Go ahead and laugh. You're not alone in being amused that Volvo, bastion of everything safe and conservative, has turned out one of the coolest and even sexiest ragtops on the planet.

For '99, Volvo unveiled something completely different than its usual stolid fare: a lovely, curvaceous convertible to make heads turn and hearts throb. It's the top-down version of the striking C70 sports coupe, and there's not a prettier European this side of Turin.

In case you've been hiding under a bridge, you've probably noticed that Volvo has been busy remaking its image in recent years. The turning point came early in the decade, when the Swede's first front-wheel-drive craft, the 850 GLT, revealed something of a sporting nature.

Still, the styling remained that of a squared-off four-door sedan, about as inspiring as a cardboard box. Last year, Volvo smoothed out the lines of its front-drive sedans, still boxy but less so, and renamed them S70.

Plus, the designers brought out something that hasn't worn a Volvo badge since the early '70s: a handsome, curvaceous sports coupe.

For the coming model year, Volvo's transformation seems complete, as the C70 coupe spawns the lithe and lively C70 convertible. Those are choice words when speaking about a Volvo, but the Swede has won the accolades fair and square.

The C70 convertible is Volvo's very first drop top to reach mass production. During its press introductions and auto shows, Volvo displayed an attractive little two-seat convertible that it built in the mid-'50s, but this was primarily a show car that never reached the showrooms.

Like the C70 coupe, the ragtop is powered by a turbocharged five-cylinder engine that runs smoothly and strongly enough for you to forget about its odd configuration. This is a powerful and sophisticated engine with a musical exhaust note, able to run with the big boys without apology.

Why five cylinders? According to Volvo engineers, an in-line-five offered the right size and shape for the front-drive Volvos, and is smoother and stronger than a comparable four.

Before the advent of computers, a straight five would have been unheard of because of its inherent lack of balance. But the precision that computers allow in manufacturing, as well as onboard fuel and ignition monitoring, permitted the Volvo engineers to get their wish, a straight five that's refined enough to pull an expensive automobile.

There is some evidence of a power lag at low speeds, typical of a turbocharged engine, but it's a brief effect that quickly blossoms into a wide band of torque and horsepower.

The coupe runs with a 236-horse engine and an available five-speed stick shift, while the convertible is saddled with automatic and a less-powerful engine.

The pre-production car tested here received lots of attention on Scottsdale Road, probably because of its newness, but also because of its balanced, attractive body design and athletic stance.

The lines are crisp an d clean from its low, Jaguar-esque nose to its rounded haunches. Top up, it's sleek and smooth, the snug canvas integrating well with the body. Top down, it turns into a sporty fun machine.

The interior featured a suede-leather material that will stand up to the elements, Volvo says. The leather is very soft and supple, and as in all Volvos, the seats are comfortable and highly supportive.

Also like all Volvos, there is a strong emphasis on safety and crash protection. Along with front and side air bags, and a body structure designed to keep driver and passengers safe and secure, there are a pair of roll bars hidden behind the rear seat that pop up with a bang if an onboard sensor registers an impending rollover.

The windshield also is designed to support the car, so riders won't get squished if the Volvo flips.

The dashboard, gauges and controls have been refined overthe sedan's, less scattered and with a more organic shape. The upgraded 400-watt stere o, with 14 speak ers set around the cabin, is awesome.

Front-seat passengers will find plenty of room in all directions, but rear-seat guests might feel cramped for legroom and shoulder room. There is enough space back there for two as long as they're not too big or too fussy.

The convertible top folds down majestically with the push of a button, unhooking itself from the windshield and, in a symphony of opening and closing hatches, disappearing into the trunk area. Trunk space is compromised by the folding top, but you still can get a couple of items in there.

On the road, our test car exhibited some shaking over bumpy surfaces, especially in turns. This was surprising and may have been a factor only because we were driving a pre-production vehicle, which typically doesn't have the same build quality of the final products.

The C70 lands in a tough, competitive spot in the market, the upper end of auto prices before you hit the real high-priced spread. As such, it goes up against desirable European convertibles built by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Saab.

In the future, Volvo promises lower-priced models with fewer features and non-turbo engines.

Still, the Volvo convertible is an expensive bauble, though not outrageously so when you consider Volvo's reputation for reliability and longevity. The Swede may have changed its style, but it doesn't seem to have lost any substance.

1999 Volvo C70

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door convertible, front-wheel drive. Base price: $45,000 (approx.) Price as tested: Not available. Engine: 2.4-liter in-line-five, 190 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 199 pound-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,601 pounds. Length: 185.7 inches. Wheelbase: 104.9 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 19 city, 26 highway. Highs: Lovely styling. Driveability. Automatic top. Lows: Premium price. Tight rear seat. Body shake.