A pain-free folding roof, four seats - this urbane coupé-cabriolet is a new artform, says John Simister

This is where Volvo launched its new C70, the better to guarantee sun in January. But I had an advantage over most of those about to encounter the car. I had driven one nine months earlier in the late throes of prototype development. Dynamically it was right. In terms of fit, finish and tactile civility, it wasn't. That's usual; refinement comes at the end of the gestation.

I formed quite a radical opinion of the C70 during that early exercise, based on a comparison with three key rivals. But I won't reveal it yet, not until I'm happy that the production version squares with my memory.

This is the second car to be called C70. The first, made initially as a coupé and then joined by a convertible, was a fashion-model version of Volvo's old 850 family. This new one is a bit smaller (should it have been a C50?), but the surprise is that it's as big as it is. That's because it's yet another car to be based on the versatile Ford Focus platform, suitably extended and strengthened to cope with the loss of a roof.

The car is a very clever new take on the coupé-cabriolet idea. Top up, the profile is like the old C70 coupé's apart from the pair of thin black lines traversing the roof. Top down, this is a good-looking convertible which, despite its short, round-cornered nose, doesn't have the big-bottomed look that kills the stylishness of many a coupé-cabriolet.

So far, so promising. It gets better. The C70 is unique among coupé-cabrios in having four proper seats. Other CCs are either two-seaters or have rear seats suitable only for children, while the C70's convertible rivals - Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Saab 9-3, plus Mercedes CLK if you can stand the price - have a normal fabric roof with its snags of claustrophobia and vandal vulnerability. So how does this Volvo do it?

The answer is by having a three-piece (instead of a two-piece) metal roof - hence those two black lines. The three short sections stack on top of each other in the boot and take up remarkably little length at the expense of a lot of height. Folding the roof away involves holding a button down for 30 seconds, foot on brake, while a mechanical ballet unfolds behind you in a moving and meshing and almost-tangling of levers, wires and tensioning cables.

Parts of Dubai are irrigated and lush, but the desert is never far away and always ready to encroach if the wind whips up a sandstorm. You don't want the roof down when that happens, but right now it's calm and early-morning hazy.

Out into the traffic, and it's clear that this is one of Volvo's best turbocharged engines yet: 2.5 litres, 220bhp, almost the same as the unit Volvo lends to Ford for the Focus ST but a little gentler in its demeanour. Or is that the weight calming it down? At a hefty 1,711kg, this C70 T5 weighs around 200kg more than the S40 saloon from which it is derived.

It's pleasing, then, that this C70 - there is also a 2.4-litre, 170bhp, non-turbo version, with a D5 turbodiesel to come - is as lively as it is. It's also extremely smooth, the tuneful five-cylinder hum barely audible as the C70's speed rises and the gentle rush of wind takes over.

Away from the metropolis of shiny skyscrapers, service industries, construction sites and petrol at 20p a litre, there's sand, rock, a few thorny bushes scratching a living and not much else. It's oil that made the Emirates so rich, of course, oil that has generated the wealth to attract other commerce. But you feel uneasy at the profligacy, the apparent short-sightedness as the many expatriates get richer and the oil level gets lower. Shouldn't the desert be full of solar panels, if only to power the desalination plants that supply the irrigation? This is a strange place, by an accident of oil reserves somehow divorced from the real world.

Out here, among the sand and rock but on a fine road, traffic is very sparse. No one around? Let's give the C70 its head as we smooth from Dubai to Oman, border open and free, road no longer barren motorway but now two-way with bends, gradients and signs of habitation stage left and right. The occasional camel.

We're up in barren mountains, the road twisting and turning. The Volvo steers crisply and faithfully, its tyres gripping with fortitude. There's an easy fluidity to its motion that inspires confidence and banishes stress; it's like a bigger, softer, more languid Focus - hardly a surprise.

If I were brave, but had experienced the C70 in isolation, I would speculate that its blend of suppleness, fluidity, precision and structural stability (the shell is twice as stiff as the old open C70's) is better than that of any convertible rival. Which brings me back to that drive nine months ago, before the panel gaps were right and textures were civilised. The venue was Volvo's test track, a Tarmac ribbon with crests, dips, ruts, bumps, tricky bends and fast straights. It would favour no car and stretch them all.

As well as the C70, we had convertible versions of the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Saab 9-3. The BMW would be best, wouldn't it? No. The Volvo proved easiest to flow with, the best-riding, the least troubled by the shudders that so often go with an open-top car. Yes, Audi has revamped the A4 and a new BMW is not far away, but a new standard was set. The production version confirms the judgement.

In Dubai there's a new six-star hotel called the Burj al-Arab. Clients have use of a Rolls-Royce Phantom in their choice of colour. I'm sure it's splendid, but the C70 is hedonism enough for me.

Meet the ancestors

Built by Pininfarina in a new Swedish factory, the new C70 is the latest in an eclectic line of specialist-built coupés. It goes on sale next month, priced from £26,200 to £33,225.

VOLVO P1800

Sleek styling on Volvo Amazon mechanicals, and famous as Simon Templar's transport in The Saint. The body was made by Pressed Steel at Linwood (opposite the Hillman Imp factory), and the P1800 was initially assembled in the UK by Jensen. Volvo later took production in-house and renamed the car 1800S. An 1800ES coupé-estate arrived in the twilight years. From 1961 to 1969.

VOLVO 262C

Bertone made a low-roofed coupé out of the 164 of the 1960s, and it looked great. The production version, also Bertone-built, had to be based on the later 264 with its bluff extremities and battering-ram bumpers, so the result, launched in 1977, looked like a tank with minimal headroom to match. It was much better to drive than you would think, though. Production ended in 1981.

VOLVO 780

Bertone again, this time designing and building a handsome coupé based on the square-cut 760 saloon. Launched at the Geneva show in 1985, the styling was in stark contrast to the boxy saloon on which it was based. The interior very luxurious, and there was even a diesel version. It was left-hand drive only, and never sold in the UK. This design lasted until 1990.

VOLVO 480

Volvo took over Dutch car-maker DAF and its design for a mid-size car, which became the Volvo 300-series. Volvo BV, as the Dutch arm, then designed the front-wheel drive 400-series, of which the radical 480 coupé was the first. Full of technical good ideas, it was unreliable. The factory now makes Smart Forfours and Mitsubishi Colts. The 480 ran from 1986 to 1996.

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