HANA, HI – Volvo Cars sold a scant 200 C70 convertibles per year in its Swedish home market before the auto maker stopped making the rag top in 2004, two years after ending production of a companion C70 coupe.

Now the C70 returns as a two-in-one vehicle: a sleek coupe and a convertible, when its 3-panel hardtop roof electronically retracts, a 30-second contortion act that ends in the trunk.

Sales of the new model in convertible-challenged Sweden are expected to increase to 700 units. That still is low volume but a 350% jump, nonetheless, in a country located partly in the Arctic Circle.

C70 convertible seems at home on Hawaiian beach.

The real sales action is expected in the U.S., where C70 deliveries are forecast at 6,000-8,000 units annually, about 50% of the car’s anticipated world sales, Hans Krondhal, executive vice president-marketing for Volvo Cars North America, says.

That would be double the annual combined sales of the previous-generation convertible and coupe, yet hardly enough to shed niche-vehicle status.

But Volvo is bringing the versatile 4-seater to market for reasons other than trying to achieve mass-production numbers. Instead, the anointed "halo car" is intended to stir emotions while freshening Volvo's image.

"It will help get the Volvo brand out to customers who might not consider us," says Art Battaglia, VCNA's product manager-niche vehicles. "It will help drive showroom traffic and convince people we're not the boxy car we used to be. Believe it or not, some people still think that."

Exterior designer John Kinsey sought to accentuate strength, elegance and simplicity in styling the new C70.

"We started with the coupe," he says. "It was a bit of a balancing act, going back and forth until we had the right combination."

The car is lower, shorter and wider than its predecessor. Rounded corners, a minimal front overhang and upsweeping shoulders are cited as Volvo design hallmarks.

"There is a fundamental geometry that continues through the Volvo brand," says Kinsey. "You must move forward with design but also have recognizable characteristics that identify you."

Volvo stands out as a safety-conscious auto maker, and the new C70 is touted as a "safe" convertible, one that can win over consumers who think driving a convertible is like playing football without a helmet.

"It will convert convertible-phobes into prospective buyers," says Battaglia. Protective gear includes:

  • Side-impact protection with door-mounted inflatable curtains.
  • Hydro-formed A-pillars of extra-strong steel.
  • Reinforced sides to channel forces around the passenger compartment in a front collision.
  • Steel roof panels.
  • Reinforced side doors to compensate for the absence of B-pillars.Â

The auto maker had pondered a roof that retracted with a quick-touch button but scotched the idea due to safety concerns. Instead, the button must be held down for 30 seconds.

"We tried (the quick touch) and did not like the idea that someone could get caught in it; something could happen," says Stefan Interfeldt, market manager for the C70.

Other safety considerations included where to put the side curtain airbags in a convertible.

"These airbags come up out of the doors," says Thomas Broberg, deputy director of Volvo's Safety Center in Sweden. "It is hard to build a convertible that has the safety that it really needs. But I think with this model, people can be sure they are protected and can still have the kind of luxury car they like."

To enhance the C70's luxury attributes, the new model is powered by a 2.5L light-pressure turbocharged engine producing up to 218 hp at 5,000 rpm. The 5-cyl. inline engine is positioned transversely in the front-wheel-drive vehicle and mated to a 6-speed manual transmission or optional 5-speed automatic.

The '06 C70's base price is $38,710 with a $695 destination charge. Options include a $1,395 premium package and a $1,550 premium sound package.

Standalone options include the automatic transmission ($1,250), 18-in. alloy wheels ($995) and bi-xenon gas discharge headlamps ($700).

Options are kept simple in response to dealer complaints that Volvo trim lines were becoming complicated and hard for customers to understand.

The new car goes on sale in late April. Dealer Kjell Bergh, owner of Borton Volvo in Minneapolis, says he has been excited about the vehicle since he first saw it in concept form.

"I'm particularly excited because we are in the snowbelt and a retractable hardtop makes sense here," he says. "A downside is that there's not much room in the trunk when the top folds into it."

Bergh had hoped the vehicle would be available in all-wheel drive to boost horsepower. However he notes that an AWD system would crowd into what limited trunk space there is when the top is lowered into it.

"But it's an attractive car – elegant, crisp and Scandinavian," he says. :It shouldn't be advertised as just a convertible because Volvo already had one of those. It should be sold as a world wonder of technology, showing that top shuffling up and down like a deck of cards."

The C70's chief competitors are fellow Europeans: the Audi A4, Saab 9-3 and BMW 3-Series, which is the segment leader with annual convertible sales of 14,000 units.

"We gained a lot of knowledge from the previous C70," says Inerfeldt. "It takes time to be a player in this premium segment."

Adds Battaglia: "If we learned anything from 2005, it's that new product is hot in this marketplace."

He hopes the new C70 will get more men interested in Volvo, a brand that skews towards safety-conscious women. New York and Los Angeles are considered the best sales cities for Volvo in general and the C70 in particular, he says.

Far from the urban markets, Volvo holds a media drive preview in a remote location, the tiny town of Hana on the eastern end of Hawaii's Maui island.

Hana is in a rainforest with intermittent downpours that keep foliage lush and C70 tops going up and down as the weather turns.

The area is known for its Hana Highway, a 35-mile (56-km) stretch of constantly winding roadway cut from volcanic surface and featuring about 600 turns, 54 one-lane bridges and scenery that one travel writer describes as a "garden of Eden."

Drivers must resist the temptation of taking their eyes off the road to admire the scenery. The challenging road requires full attention.

Fellow motorists include slow-going tourists and fast-moving locals.

Add to that an occasional dog in the road, aging hippie hitchhikers on the narrow shoulders and daring motorcyclists barreling into blind turns.

It can be a white-knuckle drive for those used to freeways and wide boulevards.

Yet the C70 stays on its toes, responding to assorted driving commands and conditions, such as a road surface flooded in spots by a pounding rain. The 3,722-lb. (1,621-kg) car shows road-hugging confidence, precise steering and nimble handling along this unusual tangle of turns.

With speed limits never exceeding 35 mph (56 km/h) and the road never really straightening out, this is not a test of flat-out speed as much as an exercise of command and control in a steady car designed to take Volvo into new territories of the marketplace.Â

– with Steve MillerÂ

sfinlay@wardsauto.com

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