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What I'm Driving At: El Volvo Event

Looking back, I think it was some kind of Swedish April Fool's joke. As snow was dusting the caps of the Mazatzal and Sierra Ancha mountains surrounding Phoenix, Ariz., last week, Volvo invited the nation's auto writers to test-drive the company's brand-new, sparkling, fancy, seductive ... convertible. Despite an El Nino event that slammed predawn temperatures down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, nobody wanted to be the only -- or even the first -- one to decline. Certainly, we all lusted to be let loose in the fetching convertible version of Volvo's revolutionary C70 sports coupe. It's just that we didn't know whether we could trust the Swedes' nodding assurances ("Ja, ja ... iss gud") that the car would be comfortable when the thermometer read only 35 degrees or so. While sliding sideways glances amongst ourselves, we zipped up our light jackets, buttoned our lips, and proceeded to fly up the sugar-frosted mountains. Well, I'm here the tell you ... ja, ja, it wass gud!No joke. The car and the experience were exceptional in several unexpected ways. Foremost perhaps was the surreal image of us devil-may-care auto writers flinging ourselves al fresco through the slushy mountain passes of Arizona's badlands. The contrast was striking: Centuries-old Saguaro cacti cradled snowballs in their penitent, upraised arms as the C70's special wind-baffle trapped and circulated climate-controlled beach weather around both driver and passenger. The baffle is a lightweight frame-and-mesh affair that snaps into and out of place over the rear seat. You'd think it was meant merely to keep the wind from mussing your "do" -- and in fact nowhere in the literature is there any reference to polar sunbathing behind the wheel. But there you have it just the same.Like its coupe cousin, the C70 convertible owes a fair share of its design and manufacture to British Formula One constructor Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Unusually for such a sporting car, Volvo is showcasing its convertible as an audio masterpiece. This tactic tends to raise a driving aficionado's antennae, if you'll excuse the expression: Is there some notorious driving deficiency from which tweeters and woofers are meant to distract? True, this convertible incorporates the only factory-installed Surround Pro Logic car audio system ever approved by Dolby Laboratories. And the massive center speaker rising out of the dash like a desert mesa certainly looks exclusive. But it is the system's exclusive sound that justifies Volvo's weening pride in its sonic accomplishment.Working with Alpine and Dynaudio, and building upon Dolby Labs' "audio-decoder" technology, Volvo devised new circuitry for the C70 convertible to create two personal sound bubbles -- one each directly in front of driver and front passenger. It's a totally hands-off system, even when it comes to accommodating the convertible's different top-up and top-down equalization or EQ "signatures." Hans Lahti, the carmaker's 32-year-old audio engineer, suggests the rarity of the C70's audio experience merely by his enthusiasm. There is no substitute, however, for experiencing the sound garden that is this car: a three-CD changer in the dash supplements a six-pack changer in the trunk. New radio data system (RDS) technology receives supplementary textual information that many stations can now supply about their general formats, and even about the individual cuts they're playing, along with traffic conditions and weather. A 400-watt amp powers a swirling, whirling canopy of sound that literally weaves into the windstream while the convertible laces through country backroads.Admittedly a late-bloomer in terms of car-audio appreciation, I had less difficulty coming to terms with the driving dynamics of the C70 convertible. Its combination of a five-cylinder engine layout and low-pressure turbocharging produces 190 horsepower -- a far cry from the 236 HP coming from Volvo's high-pressure 2.3-liter turbo, which will be available in this car by fall. Nevertheless, "low-pressure" equates to "less lag" in power delivery, resulting in a smoother driving sensation for many automotive tastes. The transmission is a four-speed auto (with an optional five-speed manual available only with the high-pressure turbo).This car's most impressive athletic attribute has to be its cornering poise. Even with Volvo's "Comfort" suspension set-up (in contrast to a harder, sportier "Dynamic" option), the C70 convertible settles confidently and with minimal body-roll into corners both tight and sweeping. It is fun to drive fast; and even though it's a front-driver, the car's unique Delta-Link rear suspension yields a handling experience that most rear-drive partisans will grudgingly admire.The convertible top is fully push-button automated -- there's not so much as a latch or lever to be pulled. The mechanism works like magic in about 30 seconds, hiding the soft-top completely under a hard tonneau. With this and other sophistications so manifold and obvious, I was left scratching my head about two things: One, the sun visors don't swing to the side -- at all. Two, the steering column betrays a slight vibration -- in engineering parlance, a "harmonic" -- that feels out of place. It doesn't cause great concern, really; and before long, it tends to subsume into the overall driving feel of the car (although it never goes away). Volvo's engineers cite the steering column's impact-collapsing safety design as an explanation -- that and the tilt-wheel adjustment.Steering aesthetics aside, the safety story is impressive. There are front- and side-impact airbags -- of course -- and the convertible world's first seat-belt pretensioners for all four seats. (These instantly snug the belts around each occupant in the event of impact.) There is, as well, an automatically deploying roll-over bar system behind each rear seat that complements the roll-over protection integrated into the windshield frame. Even lesser details amaze, like the innocuous "score marks" under the hood, trunk lid, and fender. In a crash, these small dimples and creases allow sheet metal to fold in orderly and organized patterns, both absorbing impact energy and shielding occupants with a form of hastily arrayed armor.Although the coupe version of the C70 has been delayed from showrooms until just now, the convertible remains more or less on track for its May/June debut. Discussions of cost are coy: "We must see what Mercedes will do with its CLK convertible, don't you know?" admits Clas Olhag, the C70's "business concept manager." "You may expect less than $45,000, I should say," he adds with a smile.Sure, a more precise answer would have been nice, but it's entertaining to see Volvo -- safe, staid, practical, and plain Volvo -- finally having fun. It's nothing short of a revolution that the C70 coupe and convertible are expected to accomplish. In a sense, Volvo's continued vitality in the U.S. auto market depends upon its ability to inject an element of sensory excitement into its traditionally sensible reputation. With the top down, the wind in your hair, your favorite CD in the stereo -- even with the snow on the mountainsides -- Volvo's sleek new convertible is fun. Suddenly, that turns out to be no joking matter.

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