What I'm Driving At: Heaven Help Us

Whenever the sun is shining in Santa Barbara, Calif., it's easy to believe there's a heaven on earth. It's something about the way the sun-toasted breeze blows mildly along the beach. But Santa Barbara's Elysian status is particularly elevated at this moment, because, for the five weeks following March 9, the Swedish car company Volvo (http://www.volvocars.com/ ) has transformed this California Riviera into the center of the automotive universe. For some 630 auto writers hailing from all points of the globe -- from North America to Australia, from Turkey to Tennessee -- Volvo is unveiling the fetching C70 touring coupe and a companion convertible with which the company hopes to "re-Volvo-lutionize" its present image and future prospects. The stakes are huge for the Swedish automaker. Volvo cars are universally admired for their safety above all else, then for their practicality and their reliability. But the word "passion" never enters a Volvo-relevant conversation. In contrast, rivals like BMW and Mercedes constantly brandish a sporting image. It's hard not to attribute these companies' recent 13 percent and 18 percent sales gains, respectively, to their "passionate" personae. Volvo sales, meanwhile, are pancake flat. For them to remain so risks pushing Volvo cars into obscurity, both in the minds of upscale buyers and within the giant Volvo industrial conglomerate, where automobiles are just part of an overall mix that includes truck, aerospace, marine, and heavy-equipment products. By unforeseeable coincidence, then, the heavenly clime of Santa Barbara brimmed last week with propitious -- and supplicating -- omens. First came news that the beautiful pear shape of the Volvo C70 will grace the silver screen beginning April 4, when "The Saint" steps out of retirement. Val Kilmer, in the role of super-spy Simon Templar, will execute his feats of derring-do behind the wheel of a C70 in much the same way Roger Moore did 30 years ago in his turn at the role (and behind the wheel of a Volvo P1800). Furthermore, during a week that included both the Ides of March and the first blazing predawn appearances of Comet Hale-Bopp, Volvo chose CDs from the Belgian pop group Vaya Con Dios (Spanish for "Go with God") to showcase the C70's impressive Dolby Surround 16-speaker sound system. As auspices go, it was a stacked deck.As new models go, my introduction to the C70 was more like a religious experience. The coupe, seemingly crafted from scratch and completely dissimilar to any other Volvo, is actually a tremendously crafty adaptation of existing technology. Volvo's new 70-series cars, which also include a sedan (S70) and wagon (V70 -- for Versatile), are direct replacements for the 850 models introduced in '92. The sedan and wagon, in other words, are substantially updated (1,800 changes for '98), but they're still standard bearers for Volvo's traditional, boxy image. The coupe, however, while it shares its siblings' basic chassis and power train, is unprecedented. What this model accomplishes is not derivative; it is transforming. It makes Volvo exciting -- passionately so -- whether you're driving it or just looking at it. For starters, there's a five-cylinder motor underhood that spools out 236 horsepower with its high-pressure turbocharger. Yes, there's noticeable "lag" at low rpm as the turbine winds itself up to ramming speed; and, yes, there's a neck-snapping rush of adrenaline-flavored power when the boost kicks in at about 5,600 rpm. But what's distinctive about Volvo's turbo is the breadth of its powerband and the way the C70's five-speed manual transmission can surf right at the crest of maximum torque in every gear. If you're paying attention, you can keep the engine "on the pipe" -- i.e., at its rpm sweet spot -- through even the twistiest road sections.In no small measure, this capability is due to the C70's distinctive handling. It's a front-driver, sure, but it displays almost none of the nose-heavy understeer or "push" that characterizes front-wheel-drive; in other words, you don't have to back off of the throttle and out of the powerband when pushing hard in the corners. The reason, explains the C70's project director Hakan Abrahamsson, is the influence of Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), which has developed the C70 in joint-venture with Volvo. England's TWR is one of the great constellations in the European road-racing scene, and its input has combined with features like Volvo's unique Delta-Link rear suspension to provide very neutral handling."We widened the rear track by two inches," says Abrahamsson, "made room for wheels up to 18 inches fitted with very wide, low-profile tires. That gives us the quick turn-in and the rear-drive handling characteristics we wanted." At its cornering limit, the C70 sets springs evenly at all four corners, without bottoming and without excessive body roll; then, with a "sniff" of the turbocharger, the coupe flicks into the corner and out the other side with the lightest steering touch while just feathering the throttle.Meanwhile, driver and passengers sit comfortably secure amidst leather and burl, surrounded by airbags at front and side. Rear seating for two is longer on leg room than you'd expect. One reason is that, compared to the sedan, the C70 boasts two extra inches in overall length -- despite its markedly shorter appearance.Of course, the $40,000 question for Volvo is whether or not aging boomers will cotton to the idea of a new Volvo that's not only safe and Swedish in its soul but also fun and not quite so Swedish in your face. In "marketese," the company is expecting "affluent progressives" to approach the "post-family" lifestyle with a pent-up demand for the good times they missed while they were birthin' babies. That's OK, but I like it better when Helge Alten, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, remembers a colleague's first reaction to the car: "This time, we've kept the toy and thrown away the box."You get the sense that enthusiasts at Volvo are counting on the C70 to jazz up the company's image in preparation for a new century. Heaven knows, they've given it their best shot.

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