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Once-sloppy Volvo has been solidly retooled

HANA, Hawaii — We’ve driven a Porsche Twin Turbo across the shifting sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert at more than 175 miles per hour, we’ve survived the deadly 140-plus turns of the infamous Nurburgring Formula One racetrack in Germany, and we’ve crawled carefully in all-wheel drive over the hazardous high red cliffs and domes of the Hell’s Revenge trail in Moab, Utah.

Yet last week, behind the wheel of Volvo’s new 2007 C70 hardtop convertible, we faced an altogether new danger: flower petals.

Travel the 30-plus miles of the Hana Highway that snake along the southeast coast of Maui like a clinging, twisted root — there are 600 corners and nearly 50 one-lane bridges — and you get a feel for this new Volvo, thanks to the hills, sudden braking, rough road, and slippery petals that pile up on wet corners beneath lush rainforest overhang.

And it felt satisfyingly solid. Volvo has done this car rigidly right.

The C70 was introduced here because, as a hard-top convertible, it needed to show its capabilities in both sunshine, with the top down, and in drenching rains, with the top up. In Hana, both weather conditions are present every day.

I arrived with Volvo’s last C70 in mind (or shuddering from the memory). That car was so sloppy and soft that the slightest road imperfections caused its dashboard and gauges to vibrate. I labeled the trait Mad Cowl Disease. But the trip to Hawaii proved that the disease has been eradicated.

Far stiffer than its predecessor, the C70 exhibited no chatters or mild shudders, even on rutted pavement, washed-out dirt roads, or rocks and gravel that washed down from overhanging cliffs onto the roads because of fierce rains higher up on the Haleakala volcano.

The C70 is perfectly suited to go up against such convertible competitors as the Saab 9-3, BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Chrysler Sebring, and a new Pontiac G6.

The C70 will arrive at dealers in April, with a base price of about $39,000.

Major options include a $1,550 premium package that adds leather upholstery, homelink communication, auto-dimming mirrors and compass, and an upgraded sound system (and trust me, it will surround you with a whomping audio melange). A navigation system costs another $2,120, and the five-speed automatic transmission adds $1,250.

The C70 is powered by an inline-5, turbocharged engine that delivers 218 horsepower and an impressive 236 lb.-ft. of tugging torque.

There was no hint of torque steer, the pull-to-the-side devil that often lurks in the details of powerful front-wheel-drive cars. Understeer, also common to front-wheel drive, was minimal — and if understeer was ever to be noticeable, it would have been on the hairpins and switchbacks of the Hana Highway.

Part of the new stiffness of the overall performance of the C70 — beyond the major bracing below, aside, and in windshield pillars — is the three-piece hardtop that replaces the cloth top of the old C70.

The roof is a Rube Goldberg-like bit of engineering wonder. Its three panels rise as it closes, stacking themselves in a compact unit before they drop into the trunk beneath a solid tonneau cover. It takes about 30 seconds to open or close.

The interior features a tightly woven combination of snug, supportive seating, wide arm room (because of scalloped-out door panels), lengthy leg room, and the elegant audio/climate control stack at center dash that looks wafer thin as it descends.

Bins in the front seats and the panels of the rear seats lock so you can walk away with the top down, forcing potential thieves to at least make an effort to make off with any small goods left behind. Top up, the trunk is spacious and looked like it would hold a couple of golf bags. Top down, it’s a bit too snug for any items more than 18 inches high.

We didn’t have a straight enough stretch on the tortuous Hana Highway to be able to tell if the automatic in Tiptronic mode would intrude should we choose to run the car fast to redline, but we’ll find out in future testing. As it was, the automatic was an invisible operation as the car climbed steep hills carved into rocky cliffs, or accelerated out of corners.

And Volvo, with its reputation for safety, does not hold back on any of the standard safety gear in the C70.

You’ll get stability and traction controls, ABS, six air bags (including side curtains that pop up from window sills), and rear rollover bars that are designed to rocket upward in a tip-over.

This solid-topped, shudder-free convertible has put the bad cowls out to pasture. It prances down the roadway like a thoroughbred.