AB Volvo has a near-perfect highline convertible in the new C70, but delays in ramping up production at its Uddavella assembly plant in Sweden mean the handsome '99 C70 convertible hits the U.S. market nearly a year behind its originally projected launch date. Which in turn means Volvo now must sell the drop-roof C70 nearly head-to-head with Mercedes-Benz's newest convertible, the chop-top version of the gorgeous CLK, arriving here a few months from now.

No matter. The C70 convertible will sell. Not because the company wants only to move 5,000 of this, the slinkiest Volvo ever, but because Volvo has learned how to combine safe and slinky.

Steady readers will remember our first report on the hardtop C70 from last May: built on the sturdy but aging 70-series (formerly 850) platform and employing the same basic (turbocharged) 5-cyl. engine line, it's the first modern Volvo that looks like its designers were free to use tools other than a T-square. Hunky and even slightly aggressive as a coupe, the C70 convertible's lines show how well Volvo's designers understand how to execute a modern interpretation of the classy, adult-style convertible.

But the real importance of the C70 line - coupe and convertible - is that its break from Volvo's staid heritage is evidence that savvy car companies can update their images and realign their core values for a new generation of customers.

These days, every automaker is chasing one of two elusive goals: either to reinforce its "brand" or to change it. The problem is, precious few possess brand images worth reinforcing, and those trying to modernize their images to recapture former glories usually don't have a clue how to go about it.

For purposes of discussion, here's a hierarchy of who stands where with brand "management:"

Bankable brand image, tuned into today's customers: BMW. Chevrolet. Ford Truck. Mercedes. Porsche. Toyota. Honda. Jeep.

Solid brand that's gone slightly awry, but diligence can return it to the sweet spot: Cadillac. Lincoln. Pontiac. Saab. Volkswagen. Volvo.

Currently lacking some component(s), but intriguing possibilities if managed correctly: Audi. Dodge. Mazda. Saturn. Subaru.

What the heck is brand?: Mercury. Mitsubishi. Nissan. Oldsmobile.

Anyway, here's the point. You see Volvo in the second tier, the guys with a brand image worth retaining, yet one that must be updated. I think Volvo is doing a solid job of doing just that.

The C70 models, both coupe and convertible, are alluringly styled and sportingly engineered. Its other hot new property, the V70 Cross Country - a classily executed marriage of SUV and station wagon - gets the nod of approval from onlookers of all ages, but particularly from sport-ute owners, whose openly envious glances at the Cross Country telegraph the frustration they've found in piloting their under-engineered behemoths.

And don't forget the S70 and V70 T5-R models: first and foremost, they retain Volvo's reputation for producing safety modules, but their high-pressure turbocharged 5-cyl. engines turn them into seriously rapid safety modules.

So give Volvo credit not so much for having the self-awareness to accurately reassess its image - but for having the smarts to pull off the change it determined must transpire.

The C70 convertible is the perfect illustration of that ideal: you get the feeling of traveling in a tremendously secure car - even the rear seats have pretensioning belt systems - just as you always have in a Volvo. But now you get that in a car that's gorgeously styled and more than a little bit fast, maybe even sexy. A Volvo that has all of the established virtues, melded with new qualities desired by younger, hipper buyers. That's the holy grail every carmaker's chasing.

Most are still chasing. With cars like the C70 and the Cross Country, Volvo's making it happen.