It rains all the time in Hawaii. In the wetter regions, during the rainy season-the rest of the northern hemisphere’s winter-spastic tropical rainstorms come almost often enough to set your watch by. It rains in the morning, it rains at night, and occasionally, it rains just to remind you that it rained five minutes ago. It doesn’t necessarily come down constantly, but it comes down a lot.
The thing is, though, Hawaii wouldn’t be Hawaii without the amount of rain it gets. The same stuff falling from the sky that deflates your Aunt Harriet’s permanent also makes sure that every color you see has its saturation level cranked up high enough to burn the cones off your retinas. Paradise, you come to realize, is a land born of, and defined by, the wet.
What to drive, then, on the roads of such a place? A convertible, of course, the better to take advantage of the spectacular view; a hardtop convertible if you’re feeling posh. Something European, maybe, but not too flashy, a little sporting, and safe enough to keep you alive should the scenery prove too distracting to keep you on the road. A hardtop Volvo convertible might do the trick.
The 2006 C70, for example.
Volvo’s all-new replacement for its previous-generation, 850-derived C70 coupe and convertible is based on a longer, wider version of the same platform that underpins the European Ford Focus, the Mazda 3, and Volvo’s own S40/V50. The C70 also shares its 218-hp, 2.5-liter turbo five-cylinder engine with other Volvos. At $39,405, however, the C70 checks in as the most expensive car built on its corporate Ford architecture.
Part of what you pay for is the folding hard top. Even if you’ve seen this show before, Volvo’s version is still entertaining to watch. It raises and lowers itself in a gloriously complex fashion that suggests a man pedaling a bicycle underwater or a hundred squirrels in hard hats running a steam shovel. Predictably, the three-piece roof cuts down trunk space by more than half when retracted, but the noise reduction and the increase in isolation are compensation enough. With its long, delicate C-pillars, the hard top even pulls off that rare feat among the folding-roof crowd: it makes the car look better when it’s up. It may take a somewhat lengthy thirty seconds to raise, but the end result visually is worth it, and the process remains quick enough to head off those sudden Hawaiian thunderstorms.
Of all the Hawaiian islands, it’s often said that Maui is the best place for a first-timer. Parts of it may be chock-full of resorts and crowded restaurants, but the island has a lot more to offer than the stereotypical sandy beaches. Eastern Maui appeals all the more due to its varied, rain-forest-like features, and because it’s home to perhaps the two most interesting and well-known drives on the island. The first, the Road to Hana (named after the tiny, secluded village to which it leads), is a winding, fifty-five-mile coastal highway. The second, the Haleakala Highway, twists its way from the small town of Pukalani up to the top of Mount Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano.
One of the curious things about Maui is its odd sense of scale. The roads are small, the cars are huge, and drives that seem eyeblink short on a map often end up lasting all day. This isn’t an inconvenience. No one complains that time drags on Maui.
That sense of scale smacks you square in the face as you leave Hana, a town that consists of not much more than a gas station and a general store. Rolling out of the hotel parking lot and onto the only paved road leading toward the rest of Maui, you immediately realize why Hana has remained tiny: the road itself simply keeps the town in and the rest of the world out. Twisting through jungled forests and teetering around cliffsides so steep that they look from the top as if they end in China, the Road to Hana is a beautiful sidewalk of a highway tacked onto the very edge of the earth itself. It’s also a very slow drive. Traveling the fifty miles to Hana from Kahului, home of Maui’s main airport, can take three to four hours.
Don’t blame the C70. True, its modest engine, which Volvo calls the T5, hasn’t changed much since it debuted in the 1994 Volvo 850 T5. Yet its plateaulike torque curve peaks at 1500 rpm with a by-no-means-modest 236 lb-ft, ensuring that the C70 always has usable pull. That means you don’t have to constantly shift the standard six-speed manual, although, with its pleasant, almost slippery feel, you will be perfectly happy if you do so. You can also pick the optional $1250 five-speed manu-matic, which usually can be counted on to choose the right ratio. Both transmissions are more than up to the task of reacting quickly, but speed, on this drive, isn’t really the point.
The Road to Hana contains some 600 corners, most of them blind, and more than fifty one-lane bridges in its fifty-five miles. Ten-story cascades of water plunge into immense gulches, black-sand beaches peek out from holes in the tree line, and multilevel tide pools empty into the constantly crashing surf. Although the initial impression is that of a two-lane road tailor-made for sports cars, to drive on it quickly in daylight is to miss something. The scenery overwhelms, and the best bet is to let yourself be overwhelmed by it.
That approach serves the C70 better as well. As a touring car, the Volvo does exactly what it’s supposed to: it becomes transparent, doing everything it needs to do just well enough to keep you from noticing it’s there.
The C70’s benign characteristics and top-down composure prompt you to pay more attention to the world you’d otherwise go storming right through. Although the re-tractable hard top helps push the Volvo’s weight to 3772 pounds, the car moves more nimbly than its size and weight would suggest. As a result, it has a down-the-road feel much more akin to that of its competitors-the Saab 9-3 and outgoing BMW 3-Series convertibles, for example-even though those cars weigh, on average, two to three hundred pounds less.
Try harder or press on more quickly, and some shortcomings emerge. Throttle response can be rubbery in the upper rev ranges, and torque steer through the front-wheel-drive chassis gets annoying. The optional eighteen-inch wheels and 40-series Pirelli P Zeros not only can’t match the ride quality of the standard seventeen-inch setup, they make the steering heavier and less communicative as well. When pushed hard, the MacPherson-strut front end becomes unsettled by midcorner throttle adjustments or normal changes in road camber. The overall effect isn’t excessive but usually brings along a decrease in front-wheel feedback. The end result is additional steering correction when there really shouldn’t be a need for it.
After winding its convoluted way along the coast, the Road to Hana eventually veers inland, meandering past unmanned fruit stands and homes until it reaches HI-365. If you take 365 south, the highway swoops down into a lusher, greener valley for a few miles before climbing out and back up into the town of Makawao, which neighbors Pukalani and the Haleakala Highway.
Originally settled by Portuguese and Japanese immigrants who were brought over to work the sugar plantations, Makawao has evolved from a small collection of ranches and stores into the passel of slightly overtouristed art galleries and restaurants it is today. The town contrasts starkly with the view of the massive volcano and national park rising behind it, but it still presents enough visible remnants of its past to remind you that Hawaii’s main industry was once something other than tourism. When you’re in the midst of a bustling intersection and a traffic jam twenty cars deep, it’s somewhat saddening to think that, in the name of living quietly, enough people have moved here to make the town anything but serene.
That’s not to say that Makawao is in any danger of becoming another New York City, or even another Honolulu. On the busiest street corner in town, it’s still possible to stop traffic-literally-by raising or lowering a folding steel hard top. And while Volvos might not upset intersections in the rest of the world, if the C70’s Makawao visit is any barometer, they now at least have a fighting chance at garnering second looks.
That’s a good thing, because Volvo’s new convertible deserves a second look. Yes, the C70 has its shortcomings, and if you ask too much of it, you’ll most likely be disappointed. In normal driving, however, the car keeps its inadequacies well hidden. Most of the time, the C70 is quieter, more comfortable, and as fast as the sport coupe you may think you need. It’s just too bad it offers no real sense of excitement.
Leaving Makawao’s main thoroughfares, traffic tapers off, and it becomes easier to avoid the congestion and stay headed in the right direction. Naturally, if you’re aiming for Haleakala, that direction soon ceases to be left or right and starts simply to be up. Once you pass the park’s entrance and main ranger station, the road’s winding ascent grows steeper. Well-paved, nicely graded, and nothing more than an endless series of 180-degree, 40-mph switchbacks connected with zigzaggy little straights, the two-lane road up Mount Haleakala resembles something from a dream. It reminds you of all those pictures you’ve seen of accordionlike passes in the Swiss Alps, only with more “turn on headlights in clouds” signs and twice as many opportunities to drive straight off the edge of the planet.
The best part, though, comes when you reach five or six thousand feet and realize that those signs are there for a reason. The ever-thickening fog you’re ripping through isn’t really fog-it’s the volcano’s perpetual cloud deck. After five or ten minutes, the road begins to disappear and then gradually reappears. At that point, it’s obvious you’re driving above the clouds.
The only thing that trumps the feeling of looking down onto an island-sized dance floor of cumulus is seeing that same dance floor violently explode into pinks, reds, yellows, and even blues as the sun burns a hole through the middle of it. Watching the sun set into a fiery heap, standing on top of a 10,000-foot volcano with a crater nearly big enough to hold the island of Manhattan, you look down on what little you can see of the island below, and you’re hit with the inescapable notion that you’re the only person on the face of the earth. Somewhere, deep off in the semiconscious recesses of your brain, the thought strikes you that, had there been a little less in the way of rain today, there would have been a little less cloud cover, and the sunset would have been just a tad less spectacular.
It rains all the time in Hawaii.