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First Drive

Retro review: the origami-spec Volvo C70

Published: 07 Jul 2023
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This review was originally published in Issue 150 of Top Gear magazine (2006)

Last week I was in ice cold Detroit at the motor show watching Volvo take the wraps off a Golf-sized hatch called the C30. Now I’m in blood-hot Dubai driving a car out of the same series called C70. The underbelly might be the same but the model numbers are so different because the C70 is an expensive toy, intended to square up to those fancy German four-seat convertibles.

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To make its mark, it’s a folding hard top. With a twist: it’s got three, not the usual two, roof sections. 

It might be complicated, this electro-hydraulic, tape-and-string roof, but it works. Parked, this is a nicely turned-out coupe, the only clue to its mind-boggling trickery being that the roof has as many cut-lines as a roll-top bureau. 

You’ll recognise the front end. It’s an S40. Or a V50. And so it is underneath: it has the same chassis – although the springs are lowered a bit to make it more sporty. Which is also Focus hardware, of course. Interesting that, as Volvo is pitching this car against the 9-3, 3-Series and A4 cabriolets, which are all a size notch up. (And, in fact, the old C70 was based on the big V70 estate). But let’s not get hung up on this, as there’s no practical difference in the space they provide. 

There’s no disadvantage in the interior, either, because the cabin is terrific. It reflects the visual openness of the Scandinavians: elegant and simple shapes, light colours, the delightful floating console and its intuitive control logic. But this isn’t news – it’s exactly the same
as its S40/V50 stablemates.

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The roof is the news. If it’s good when it’s up, top down there are issues. It isn’t so much that it eats the top half of the boot (which it does), but that it blocks all access to the remainder, so to get anything in or out you have to work your weary way through an infuriating ritual of opening the bootlid, pressing a special button to half-raise the assembly, waiting for that to whirr its way up, then wrestling with a protective baggage/gubbins separator and... oh, forget it. So you’ll leave your stuff in the back seats. Which is fair enough, because no-one’s going to put up with travelling far or fast back there unless they want their hair torn out by the roots. ‘Windy’ doesn’t begin to describe it. Luckily, things are calmer up front. 

What with the folding roof itself, and the extra strengthening the rest of the hull has been given to maintain Volvo’s crash-safety standards, with only fresh air above the waist-line, you’ve got a lot of Brunel-grade engineering, and that doesn’t come light. It’s an extra 300kg over an S40. But Volvo’s fine 2.5 turbo engine bears it with fortitude. This is the light-pressure version, the one Volvo lent to the Focus ST. Instead of full-boost tyre-smoking fireworks, it swaddles you in comforting low-down torque then just keeps on keeping on. The wide, easy-going powerband and muted five-pot surf you all the way to the redline. It’s such a defiantly non-peaky engine that the standard six-speed gearbox, though in no way unwelcome, leaves you spoiled for choice. The whole powertrain could hardly better suit the cabrio’s swift, but not hectic, nature.

Volvo C70 Top Gear

Well, you can’t be hectic with it. The steering doesn’t like you mixing acceleration with cornering – if you do, the self-centring goes all wobbly and it hunts cambers. To be fair, though, it’s night-and-day better than the appallingly mannered, old C70. Drive this car within itself, please, use fingertip inputs, notice the tidy grip and decent damping, and you’ll both get along well enough, even if it’s too stand-offish for any intimate bond to form.

Besides the jellification of the ride caused by the shimmies of the bodywork – something that every saloon-based cabrio suffers and this one suffers less than most – the C70’s suspension has the rubbery feeling that characterises every Volvo. It’s not hard, the ride, but it never settles. Turbulent might be the best word. Volvo engineers must like it this way, because they’re sharing the same fundamental hardware as several Fords, cars with superbly judged suspensions. Well, the Swedish engineers might like it, and for all I know their customers might like it too, but I don’t. It’s not just a comfort thing, it’s that the car never feels entirely precise. It’s blurred, out of sync with itself.

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So what happens when the Focus CC arrives next year? Dynamically, the Ford might be better than the Volvo, and no doubt it’ll sell cheaper spec-for-spec. The Volvo will then have to stand or fall on its being a (dread phrase) ‘premium brand’. If premium means having a nicer interior or more attentive dealers, or design less compromised by the need to appeal to the mass market, then that’s a good argument.

But does the C70 manage to put that amount of clear air between itself and the rest – not just the Focus CC but the equivalent Astra, 307, Megane and the VW Eos? And is it enough nicer to justify the money? If it isn’t, then premium simply means a brand that you buy into because you refuse to share it with thousands of drivers of commodity hatchbacks. An ignoble motivation for purchase, really.

With the test car’s leather, electric seats and wake-the-dead stereo, you’re at £33,000 plus, but the T5 opens the bidding at under £30k. Audi’s 2.0T hovers in the same area, but it has less kit, so Volvo would argue you’re getting an extra cylinder, more poke and the hardtop all for nowt. But that’s still half as much again as a turbo Megane CC.

But the C70 is endearing. And even the basic conceptual fault – that though they say it’s a four-seat convertible it can’t actually carry four and their baggage with the roof down – probably doesn’t matter a bit. Cars like this never carry four for a year-round habit. Now imagine rounding up three passengers you very much like, jumping in a C70 and leaving the top up while you drive south on your holidays. It’s quite civilised, roomy and glassy that way. Then, once you’ve arrived at your hotel and unpacked, wouldn’t it be just peachy to drop the roof and mosey gently off down the beach?

Verdict: Likeable, thanks to nice design and a good engine. But feels like it’s playing above its league.

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