The once utilitarian hatchback has become the new cool car (again), with automakers flooding the market with small, uniquely styled models. Volvo's new four-seat C30 joins the Mini Cooper — the car that really rejuvenated this segment — and the Volkswagen GTI in the premium-hatch subcategory.
Like the Mini Cooper, the C30 is defined by its styling. The Volvo's interesting shape sets it apart from its competitors, and it also has a healthy dose of athleticism thanks to its turbo five-cylinder engine and sport-tuned chassis. I know what you're thinking, but I'm not pulling your leg: The C30 really is a Volvo, and it's one that has the goods to create a loyal group of followers like the Cooper and GTI enjoy.
I've been a fan of the Volvo S40's face since it was last redesigned, and I'm glad to see the look spreading across the Volvo brand to models like the S80 and now the C30, which is related to both the S40 sedan and V50 wagon. C30-specific cues include black eyebrows on the upper portion of the headlights and more aggressive trim pieces on the lower portion of the front bumper. It's an assertive look, but as you move around to the back of the car, the hatchback starts to look a little funky.
The C30's downward sloping roofline leads into one of the most unique liftgates available. It's an all-glass affair that has a sculptural quality; it looks like it belongs on the wall of an art gallery, not on the back of a Volvo. According to C30 producer manager Art Battaglia, the hatch design was inspired by the Volvo 1800 ES, which was sold in the U.S. in limited numbers in the early '70s. The glass hatch is bordered by elongated taillights similar to the ones on Volvo's SUVs and wagons, and the D-pillars are dramatically raked forward.
The result is one of the most stylish hatchbacks on the road. The style isn't without its downsides, but I'll address those later in the Cargo & Towing section.
Ride & Handling
The base suspension setup makes for a bumpy trip on rough pavement, but it's no worse than a GTI in terms of ride quality. On the plus side, the suspension makes the C30 a car that could easily entertain you on your favorite two-lane road.
The C30 has decent steering response, but the system has a somewhat disconnected feel that's unlike the suspension and doesn't jive with the rest of the car's high-strung personality; it doesn't compare to a Cooper S' dialed-in steering.
The C30's four-wheel-independent suspension uses MacPherson struts in front and a multilink arrangement in the rear. Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard. On base Version 1.0 models, the suspension meets the road on standard 17-inch alloy wheels. A variety of wheel styles are offered, and 18-inchers are included on Version 2.0 trim levels. Version 2.0 models also feature the Dynamic Chassis suspension, which features stiffer tuning. The Dynamic Chassis is available on Version 1.0 cars through the Custom Build option program.
All C30s are powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder that produces 227 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 236 pounds-feet of torque at only 1,500 rpm. Unlike some turbocharged engines that require premium fuel, the inline-five-cylinder runs on regular gasoline, which will save you money every time you're at the pump. With the standard six-speed manual, the C30 achieves an EPA-estimated 19/28 mpg (city/highway); choosing the optional five-speed automatic results in estimates of 19/27 mpg.
I'm glad Volvo decided to make the turbo five-cylinder the standard engine in U.S.-bound C30s, as its strong performance really complements the rest of the car. Acceleration is accompanied by a high-pitched whirring sound from the turbo, and Volvo says the car can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds with the manual transmission. There's slight engine vibration at idle, but the five-cylinder smoothes out nicely the moment you rev it.
My test car came equipped with the six-speed manual, and it is a well-executed transmission. The shifter has medium throws and moves from gear to gear with appropriate slickness. The transmission works with a light clutch pedal that won't wear out your left leg even if you find yourself stuck in a stretch of stop-and-go traffic.
Like the exterior, the C30's cabin is highlighted by a design element, specifically a flowing center control panel. It's similar to the one in the S40 and V50, and the thin panel is partially separated from the rest of the dash, leaving room for a small storage bin behind it. It's a polarizing design, for sure — I found it modern and appealing while my wife thought it was ugly.
Whatever your opinion of the center console's design, its controls for things like the audio system and air conditioning are nicely integrated. The systems all share one LCD display, which each system monopolizes when necessary, like when you're tuning the radio or adjusting the air conditioning system's fan speed. It's an ergonomic setup overall, but I couldn't get used to the fact that the temperature setting doesn't display the exact temperature in its readout. Instead of setting the cabin at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance, you have to guess where 72 falls between Low and High.
The C30 has front and rear bucket seats trimmed in Volvo's synthetic T-Tec material. Leather seats are optional. The T-Tec front buckets provide decent comfort, but they're on the narrow end of the spectrum and some occupants might find that the seat catches them in the wrong places. The standard manual seats (power seats are optional) are highly adjustable and include seat height, seat cushion angle and lumbar support controls. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel is standard.
The rear bucket seats are tolerable for adults as long as the front seats aren't slid too far rearward. Seat cushioning is rather firm, and the upright backrest might prove uncomfortable on longer trips.
From the driver's perspective, the primary downfall of the C30's cabin is that rear visibility is restricted due to wide D-pillars on either side of the glass hatch, as well as big rear-seat head restraints.
There's no shortage of safety features in the C30, including standard all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system and active front head restraints.
Volvo's Blind Spot Information System is optional. BLIS uses cameras to monitor both sides of the C30 and will illuminate a light near the appropriate side mirror when a vehicle has moved into the driver's blind spot.
Cargo & Towing
The C30's cargo area measures 12.9 cubic feet, which is less than a two-door GTI's 15.1 cubic feet but greater than the 5.7 cubic feet in the Mini Cooper S. With the C30's rear seats folded, there's 20.2 cubic feet of space.
While it probably comes as no surprise that small cars have modest cargo areas, the bigger issue with the C30 is loading and unloading cargo into that space. First of all, the C30 has a high rear bumper to clear when loading luggage. The opening itself isn't all that large for a hatchback, either. Both of these downsides can be traced back to the C30's all-glass hatch, which is relatively small compared to other liftgates. Hard as it may be to believe considering the name on the grille, this is a case of functionality following form.
When properly equipped, the C30 can tow up to 2,000 pounds.
Custom Build Program
In addition to traditional optional features like a navigation system, power moonroof and Sirius Satellite Radio, buyers who want to customize the C30 can do so through Volvo's Custom Build program. Custom Build features include bi-xenon headlights, BLIS, cruise control, special trim pieces and aluminum pedals. There are also more exterior and interior color combinations offered with the program. In addition to the cost of any options, there is an additional $300 fee for using the Custom Build program.
C30 in the Market
Battaglia says the C30 is designed to bring younger buyers to the Volvo brand. Lots of automakers talk about developing a young buyer base, but only a few actually seem to come up with a product this group will actually like and — just as important — be able to buy without a great deal of financial pain.
Despite some of the downfalls with the functionality of the hatch, the C30's distinctive appearance should appeal to young buyers looking to stand out behind the wheel, and the pricing should prove equally attractive. My test car's as-tested price was slightly less than $24,000, and it came with everything I'd want except cruise control, which adds about $500 including the Custom Build charge. A hatchback isn't everyone's thing, but if it's yours, this new Volvo has a lot going for it.
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