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Safety-above-all gives way to fashionable sophistication in Volvo

By Marc K. Stengel

MARCH 20, 2000:  It seemed a bit uncanny to attend the recent debut of Volvo's V70 wagon for model-year 2001 while overlooking the French Riviera from a perch outside the fortified medieval hill town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. After all, the first Volvo wagon rolled onto the world stage in 1953 almost as an afterthought, really, since the PV445 (as it was known) simply provided a means for exploiting 1,500 spare sedan frames that were cluttering a storage shed in GÖteborg, Sweden. By 1967, though, the Volvo wagon had arguably become the company's sales and image flagship--and for the model's 40th birthday, the company confirmed its jet-set aspirations by selecting Cannes for the site where the first front-wheel-drive 850 Wagon would premiere.

It is neither difficult to detect the fading vestiges of the 850 wagon in this newest V70 model, nor is it surprising to learn that Volvo's latest wagon is as fundamental a design overhaul as the remarkable S80 sedan whose platform it shares. Industry watchers and the car-buying public alike are presently being treated to the spectacle of Volvo's self-administered makeover, in which a time-honored reputation for safety-above-all is giving way to fashionable sophistication. It's no secret that last year's S80 sedan deserves much of the credit for hoisting Volvo's '99 overall sales to its first record-setting year since '86. With the new V70, Volvo likewise hopes to replace both its literally and figuratively "square" images with a hipper, happ'nin' persona that, oh, just happens to be preeminently safe. That the V70 manages to emulate the S80's éclat with just seven borrowed, incidental parts only heightens the magical effect of this wagon's transformation.

For North America, Volvo will deliver three different configurations of V70: a 197-horsepower "light-pressure" turbo engine displacing 2.4 liters mated to a five-speed automatic (for $32,400 base); and a "high-pressure" turbo T5 (for $33,400), whose 2.3-liter five-cylinder makes 250 horse and wears either a five-speed manual (standard) or a five-speed auto with the "Geartronic" clutchless shift feature (for $1,000 more).

I had the additional pleasure of driving the 2.4-liter motor with a Euro-only five-speed manual. I found it marvelously ideal for negotiating the twists and turns lacing the gorges of the Var, Verdon, and Loup river valleys. For one thing, the 200 horsepower light-pressure motor delivers ample power even for narrow, mountainous terrain, but much more smoothly than the hi-po, more frenetic T5. As enjoyable as the manual transmission may be, the standard automatic on U.S. models presents no drawback. Its five speeds exploit the powerband with almost imperceptible shifts between gears, as ordained by the computerized controller that adapts to individual driving styles.

The rocket sled contingent in the U.S. will no doubt savor the 250-horse, 6.7-second zero-to-60 performance of the T5, particularly with the manual shifter. In a telling commentary on American priorities, however, Volvo has elected to equip all V70 versions with the softer-riding suspension of the "light-pressure" model. Only European bahn-burners will get to enjoy the race-replica, hard-tail suspension tuning reserved for their T5s alone.

It bears remembering, however, that the V70 is a wagon, after all, with wagon chores to perform. To this end, the powertrain and suspension are but supporting characters in the grander scheme of moving people and cargo through space. Curiously, in its transformation from last year's model by way of the S80 sedan, the new V70 has become one half-inch shorter measured from bumper to bumper, but the "business office" between grille and tailgate is 2 inches longer atop a wheelbase that's 3 1/2 inches longer. So, too, is the V70's body wider and taller than before, and its rear wheel track is, significantly, a half-inch wider as well. The point being, of course, that a larger, more functional cabin now rests atop a longer, more performance-oriented wheelbase. In the doing, torsional (i.e., twisting motion) rigidity has stiffened between 60 and 70 percent, yielding noticeable reduction in road-noise vibrations and better ride and handling characteristics.

Just the same, it's the doodads that catch the attention. Volvo has larded the V70 with clever extras (some optional, some standard), such as an umbrella "holster" beside the front passenger wheel well; a computer desk in the console; handbag and pen holders; a rear steno table; and a $2,500 optional GPS navigational system with steering wheel controls and infrared remote (for passenger use). In the cargo hold, there is the most elaborate system yet for bungee-strapping groceries and odds-and-ends. Here too is where the optional two-seater kiddie bench installs. You might also opt for the stack-and-store picnic table or for the gated, flip-fold grate between rear seat back and stowage area, further customizable with a built-in pet kennel.

Volvo's safety package remains nonpareil and is improved structurally as well as dynamically. In the latter instance, the V70 comes standard with ABS and stability/traction-control. In addition to twin dual-stage front airbags and four side airbags, there are side "curtains" for front and rear head protection. A major innovation is Volvo's new ISOFIX child safety seat, which combines a removable seat-and-armature structure with an error-proof quick-attach and -release system. Even the environment is spared its bruises: A PremAir coating for the radiator "eats" smog while the car is in motion, and Volvo is the first automaker to make it standard for a full model line.

Come April 1, Volvo's 2001-model V70 is poised to raise the bar just a bit higher in a U.S. wagon category that it already dominates with a 60-percent market share. On that day as well debuts a new VolvoNet Internet buying system that should further shake up the automotive retail scene. Almost 50 years after scheming a way to clear the storeroom of spare parts with a hastily cobbled-together station wagon, Volvo pins its hopes on a Riviera reputation for its family wagon-turned-fashion plate.

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