By Steven Cole Smith Special to Tribune Newspapers
April 10, 2012
When Volvo introduced the C70 convertible in 1999 — the company’s first drop-top in decades — the car had the looks, but little else. Typical of a lot of convertibles from the era, the C70 suffered from some serious “cowl shake,” a tendency, when driven over rough surfaces like railroad tracks, for the car to shimmy like it had a rubber suspension.
Cowl shake does not improve with age. The last time I was in a friend’s old C70, it shook like a wet dog. Still looked great, but the car, even new, just never quite clicked.
I hadn’t driven a C70 in a couple of years, and when the 2012 model showed up, I was less interested than I should have been. Yes, it looks great — a 2011 facelift gave the C70 a sense of family with other Volvos, and no major changes were made for 2012. This one, painted “Black Sapphire Metallic,” which is pretty much just “black” despite a $550 premium, came with handsome, five-spoke alloy wheels with black accents.
The central difference between the original C70 and the new one is the top — a conventional cloth top on the original, and a complex but nicely engineered retractable steel hardtop on the latest models. With the top up, the C70 looks like any four-door coupe, with the seams very well hidden. As you’d expect, with the top up, there’s zero cowl shake, but commendably, there’s none with the top down, either. The chassis is very well braced, and the C70 feels rock-solid on the worst pavement.
This chassis stiffness also helps handling. While this is a pretty heavy car at 3,858 pounds — more than a Ford Mustang GT convertible with the V-8 engine — the Volvo is astoundingly light on its feet. Steering is absolutely spot-on, with just the right feel. The Volvo corners like a smaller, lighter car, but it still rides very well on the highway.
The C70 is still powered by a five-cylinder engine, which has gotten much smoother over the years. With turbocharging, the output is normally 227 horsepower, but the test car had the $3,900 “Inscription Package,” which ups horsepower to 250 and also adds upgraded headlights, larger 18-inch tires and wheels, a “sport” steering wheel and some additional trim items.
While 250 horsepower isn’t a lot for an ostensibly sporty roadster, it seems like enough thanks in part to the intuitive, Japan-built five-speed automatic transmission. EPA-rated fuel mileage is 18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. We got an even 23 mpg with mostly highway driving.
Inside, the leather front seats are very comfortable and supportive. The instrument panel and controls seems to be designed as much for aesthetics as function, but they aren’t hard to master. The test car had no navigation system. A $1,000 “Premier Plus” package and and a $1,000 “Climate Package” added rear parking assist, heated front seats and a few other features.
The rear seat isn’t as uncomfortable as you’d expect if you are shorter than six feet, otherwise headroom may be a problem. Getting to the rear seat, though, is a pretty awkward proposition despite the front seats moving quite far forward. Likely most customers will use the rear seat for groceries or other light cargo; with the roof up, the trunk has 12.8 cubic feet of space, but with the top down, just six feet. But that six feet is accessible only through a narrow slot, as the top folds itself into the trunk, with the rear window on top.
Looking over my original review of the C70 from 1999, there are a few interesting similarities. Both cars had a turbocharged five-cylinder engine (with 236 horsepower in 1999), and the price of both is remarkably close: $47,365 in 1999, and $47,775 in 2012.
The biggest difference: The 2012 Volvo C70 is a very attractive, competent car for the money. The 1999 model — well, not so much.