Now, if you're the sort of person who has to have a reason for everything — if you never buy a can of soda because you can get more for less in a two-liter bottle, for example — the Volvo C30 isn't for you: It's not utilitarian, it's not super-fast and it sure isn't cheap.
Yet I'm glad to see cars like the C30 being built; after all, if automakers can afford to make them, things can't be that bad, can they?
The C30 is a fun car to drive. It has a 227-horsepower, turbocharged five-cylinder engine that makes 236 pounds-feet of torque, which is a lot of power for such a small car. It's estimated to get 21 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, and it used premium fuel during my test, though Volvo says regular fuel is recommended.
Our test model came with a five-speed automatic transmission, but I've driven a C30 with the available six-speed manual, and that's the model I strongly recommend if you want a sporty driving experience. It gives more immediate response when you want to get going. All automatic transmissions hesitate to a degree, but it's really noticeable in the C30. That's a shame, because you can tell the C30 has a good engine, and when it gets going it's a lot of fun, but the C30's automatic spoils the fun more than most. The transmission has a manual-shift mode, though, so you can shift using the console-mounted gearshift. Once I started doing that I enjoyed the car a lot more, but it's still not as good as a stick shift.
The C30 held the road well. It has a stiff suspension, so there's basically no body roll, and the car feels planted to the road. Volvo says it built the C30 so the wheels are at the corners of the car to provide better handling, and I think it pays off.
As you'd expect from a small car with a stiff suspension, you feel the bumps in the road. Our test model was a T5 with a standard chassis and optional 18-inch wheels. You can also get an R-Design model with standard 18-inch wheels and a stiffer sport suspension, but I'd take that version for a long test drive before buying it; the R-Design might be too stiff to live with in a place with rough roads. The standard suspension was jarring enough over the terrible streets in Chicago.
Seeing, Being Seen & Being Heard
Visibility is good in the C30, even bordering on exceptional. I didn't find any objectionable blind spots, though the side mirrors could be a bit larger.
In addition to being a distinguishing design feature of the C30, the large glass hatch in back helps you see what's going on when you're backing up. When I first got the C30 I wondered if a tailgating car would appear to be too close, but I never got that sensation while driving.
The thing about small cars is that other drivers have a harder time seeing you, so you need to be ready for that. I was cut off more than usual in the C30, but you can't blame the car for that.
Being cut off all the time did lead me to discover one undeniably awesome feature of the C30: its horn. Instead of a wimpy, cutesy horn, the C30's is loud and robust. When I did get cut off, I hit the horn and could see the other driver jump from being startled by its bellowing note. (Not that I, ahem, ever did that deliberately.) Nordic skier Charlotte Kalla used to be my favorite Swede, but now it's whichever Volvo engineer put that horn in the C30. Bless you, sir or madam.
Living With the C30
You'd be forgiven for thinking "hatchback = practical," but that's not quite the case with the C30. Sure, it's more practical than a two-seat roadster, but this isn't a family car — unless everyone in your family is smaller than 5-foot-2, packs light and enjoys snug accommodations. I'm about 6-foot-1, and there was no way any adult I know could have ridden behind me.
That's not to say, though, that I was cramped for space while driving the C30. I took it on a couple of three-hour road trips and emerged from both feeling pretty fresh. Volvo provides comfortable seats in the C30 and puts padding in the right places — like where your elbows are.
The cargo area behind the rear seats is small. I could carry a week's worth of groceries pretty easily, but if I had to buy food for more than one person I'm pretty sure I'd have to fold the seats flat.
Overall interior quality is extremely good. I thought the materials used were very nice, and I was a huge fan of how simple and clean everything appeared in the C30. There were a few more buttons than I like in parts of the center console, but overall it was very easy to live with.
All in all, the C30 is a nice place to be if you're just driving yourself and/or one other person, but carrying more than two would be a challenge. It's just not the vehicle for family road trips.
Speaking of families, we installed some child-safety seats to see how they fit. There are two sets of Latch anchors in back that are hard to locate, and there are two top-tether anchors midway down the seatback that are easy to use.
A booster seat fits easily, and the seat belt is well-placed. There's not enough room lengthwise for an infant seat unless the front passenger seat is moved forward, but a rear-facing convertible seat fits without moving the front seat.
C30 Changes and Models
Sharp-eyed folks will notice that the C30 has been redesigned for 2011. Changes include a new hood, front fenders, headlights and grille. (Check out the changes for yourself here.) The rest of the car looks pretty much the same, and I have to admit, I've always been a fan of the car's design. The C30 always looks fresh to me.
There are two trim levels of the Volvo C30: T5 and R-Design. The T5 is the "base" model, and the R-Design is the sportier version. It has a sport chassis that Volvo says lowers the car's center of gravity, plus it gets a stiffer suspension and a quicker steering ratio. It also includes 18-inch wheels, as opposed to the stock 17-inchers. Both the R-Design and T5 get the same engine and either a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission.
The T5 and R-Design normally look different from the outside, as R-Design models add a spoiler, some body-colored trim pieces, 18-inch wheels, and a bunch of R-Design-branded elements on the inside. I say they "normally" look different because you can buy a T5 with an R-Design package that gives you all the R-Design model's looks, but skips the stiffer suspension. Our test model had this appearance package.
Normally I don't like go-fast appearance pieces, but I'm a big fan of this package. I like how the R-Design model looks, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want the stiffer R-Design chassis if I intended to drive the C30 every day around Chicago. This lets me have it both ways.
Safety & Reliability
The Volvo C30 is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, which means it scores the agency's highest rating, Good, in front, side and rear crash tests, and in a new roof-strength test that measures rollover protection. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are standard. See all the standard safety features here. Its predicted reliability is average.
C30 in the Market
I enjoyed my time in the C30, and the more I drove it the more I liked it. The good visibility and decent power (when using the manual shift feature) were the highlights. The downsides are its limited practicality, the automatic transmission and the price. (Our test model topped out at nearly $33,000.)
Overall, the C30 is livable but not practical. It's sporty, but not a high-performance sports car. For less money, you can get cars that are both faster and more practical, such as the Mazdaspeed3 or Subaru Impreza WRX. But not every car purchase is the result of a rational calculation of performance statistics and/or seat count. Sometimes you just want a car that's comfortable, performs reasonably well and looks good. In that competition, the C30 does very well. Just make sure you get the manual transmission.
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