe, and its convertible sibling, which debuted at this year's Detroit auto show and which enters production early next year, were developed as a joint venture with England's TWR.<br /><br />"TWR" stands for Tom Walkinshaw Racing. The Yorkshireman has parlayed a talent for campaigning race cars. He runs Volvo's British Touring Car Championship entry, as well as his own Arrows Formula One team into a design, development and manufacturing enterprise. TWR engineered the C70 under Volvo's direction and to Volvo standards; TWR also manages the Uddevalla Sweden plant where the cars are built.<br /><br /> Half the plant's 20,000 unit capacity will be sold in North America, so it seems an obvious question: Why not build them here?<br /><br /> "A plant for only 10,000 cars would not be efficient," says Abrahamsson, apparently forgetting that Volvo's Halifax plant builds fewer than that per year. If they can ship 10,000 here, surely we could ship 10,000 somewhere else. Uddevalla, however, was a moth balled facility in Volvo's homeland; you can bet there was political pressure to keep the jobs at home.<br /><br /> Much of C70's interior was developed jointly with the S70 and V70, the revised and renamed 850 sedan and wagon. The new setup isn't radical by car standards; Scandinavians have a long tradition of clean, simple, rectilinear lines in furniture too.<br /><br />But it's not as crate-like as before, the large, legible instruments nestling nicely under a curved brow, and the minor controls arrayed handily in the centre console.<br /><br /> Volvo has retained their near perfect ventilation controls: round knobs that allow selection of air distribution pattern and temperature for either side of the car, plus a slide lever for fan speed. For those who prefer automatic operation, just point everything to the left, and the system does it all for you. Each dash vent is also individually closeable. If you can't get comfortable in this car, you aren't trying hard enough.<br /><br /> TRICK STEREO<br /><br /> A trick sound system combining an Alpine head unit with integral three CD changer, four 100-watt amplifiers, 10 Dynaudio speakers from Denmark and an optional Dolby Pro Logic surround sound processor ranks among the best factory audio systems in<br /><br />cardom. The CD changer is cute; it fits in the double width radio slot, rather than in the trunk, glove box, or under the seat. When it's changing discs, it emerges partially from its<br /><br />slot, does the shuffle, then retracts back into the dash, all automatically.<br /><br /> The front seats are based on those from the S/V70, but have added bolsters for extra lateral support they are almost indecently cossetting. Leather will be standard in North America, too bad for those who prefer upholstery to be comfortable.<br /><br /> The front shoulder belt anchors are not adjustable.<br /><br />Abrahamsson notes that with the belt mounted so far back, a sliding anchor wouldn't make any difference from a safety point of view. Also, a sliding anchor would require a wider middle roof pillar, which would affect the car's esthetics. If further proof of C70's orientation is needed, there it is: a decision on seat belts versus styling comes down in favor of styling. In a Volvo. Wow!<br /><br /> Actually, the safety thing isn't the issue here; the comfort thing is. Several journalists (including this one) of a variety of sizes, found the shoulder belt too tight against the neck.<br /><br />Women, who will surely be attracted to this car and who are typically shorter of stature, could well be turned off on this point alone. A retaining clip on the seat, like many American cars use, might do it.<br /><br /> The hard plastic trim bit on the door pull depression of the driver's armrest dug deep into my left elbow's funny bone. You can't expect anyone to unreservedly love a car if it hurts every time they drive it. It shouldn't be too difficult to soften that piece up.<br /><br /> The rear seat backs are reclined considerably the only way Volvo could generate enough headroom, but they're perfectly acceptable. The two seats are positioned slightly inward, so steerage clients don't stare right at the front seat riders' heads. The rear shoulder belts are mounted inboard, the way BMW does it.<br /><br /> The only engine initially available in the C70 will be the 2.3-litre twin cam 20 valve five cylinder high pressure turbo formerly used in the hot special edition 850 T5R. Rated at 236 horsepower at 5100 r.p.m., it's been retuned to provide a wider torque band than before, as in 243 pound feet all the way from 2700 to 5100 r.p.m. Next year, the 190 horse 2.5-litre light pressure turbo five will also be offered.<br /><br /> A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and optional is an electronic four-speed automatic with driver selectable sport, economy and winter programs the latter featuring second gear starts for drama free launches on snow or ice.<br /><br /> One Volvo tradition I'm happy to see changed is the shift lever for the automatic, which can now be shifted from drive to neutral without depressing the thumb button, as you might need to do in an emergency manoeuvre. This change was harshly criticized by a European journalist who said they prefer to shift automatics manually, and it's now easier to overrev the engine if the driver catches neutral by mistake. Funny, I thought the point of an automatic is that you don't have to shift it.<br /><br /> The suspension is essentially the same as the 850, with Mac Struts up front and Volvo's unique toe correcting delta link semi-independent setup at the rear. TWR used its expertise in suspension development to fine tune the geometry, to great effect, as we'll soon see. Alloy wheels are shod by gigantic (for a luxury coupe) 225/45R17 tires. Four-wheel disc brakes have standard ABS.<br /><br /> There may be better places to put a car through its paces than the hills east and north of Santa Barbara, but there can't be many. The C70 manual gearbox car is a little clumsy at low speeds. I stalled it a couple of times. And matching revs to clutch take up isn't as silky as, say, in a BMW.<br /><br /> EFFECTIVE BRAKES<br /><br /> Once rolling, though, this is a spectacular handling car.<br /><br />There's a bit of body roll, but it's well damped. The car is amazingly nimble, aided no doubt by the large footprint of the low profile tires.<br /><br /> The ride is firm, maybe a bit too much so for a luxury car.<br /><br />The car has bags of handling reserves, although the engineers could have sacrificed a bit of ultimate grip for a shade more comfort.<br /><br /> On a couple of test cars, the brake pedal sometimes felt hard, but when asked to haul the car down from a great rate of knots, the brakes were fully up to it. ABS activation at 160 km/h; now, that's fun.<br /><br /> There's no problem with power, although the car doesn't feel as startlingly fast as a T5R. Two factors are at work here: that car had a peakier engine; you felt nothing, nothing,<br /><br />nothing, then, KABOOM! The C70 is more progressive.<br /><br /> In sum, though, the C70's designers and engineers have done their job well. It's now up to the marketers, when the car goes on sale this fall. Pricing hasn't been finalized, but it should come in around $55,000.<br /><br /> Volvo expects the C70 to appeal to boomers who are moving out of minivans and sportutes, and that 65 to 70 per cent of buyers will be men. I think they're grossly underestimating the car's appeal to women, who, I suggest, will be attracted by Volvo's<br /><br />core values of safety, reliability and durability, but who want more emotion than Volvos typically exhibit.<br /><br /> Volvo has identified the BMW 328 coupe and Lexus SC400 as the C70's prime competitors, but the upcoming Mercedes Benz CLK coupe will line up even more directly, and at close to the same price. Mercedes already has the sort of image Volvo is courting with this car. How these two cars sell head to head should be a good indicator of how successful Volvo's image makeover has been.<br /><br /> Stay tuned.
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