Volvo, in a classic of Scandinavian abstraction, compares its changeless cars to wooden clothespins. Others liken the pace, elegance and high technology of the Volvo to the Zippo lighter. Or the Douglas DC-3.

And when automotive magazines consider the elderly, stately, perennial, tweedy and thoroughly rational Volvo, it usually is with a wink in passing.

"Most of the buff books are interested only in what is new and hot and this, frankly, is a pedestrian car," Volvo spokesman Fred Hammond explained.

The mundane under discussion is the scholarly 1989 Volvo 740GL. It has not been test-driven by Mother Earth News, let alone Road & Track. "They'll test a 16-valve or a turbo or something that is new, new, new . . . but this is a variant of an existing model and to them, the car is old hat."

On the other hand, if the old hat be a new Stetson or a crisp jipijapa Panama--well, apathy may be seen as tacit acceptance of the Volvo's reliance, dependability and quality. After all, when was the last time Consumer Reports felt it necessary to rate Acme clothespins?

Hammond sees Volvo as "purveyors of a high quality, safe, dependable car . . . it may not be glamorous, but it's top value for the money."

High quality? The 740GL has it right down to power-assisted disc brakes on all four wheels, the fit and finish of a Chubb safe, and the ultimate decadence of heated seat cushions--here and forever known as Swedish bun warmers.

Safe? It's built like a brick ice house and when examining National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics on crash-worthiness, look for the Swedish-built Volvo somewhere between backhoes and armored personnel carriers.

Dependable? More solid than Mats Wilander's backhand. A recent analysis established the average life expectancy of the Volvo at 15.6 years. Therefore, the 740GL's resale value will not be a concern until sometime in the next century.

Value? This four-door 740GL (also available as a station wagon) sells for $20,555 including most luxury necessities and with only two available extras: an anti-lock brake system and driver-side air bag.

The car, mechanically and visually, is indeed a clear offspring of the Volvo 740GLE sedans and station wagons that were first introduced in 1985. Yet it's a refinement that was produced by subtracting options and fixtures from the original, not by the standard industrial practice of adding turbocharged bells and electronic whistles.

Therefore, instead of a price hike for a new and improved product, Volvo has come into the model year with a hefty decrease in the cost of the tested and proven.

The need for revision, Hammond explained, was created by an unplanned break in the continuity of the Volvo line. The company's trainer has long been the popular 240 series starting at $18,000 and change. Next in succession was the 740GLE, the entry point to the luxury line, a ll leather and up-market niceties, with a basic sticker of $23,000 and then some.

So between the 240s and the 740s--thanks to a gradual meld of inflation, the dollar's dive against the krona and consumer reluctance to pay any more for the bread and butter240s--existed a price spread bigger than the Kattegat.

A Step-Down

"We had a $5,000 gap and that's a pretty big hole these days," Hammond said. Especially when the hole contains such tempting vehicles as the Nissan Maxima, Toyota Cressida and the Mazda 929. "So we looked at the existing 740GLE and decided to de-accessorize the car down and call it the 740GL."

The step-down from GLE (Grand Luxury Elegance) to GL (Grand Luxury) involved simple removal of the superfluous.

Upholstery has been returned to fabric in the true belief that only cows have any real need to travel with leather seats. Sunroof controls and seat adjustments are back to manual. So are the side mirrors. Aluminu wheels now are steel wheels and to open the trunk requires getting out of the car first.

The net result is much the same motor car for $5,000 less--but with absolutely no feeling of driving a stripped, shadow of former excellence.

The 740GL comes uncluttered by pretensions of high performance. It is powered by a Cro-Magnon, four-cylinder, 2.3-liter engine developing only 114 horsepower. The 0-60 time is 10 seconds. Top speed is 108 miles per hour. And that's slower than any new Volkswagen.

Another Volvo Tradition

But somehow, surprisingly, it all seems more than adequate and credit that to another Volvo tradition--superb engineering of the total automotive package, a concert of engine, suspension, transmission, brakes and steering.

Consequently, in any maneuver, from slow cornering to rapid lane changes, the 740GL calmly redirects its feet and politely repositions its weight into flat, steady and dependable turns.

Handling is not as frisky as the BMW nor does the 740GL have that panzerwagen drag of the Mercedes. The tighter this car turns, it seems, the lighter becomes the steering until parallel parking is a two-stop two-step.

And with a 70-0-m.p.h. braking distance of 176 feet, the 740GL clearly is the best of any car slithering to a stop anywhere in its class.

Although ponderous at top and bottom ends, the car has acceptable midrange acceleration as long as a driver stays on the power curve and ahead of traffic conditions.

The interior is yet another testimonial to Volvo's blessed refusal to pad along behind the high-tech herd that so often mistakes change for progress.

In the 740, all controls are self-explanatory. Gauges with great big dials and nice fat needles. A radio with real knobs that turn clockwise. Lights and wipers on stalks and switches as God and Assar Gabrielsson, the father of Volvo, intended them to be. It's all so wonderfully comfortable.

Home and Hearth

Externally, the lines of the 740GL are as straight as Volvo has been drawing its edges since 1927. Styling angles remain large and the plane of the rear window, unfortunately, is almost vertical. Corners are barely rounded and the overall feel is that of home, hearth and a pair of rubber-soled wing tips.

Therein, possibly, lies the full charm of any Volvo. They are secure cars. They are rational, sensible cars producing no surprises. They are so stolid, so tolerant it is virtually impossible to drive a Volvo badly--and short of hiring a chauffeur, that's as easy as motoring gets.

Volvo also excels at expensive touches within even its inexpensive vehicles such as the 740GL.

Front door sills have de-misters so that on clammy days there will always be side-mirror vision. The visor mirror is illuminated. There's a button on the gearshift to activate a top-gear lockdown that prevents the automatic transmission from surging on undulating roads. And a windshield clip for holding maps, parking stubs and shopping lists.

"Volvo believes that if you are uncomfortable, you can't drive right," Hammond noted.

Then that would explain. . . .

"Yes, that would explain the bun warmers."

1989 Volvo 740GL sedan

The Good Flat, balanced, cool handling. Ritz quality, Savoy comforts, Howard Johnson value. Timeless design and ageless styling. A car to be driven until it drops.

The Bad Acceleration that was grand maternal in 1957.

The Ugly Rear window line styled after a cliff.

Cost Base: $19,985. Automatic, as reviewed: $20,555.

Engine 2.3 liter, four cylinder, fuel injected developing 114 horsepower.

Performance Manufacturer's claim, 0-60 m.p.h. in 10 seconds. Top speed, estimated by manufacturer, 108 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average 25 m.p.g. manual, 22 m.p.g. automatic.