by Ray Thursby
Polishing the gold standard.
Base Price $35,310
As Tested $36,860
The introduction of a new Volvo is such a rare occasion that it deserves to be noticed. Change comes slowly to the Swedish firm, which tends to keep good products in its catalog far longer than industry norms.
With the new S70 and V70 -- plus the soon-to-arrive C70 coupe and a later soft-top sibling -- Volvo is revealing both a new car and a new model designation system. Said system, in which S denotes a sedan, V a wagon (and, perhaps, a rumored sport-utility machine) and C a coupe or convertible, is combined with a number that applies to an entire line. S- and V90, for example, are the new names for the current 960 sedan and wagon.
It's not entirely correct to call the S- and V70s totally new. There's a strong resemblance to last model year's 850 that will be readily apparent at a glance. Good reason: the 70-series sedans and wagons are mildly facelifted 850s, with some improvements made where they count most and a new face that follows Volvo design tradition but is more up-to-date.
But the 70-cars are new enough to warrant a good, long look, and keep enough of the virtues 850 owners prize to make them attractive replacements for those cars when trade-in time rolls around. Even in a competitive class, in which they must contend with the C-Class Mercedes, 3-Series BMW, and Lexus ES 300, to name just a few, the 70-series Volvos have much to recommend them.
If you've seen a Volvo 850, you are already familiar with the essentials of the S- and V70. A new, more rounded nose and the sedan's reworked rear-window and taillight treatments (wagon sheetmetal aft of the windshield pillars is carried over intact from the 850) separate old from new, but not by all that much.
It's a different story if you're looking at a C70. Volvo hasn't offered a sporty coupe since the 1970s; this one is worth the wait. Designed by Volvo's in-house styling team, it's as dramatic and appealing as a fully-functional four-place car can be. Low and slinky and planted firmly on its 18-inch wheels, the coupe is truly exciting, far more so in person than in photos.
Four model designations apply to both sedan and wagon. For starters, the basic S- and V70 use a 168-hp in-line five-cylinder engine, transversely mounted and driving the front wheels. Standard equipment includes ABS, air conditioning, all the usual interior power assists (with keyless remote entry for the door locks), heated side mirrors, an excellent sound system and a host of smaller but significant comfort and convenience features. The GT version adds aluminum alloy wheels, a power driver's seat and a power glass sunroof.
At the GLT trim level, the 70s are equipped with a turbocharged version of the base powerplant, raising output to 190 hp and, more important in the real world, increasing torque and lowering the engine speed at which it peaks. An even more powerful (236 hp) edition of the same engine powers the T5 wagons and sedans, as well as the C70.
A separate model, the V70 AWD, is Volvo's first all-wheel drive car. It is powered by the same engine used in the GLT and, like that version, is available only with an automatic transmission.
The Inside Story
The 70-Series new interior represents a major improvement over what was already a well-designed and roomy cabin. Former hard corners have been rounded off, giving dashboard, center console and door panels a more attractive look. Soft-faced switches are placed for easier use. For example, window switches are now on the driver's door armrest rather than the center console, and the seats have new frames and padding.
Other important changes are invisible. The B or central roof pillar has been reinforced to provide extra crush resistance in side impacts; driver and front-seat passenger are further protected by standard side-impact airbags. A new steering column design reduces wheel intrusion into the cabin in frontal impacts.
Those items add mental comfort for occupants who are already well taken care of in physical comfort terms. The new seats are excellent, most comfortable in their standard velour upholstery. Little is left to be added in the 70 Series, though the automatic air conditioning (GLT and T5 models) and optional heated front seats will be appreciated in certain climates. Wood trim accents are optional.
Though more stylish, the interior has lost none of its functionality. The driving position is, as always, good, made better for all drivers by tilt/telescope steering wheel adjustments. Gauges for car and engine speed, fuel level and coolant temperature have large, clear markings, and can be supplemented with an optional trip computer. Stretch-out room for all five occupants is more than ample, and the sedan's large 15 cubic-foot trunk can be doubled in size by folding the rear seat back. The versatile wagon, of course, can swallow considerably more.
Ride & Drive
Depending on model, the S- and V-70 are rapid, very rapid, or downright exhilarating to drive. Even the base engine will get a 70 down the road smartly while returning good fuel economy. The two turbos have more appeal for the enthusiast driver, with the T5 being, naturally, the most fun to drive.
Either transmission -- five-speed manual or four-speed automatic -- is a good choice. S- and V70 buyers who opt for the T5 model can, at last, have the manual gearbox previously denied them.
Whether normally aspirated cruiser or full-boost turbo road-burner, the 70-Series cars are quiet at highway speeds. A harmonic-rich hum (common to five-cylinder engines) is too muted to bother anyone, and wind and road noise are kept to a minimum.
Improvements in ride and handling give the 70s broader appeal. Past versions have been criticized for ride quality judged too harsh by many testers; this was especially true of the high-performance versions. The 70s still ride firmly, but changes to springs and shock absorbers should mute the complaints. T5 drivers may want to avoid bad road surfaces, but the standard, GT and GLT versions are noticeably more comfortable, if not yet as soft-riding as some competitors.
Conversely, the softer suspension settings seem to have had no affect on handling. Both sedan and wagon are more nimble than their size might suggest, and take readily to fast driving on winding roads. Steering and brakes are both excellent.
Our tester, which we drove during a mid-winter trip to Arctic Scandinavia, was a V70 AWD wagon, which adds the tractive benefits of all-wheel drive to an excellent chassis. Even in Arctic weather conditions, the V70 AWD felt safe and secure, picking its way over snow- and ice-covered roads with considerably more ease than its front-wheel drive counterparts, even when the latter were equipped with the optional TRACS traction-control system.
The 850 was a very good car. The 70-Series is better. With a host of changes that go well beyond new badges, the newcomer is still recognizably a Volvo when judged for looks and driving feel, and far more competitive compared to its many rivals.
With the addition of the C70 coupe, the 70-series lineup offers something for everyone. And these cars are so well developed that there are no either/or situations: you can have performance, safety, comfort, excellent handling and all the utilitarian virtues in a single package. All you have to do is decide whether you need a sedan, coupe, wagon or, next year, a convertible.
©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.