The cars we loved.
Volvos have always been well-known for safety and reliability. While everyone would like these attributes attached to their cars, it’s not always the formula to follow to grow sales in the highly profitable sport-premium car market. Volvo sought to break with more than 20 years of safe boxy designs with a replacement for the 850.
Although Volvo had produced some high performance 850 Estate cars in the past, the company had no recent track record with a sporty coupe, the last proper one being from the 80’s. Volvo recruited Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TRW) in England to co-develop a new car from the foundations of the 850’s chassis. TRW did extensive suspension tuning while Volvo handled design and engine development duties. The result of the collaboration called the C70, was shown at the 1996 Paris Motor Show and was released to the European public in 1998 and a year later in America.
The timing could not have been better. The 1997 film The Saint featured a reprise of a Volvo in its role as auto star, reminiscent of the P1800’s role in the original TV show from the 1960’s. For many in America, the film would be the first glance at the new Volvo coupe, that must not have appeared as one until close up shots revealed the Volvo logo and trademark slash on the grill.
The C70 was a departure from previous Volvo’s, in that it had curves and was slick-looking. First released as a coupe and later a soft top convertible. There was also a trick hardtop convertible that retracted completely like those on some BMW’s and Mercedes roadsters. The C70 came with a range of 5 cylinder engines ranging from 2.0 to 2.4L, all with turbocharging. The turbo needed quite a bit of winding up to feel any boost, a situation made all the more obvious with the C70 3,500+ pounds. Just under 7 seconds was needed to reach 60mph. Most cars shipped to America came with 2.4L which made anywhere from 218 to 236hp.
This car was designed with international markets in mind. It’s exterior was penned by a European while the interior design team was led by a Mexican. This was Volvo’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of the 3 Series and cars like it that were increasing in sales. Despite being a coupe or convertible, the C70 was intended to be a comfortable, fast and reliable car for a family of four according to Peter Horbury, Volvo’s (then) design chief. Even with a focus on sport, the C70 could not escape the legacy of being a Volvo. That meant some level of practicality would shine through regardless of the new shape.
Practicality reared its head in the form of neat tricks for storage and safety. The trunk was still accessible, even when the top was down thanks to a system that raised the folded top to reveal the storage area. Safety features were all over the place, with air bags that rose up from the doors, even when the top was down. A specialized reinforced horseshoe-shaped safety cage surrounded the cabin as did automatic rollover protections. So fortified was the coupe and convertible, that they won the NIA top safety pic awards.
In a nod at attempts at being frugal, the C70 could run on regular unleaded gas, rare for this caliber of car. A 6 speed manual would be the top performance transmission, often coupled to a 218 hp I5 in the US. Most C70s came with some form of automatic (4 then 5 speeds). Either of the auto shifters were capable of returning 27 mpg on the highway.
When the occupants weren’t worrying about safety or fuel, there was a Dolby Pro Logic I stereo in some early models to console them and plenty of fancy wood trim and double stitched leather. The seats were a bit narrow, but the C70 had more room inside than most coupes (hardtop or convertible). Overall the logical and clearly laid out control surfaces were not unlike most other Volvo cars – that’s to say that they remained very good, despite Fords involvement with the company.
The C70 handled and braked better than most Volvos, but its road holding ultimately would trail its closest competitors. The ride has been described as harsh, but responsive. Even with TWR’s input, the C70’s handling was not much different from any other Volvo, just a bit firmer riding. Thanks to conflicts over another business partnership with TRW, Volvo and TWR would part ways, leaving the next generation C70 as a solo Volvo development. The second generation car would address the ride quality and become more decisive in its role as a comfortable grand touring car.
Although far from the best handling Volvo, the C70 marked an important turning point for Volvo design. In the process, the company may have lost a bit of its design identity which may explain why its sales have steadily fallen since 2003 (139k) to 2012’s (68k). The current C70 is an attractive, but expensive car at over $40k. With performance or style that does not stand out the C70 may need to go back to its roots. With TRW behind it, perhaps nows the time for Volvo to make Polestar its official in-house tuner of choice.