At Volvo, The Cost of Safety Is Never Too High

September 16, 2005

“Twenty. Fifteen. Ten. Five. BAM!” In just that amount of time, two Volvos make it to the end of their brief and final test drive. The 2.5-ton XC90 you expect to survive; with the new C70 hardtop convertible, you expect more damage than the minimal side intrusion and broken bits scattered over the indoor crash-test facility Volvo operates at its headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The safe structure designed into the C70 is an engineering marvel, but it’s surely a marvel few consumers ever will see in action. And even if they do, Volvo wants to make sure they live to tell about the experience.

Hardtop convertibles are odd ducks to begin with—halo cars meant as much to draw shoppers to showrooms as they are meant to put drivers in a sunnier state of mind. And engineering one of these semi-roadsters to be among the safest cars on the road is an almost breathtaking feat of will over common sense and cost efficiency. You may as well disregard the fact that the C70 even has a metal top, when it comes to rollover accidents: the car’s actual roof panels are almost incidental to rollover protection. Instead, pop-up rollover bars, actuated by springs and pyrotechnics, and the windshield frame are the structural elements meant to protect occupants should the car roll— a hugely rare event, one expects, since only about 8 percent of accidents are rollovers and of those, almost half are accounted for by sport-utility vehicles.

Watching the C70 be struck by a massive sport-ute renews your faith in their engineering, for sure. But it also raises some unanswerable questions about the marketing impulse that drives all the design work. All this ingenuity is applied to a vehicle that will sell at most 16,000 copies a year. A lot of expensive technology is bundled into one convertible that may only survive on accident, too. Given its multi-piece hardtop, large glass areas, deformable body structure and pop-up roll bars that are designed to smash the rear glass when the car senses an imminent rollover, a middling to major accident in the C70 almost certainly means a total writeoff of its estimated $35,000 to $40,000 sticker price.

This sort of fatalism is not strictly applicable to the C70. The Benz SLK is in the same boat when it comes to a severe accident. Most major cars built up around modules, especially aluminum-bodied ones like Audis and Jags and Acuras, are easily torqued beyond repair in medium-speed collisions. And in many of these cases the crash lessons learned aren’t easily translated to other models. While Volvo’s XC90 has bred a handful of sedans and crossovers already, the complex, expensive top mechanism on its C70 is unique to the entire Ford empire and likely will remain so.

So is it worth all this effort for one very low-volume vehicle? Volvo’s killer app is safety. Without it, they may as well be building televisions. And thus, despite Ford’s financial straits and all the other headwinds against its existence, the C70 can endure horrific crashes AND fold away its origami roof. In this case, safety is something Volvo hopes very, very few people ever experience—but everyone knows is there.—Marty Padgett

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