Cruising California's coast in Volvo's cool new convertible
Volvo C70 – Driving Impressions: Highway 1 runs from San Diego to Seattle, mainly along the beaches and cliffs that line the western coast of the United States. Perhaps the most famous, and well traveled, stretch of this fabled road ribbons between the quaint seaside hamlet of Cambria and the tony enclave of Carmel in central California, and it was on this stretch of road at the height of the summer tourist season that we put the redesigned Volvo C70 to the test. Susceptible to hourly, sometime dramatic changes in climate, a busy Highway 1 was the perfect way to determine if the new C70's complex retractable hardtop is worth the added expense it brings to the bottom line, to learn if its turbocharged five-cylinder engine could get the job done, and to see if it possessed the same focus on comfort as its predecessor. What of performance and handling? Highway 1 was not the appropriate venue, clogged as it frequently is with lumbering RVs and minivans full of rambling rubberneckers. For that, we selected California 58, out near where James Dean met his fate in the Lil' Bastard, out where nobody drives because there's nowhere to go. All whoops and dips and curves and straights, California 58 is a driver's dream, and leads from the state's main artery, Interstate 5, across to the coast. It was here that we put the Volvo through its paces from a performance standpoint. Based as it is on the same foundation as the S40 sedan and V50 wagon, one might conclude that the new C70 is a decent performer, and that conclusion would be accurate. A turbocharged 2.4-liter inline five-cylinder engine is shared with the S40 and V50, making 218 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 236 lb.-ft. of torque spread across the rev range between 1,500 and 4,800 rpm. Those numbers might not sound impressive, but that fat wad of torque makes the C70 feel brisk from the driver's seat. A six-speed manual transmission drives the front wheels, but our test car had the optional six-speed Geartronic automatic. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution came in handy on more than one occasion, slowing the standard 17-inch wheels and 235/45 Michelin Pilot all-season tires. The C70 rides on a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, and a stability control system keeps the car in line and moving in the right direction. For a luxury car, this is standard-issue hardware – nothing to call out as special. What's special about the Volvo C70 is its retractable hardtop, which completely lowers in 33 seconds and raises in 31 seconds. The hardtop separates into three sections, arcs rearward, and stacks neatly into the trunk, transforming the C70 from a quiet and stylish coupe to a leather-lined sun tanning bed for four. Because it's a hard top, it better isolates the C70's occupants from foul weather, protects against theft, and maintains serenity in the cabin during rush-hour traffic. The major downside is that it robs more than half of the space in the 12.8 cu.-ft. trunk, but leaves enough room for two good-sized suitcases and a carry-on bag. Prices start at $39,405 including the $695 destination charge. The standard equipment list is generous, including all of the comfort and safety features that customers expect on a luxurious convertible – well, except seat heaters. Unique features worth discussing, in addition to the trick roof, mainly pertain to safety, from the Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture (VIVA) which channels crash energy away from the passenger compartment and the Whiplash Protection Seating System (WHIPS) to the Roll Over Protection System (ROPS) that fires twin roll hoops from behind the back seat in a rollover accident and the Side Impact Protection System (SIPS). That last feature includes door-mounted side-curtain airbags that deploy upward to provide protection even when the roof is lowered, and Volvo is one of the first to market with this kind of system. Options include the Geartronic automatic transmission, bi-Xenon headlights, rear parking assist, a navigation system, and three main option packages. The Premium Package adds leather upholstery, a Homelink universal transmitter, and a compass in the rearview mirror. The Dynaudio Package – worth every penny – includes 12 Dynaudio speakers, amplifiers, and a subwoofer. The Climate Package includes rain-sensing wipers, headlight washers, and heated front seats. Inexplicably, metallic paint is also an option on the Volvo C70. Our Volvo C70 included the automatic, the Premium Package, and the Dynaudio Package for a grand total of $44,075. What we learned from our weekend road trip up the coast of California was that the Volvo C70 is not a car made for enthusiasts, though it is thoroughly enjoyable to drive. We learned that retractable hardtops are superior to fabric soft tops, though we cannot know if that is true once the warranty has expired. We learned that Volvo knows how convertible owners use their cars, and that it still builds incredibly comfortable vehicles, even if heated front seats aren't standard. Finally, we learned that the Volvo C70 offers an appealing and sophisticated alternative to the major player in this category, the BMW 3 Series. At least so long as you're taking Highway 1 and not California 58.
Powerful enough, with a somewhat grainy character that imparts a lack of refinement, the 2006 Volvo C70 is not quick by any means. Power delivery from the turbocharged 2.4-liter inline five is linear thanks to an early torque peak and a flat torque curve that work to eliminate lag off the line, and it's too easy to light the tires up when accelerating into traffic due to weight transfer and front-wheel-drive. The Geartronic six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly when left in Drive, but is a bit slow to respond in manual mode and can clunk hard into first gear when approaching a stop. Volvo offers a six-speed manual as standard equipment, but we recommend the automatic since the C70 isn't a sporting machine. Fuel economy during our 1,000-mile week was just OK: We averaged 21.4 mpg during testing, just more than the city cycle from the EPA's estimate of 21/29 despite lots of highway cruising.
With Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season tires sized 235/45, the Volvo C70 grips well enough, and though the steering lacks road feel the C70 is easy to place in corners. Get in too hot and understeer is the predictable result. Lots of bump steer and column shake accompanies rough-patched corners, and the suspension displays plenty of body roll, squat, and dive when hustling the car. Braking feel could be better because it doesn't feel like much is happening for the first half-inch of pedal travel, and then the binders bite effectively – the brakes work fine, but the pedal is hard to modulate. Ride quality is good but compliance over rough pavement could be better to help keep hard bumps from getting transferred to the cabin. Finally, and this is surprising for a European car, the turning circle is too wide. Overall, the Volvo C70 is a fine cruiser, but isn't an enthusiast's choice.
Of course, with the Volvo C70's top lowered, visibility is terrific with the exception of the rear deck, which is long and hard to judge. The optional parking sensors that did not come on our test car would have helped the C70 tremendously. Top raised, the same problem of judging the rear exists, and while the back glass is smaller than might be the norm, visibility is not bad. I did wish the side mirrors were larger and offered a better view to the sides.
The Volvo C70 is not fun to drive, but it is enjoyable to drive. For the trip I took up the coast on California Route 1, it was perfect. Soft, comfortable, quick enough, and equipped with a great stereo. But it's not a car I would choose for driving fun.
Volvo is known for seat comfort, and the C70 does not disappoint. It is extremely easy to find a comfortable driving position thanks to multiple seat adjustments and a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. The front doors are long and heavy, though. Plus, the upper door panel sills are high, the center console armrest is low, and the steering wheel has an uncomfortable silver metallic plastic trim piece that makes the tiller unpleasant to grip. Also, our $44,000 test sample did not have heated front seats. What's up with that?
With the driver's seat set for my comfort and 33-inch inseam, there is no leg room in back. Three scant inches exist between the rear seat cushion and the front seatback, tops, making it good only for kids. With a shorter driver, the Volvo C70 is capable of carrying four people. If adults are sitting in back, the rear seat offers the same terrific comfort as those in front, but shoulder and hip room aren't as generous. The front seatbacks are softly padded, and foot room is good. Head room not an issue, either, especially with top down.
What the heck is that strange noise coming from behind the firewall? And the climate control system sometimes exhibited a strange cyclical wheezing. Over bumps with the top up, there are lots of creaks and rattles, and granular paved surfaces deliver plenty of tire noise. Otherwise, the Volvo C70 is remarkably quiet with the top up, with just a little bit of wind noise coming from the windshield pillars and header. Top down, windows up, there's not much buffeting – just the top of your head gets tousled. A wind blocker is optional, installing behind the front seats but making the rear seat unusable. Additionally, handy clips hold the rear seatbelts in place to keep them from flapping in the wind when they're not in use.
Volvo should consider using aluminum for the C70's trunk lid, because it is heavy and hard to open or close. Once it's open, the amount of space you have to work with is dependent upon whether the top is raised or lowered. With the top up, the trunk is huge. With the top down, cargo can be carried only under the compartment shield. Still, a couple on a road trip can place a surprising amount of luggage within the C70's top-down confines – we managed two average-size roll-away suitcases and a carry-on. Just don't pack anything under there that you might need access to when the roof is lowered, or you'll be creating a roadside show with every stop. Also, note that Volvo provides a pass-through slot to the rear seat – nice! If have anything to complain about, it's that twice I bonked my head pretty hard on the edge of the decklid when it was raised.
Considering the complexity of the Volvo C70, build quality was rather well done. We spotted minor fit variances at the right headlight and fascia and a slight misalignment of the rear panel between the taillights. Otherwise, both side doors were on straight and the rear deck featured impressively tight, uniform gaps. Inside, we found minor gap variance for the plastic on the center console under the parking brake, some flex in the door grips, variance of fit with regard to the door slot inserts, and a curved seal at the window and side demister trim. To spot most of these items, we had to look closely, which means our Volvo C70 was well assembled.
Austere Scandinavian design dictates simple materials, but those used in the Volvo C70 are of good quality. Nothing hints of cheapness in here, though the door grips are on the inexpensive side – surprising given that they are one of the most frequently touched points inside the car. The ambience lacks warmth, but then, that's a tenet of this design theme. The leather, headliner fabric, plastics, and soft-touch dash and upper door panels are all of good quality. Oddly, though, the floor mats have a tendency to shed.