Cyan Racing Volvo P1800 First Drive Review: $700,000 Swedish Remaster
This sublime, built-to-order coupe pairs classic looks and analog inputs with modern performance.
Updated June 17, 2022 2:00 a.m. PT
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Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
On its surface, the very idea of a $700,000 Volvo is absurd. Even today, with Volvo's sleek, Scandinavian bodies packed with gorgeous expanses of unvarnished woods and Orrefors crystal shifters, six figures is essentially unknown territory for the automaker -- let alone seven times as much.
So what is this gorgeous little thing, then? Well, it's kind of a Volvo, but it's also very much not. This is a prototype for the Cyan Racing P1800, precursor to the company's first production coupe that will bow in North America during California's Monterey Car Week this August. You can't see them, but I'm putting heavy air quotes around the word "production" -- these vehicles will be built to order, with the process expected to take 1 to 1.5 years from initial commissioning to delivery. The company expects to complete fewer than one of these per month and the tooling that creates this blue bolide is ultimately only good for a small run of about 100 vehicles, five of which are currently in production. Ownership is destined to be an exclusive club, and not just because of the steep price of entry.
Despite wearing what appears to be 1964 P1800 bodywork, nearly everything on this car is the handiwork not of Volvo, but of Cyan Racing, the Swedish motorsports concern formerly known as Polestar. (As Volvo's longtime racing partner, the company eventually sold its name to the automaker and rechristened its remaining touring-car-championship-winning operation Cyan Racing.) Essentially nothing remains untouched, from the powertrain to the suspension to the car's full carbon fiber bodywork. In fact, the original factory P1800 parts can be counted on one hand -- portions of the underlying floorpan, the wiper blades, the HVAC controls, the parking brake handle and the hood release. That's it. To call this coupe a restomod would be to sell the artistry of this thing well short -- this is an all-new car, with a few stray bits of '60s steel seemingly remaining purely to aid in registering the vehicle with your local DMV. The closest approximation I can think of in the auto industry is Singer Vehicle Design's lauded Porsche 911-based dreamboats, or perhaps Icon's Toyota FJ off-roaders.
Cyan Racing Volvo P1800 Is a Retrofuturistic Revelation
Those with long memories may recall seeing this particular car before. Our man Henry Catchpole drove it in the UK in late 2020 for a Carfection film and came away mighty impressed. As CNET's resident Swedish car geek (I've owned two classic Volvos and four Saabsin the last decade alone), I couldn't wait for the production car's debut in March, so I met up with Cyan Racing during its visit to Southern California to snag a few hours of wheel time in the prototype and see what's changed in the car's march to production.
Much of the development work was carried out on a steel-bodied test mule, and the Cyan team I spoke with commented proudly on how much stiffer this carbon-fiber model has become. Indeed, the company's engineers haven't just left the vintage unibody alone, they've augmented it with modern high-strength steels and bonded the woven skin directly to the frame. They even added a door bar that snugs up against the seats' outboard bolsters, simultaneously underlining this P1800's motorsports credentials while hampering ingress and egress.
If you look closely, you'll spot tons of subtle but meaningful appearance changes between this car and a standard P1800. Note the small asymmetric heat extractor on the passenger side of the hood. That wasn't present on the original car, it's a louvered vent for the turbo. All of the exterior chrome isn't thin, dent-prone factory stuff, it's milled from billets of aluminum. That includes the window surround and brightwork running along the painstakingly reprofiled rear fenders. The latter now terminate less in fins than they do in peaked ridges (note the well-integrated fender flares for the larger rubber, too). There's actually a lot of subtle design work going on out back, including a shaved rear license-plate light and trunk-lid handle, a relocated fuel filler (now a gorgeous center-filler near the base of the rear window), a wispy pair of bumperettes and a cheeky little midmounted stainless exhaust.
Snugged low into one of the cleanest, most minimalist engine bays you'll ever see is a Volvo-sourced 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that mirrors the much-modified unit found in Cyan's own S60 TC1 World Touring Car Championship-winning race car. Look down deep into the cyan blue engine bay and you'll spot the turbocharger, which has been painstakingly relocated to help give the underhood area its simple, classic appearance. Note, too, the masterclass of metalwork that is the interlaced header assembly, painstakingly crafted to achieve equal-length runners. All-in, this forced-induction four delivers 420 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque.
Those are heady figures for a 2.0-liter engine, but such output numbers might seem somewhat skinflint in an era of performance cars with larger displacements, twin turbos and hybrid assists (let alone full-blown torquemonster EV setups). But there's one other very important figure to consider when mentally contextualizing the P1800's performance: 2,180 pounds. Friends, the only car that's lighter on the market today is the Mitsubishi Mirage, and that little hatchback is so tinny as to aspire to reincarnation as a can of Budweiser. This coupe isn't just lighter than Mazda's MX-5 Miata, it's hundreds of pounds lighter than the O.G. Volvo P1800, which had less than a third of the power.
What those output figures fail to convey is the spectacularly old-school power delivery that accompanies them. Cyan Racing's engineers deliberately gave this car a big, forced-induction hit higher in the rev range. Unlike a modern turbocharged engine, you really have to keep the engine revs up in order to build boost and achieve max power. While not quite an on-off switch midway up the tachometer, this style of power delivery encourages hard, committed enthusiast driving: peak horsepower arrives at 7,000 rpm, a thousand revs beyond the torque peak. That power comes with a wonderfully charismatic soundtrack, turbo wastegate chatter and all. It's deliciously racy.
And speaking of motorsports, power is accessed through a five-speed manual sourced from the touring-car-racing experts at Holinger. This HFZ dogleg gearbox isn't just a delight, it's one of the key interaction points of this car that lets you know you're driving something special. Throws are short and very direct -- I wouldn't blame you for looking down and expecting there to be a metal gate guiding the lever, as on a vintage Ferrari. The clutch is friendly, too. Despite the engine's top-heavy power delivery, it's easy to get into this car and set off smoothly, even for the very first time. This P1800 may feature a race-bred drivetrain, but the result is surprisingly docile and the bespoke gear ratios are well chosen.
Unfortunately, I experienced a pronounced rattle in the gearshift lever itself, a noise that became more pronounced the harder I worked the car on Malibu's many canyon roads. Disappointingly, Carfection's Catchpole experienced this same issue a couple of years ago. Hans Bååth, general manager for Cyan Racing, tells me that this prototype makes use of a 3D-printed part, whereas production models feature a machined polymer cradle with polymer bushings for rattle-free operation. It's also worth noting that pedal spacing is tight for those with wide feet.
From the thin pillars (surrounded by all-new glass) to the elegantly waifish side mirrors, everything the driver sees looks like it was crafted long ago by the finest craftspeople. There are no digital screens or an ugly modern head unit in the dash to break the vintage spell. The original climate control levers poke out from beneath the dashboard and deliver true-to-the-period tepid responses. Hell, even the ignition key is a tiny sliver of bare metal. From those pitch-perfect blue-faced analog gauges to the delicate toggle switches arrayed in woolen surrounds on the dash and door panels, it all feels purposeful and period correct, including the leather door-latch pulls and the form-fitting, fixed-back Recaro buckets. In tandem with five-point Momo belts, these thinly padded chairs lock you in bolt upright for spirited canyon carving and track days. Mercifully, Cyan knows this may be a bit much for most Sunday drives, so they'll happily spec a cabin with more-traditional adjustable buckets and three-point seatbelts at no additional cost.
And speaking of other no-cost buyer-selectable options, Cyan's engineers will happily alter the character of the steering for you, too. As the idea behind this car is to pair modern levels of performance and stiffness with classic, feedback-rich analog inputs, the team initially specified 100% manual steering. However, after testing the forearm-building setup on an earlier prototype, the decision was made to go with a power-assisted setup. It wasn't that the company was concerned about high effort in low-speed parking-lot situations, said Bååth, it's that the company wanted friendlier handling in high-performance situations: "We actually started the project without power steering, and it was fine on roads like this, but when you started to push it on track and rear end would break loose and you needed to catch it, it was really stiff and you'd kind of lose your confidence ... you don't want to be frightened by the car, you should feel like you're in control."
The new quick-ratio rack-and-pinion assembly swaps in cleanly for the old steering-box setup and it never feels overassessed. Despite being electric (not hydraulic), it's a nicely balanced setup with immediate turn-in and no dead spot on center. If anything, this setup can initially feel slightly twitchy. This particular steering tune lacks nearly any self-centering instinct, which can take some getting used to. After a mile or so, if you're like me, you'll quickly fall in love with twirling the thin-rimmed Momo, which feels great in the hand and delivers proper levels of feedback whether you're on the straight and narrow or slaloming up and down Coastal California's amazing roads. Besides, if you prefer steering with more of a traditional return-to-center tendency or a different ratio or weight, Cyan will oblige at no additional cost for that, too.
Thanks in part to the excellent, slightly rear-biased weight distribution (47% front, 53% rear) and a standard limited-slip differential, the P1800's handling is both deeply satisfying and very flattering. Cyan completely reworked the P1800's suspension, swapping in its own double-wishbone rear end in place of the old car's units, and the company will provide a more street or track-focused setup as the buyer's whims dictate. The fully adjustable suspension features Cyan-specific hydraulics that deliver level cornering that avoids being so unnaturally flat that you feel divorced from your cornering velocity. Those 18-inch Pirelli P Zero tires (in a compound borrowed from Mercedes-Benz) are mounted on center-lock wheels with enough sidewall to avoid a punishing ride. The rubber obliges friendly breakaway characteristics at the limit and their sensible footprints (235 front, 265 rear) also mean the car doesn't tramline all over the place.
If you're unaccustomed to driving vintage cars, the P1800's biggest surprise will doubtlessly be the brakes. In order to prioritize feedback, simplicity and period charm, there's no power assist. Like the rest of the car, these beefy AP Racing binders are utterly unencumbered by electronic safety nets. No ABS. No traction control. No stability control. Just you, your muscles and your central nervous system. And you'll need your leg muscles, too, because pedal effort is very firm, but you'll be rewarded with progressive action and plenty of stopping power, even after miles and miles of hammering downhill on canyon roads.
In the end, the car seen here is as much a work of art as it is a device for stirring the soul. In an age where 200-mph sedans and face-contorting EVs with limpet-like grip can be purchased just by strolling into a dealership, it's a bit preposterous that there's a market for a $700,000 tailored-to-order Volvo wearing 58-year-old clothing. Preposterous, but also singularly glorious and incredibly enjoyable. The Cyan Racing P1800 is one of the most rewarding, covetable machines I have ever driven. Now, if they would only oblige in making a P1800 ES shooting brake version, I might have to take up bank robbing.