Note: This review was originally published on February 24, 2011 on my original WordPress blog.
I spent nearly 4 years working for Volvo in the latter part of this past decade, including a stint in Parts and Logistics at the corporate headquarters in Rockleigh, NJ. One of the biggest perks of being there, especially for a guy like me, was Volvo would bring in preproduction models of cars yet to be introduced and give us a chance to drive them before anyone else. In 2007, for instance, Volvo was preparing to introduce two new models for 2008: a completely redesigned XC70 all-wheel drive crossover wagon, and the all-new C30 hatchback. Both were made available to us.
I was doubly interested in driving the C30 because, not only was it a genuinely intriguing car, but at the time I was looking to replace my aging ‘97 Lexus ES300. The C30 seemed like it would be a great car for me. When the sign-up sheet came around I eagerly signed my name and requested one with a manual transmission, then set about waiting impatiently for that day to arrive.
I don’t remember all of my first impressions of the car. I do remember that, by and large, I was very impressed. It was quick, great on the highway, fun to drive, and had an undeniably slick feel. I concluded that I was driving something of an oxymoron: a sporty Volvo.
Hugely pleased with the experience, I decided that, if it were reasonably priced when Volvo sent it to the dealers, I would soon own one.
Fate intervened, however, and in April of that year I was presented with an offer that I just couldn’t refuse. I became the very happy owner of a 2006 Acura TL manual transmission. Much as I had liked the C30, I loved the TL. It wasn’t much of a choice, really.
I have always kept an eye on the C30, though, and I was intrigued to see that Volvo had given it a facelift for 2011. I found myself thinking back to that first experience and wondering if the intervening four years would temper my feelings for the car. I was also curious to see if Volvo had done anything significant other than change the face.
And so it was that I found myself behind the wheel of the car you see here. The only car the dealer had available for a test drive was an automatic model, fully loaded with options. The sticker indicated that, if I wanted to drive it home today, I would find myself just over $30,000 lighter as a result, which brings us straightaway to the C30’s biggest downside. It starts at $26,400, which, for a Volvo at least, is fairly reasonable. But when you start to add things the price rises very quickly. Asking a young person to drop thirty grand for a small hot hatchback is a bit of a tall order.
So the question, then, is does the car deliver the performance goods to match the price? Is it as fun as I remembered?
Well, yes and no.
Even with the automatic transmission the car is undeniably quick. It pulled away from traffic lights with authority and, when I stabbed the pedal at speed and the transmission downshifted, I was rewarded with a surge of acceleration. This car would be downright fast if I could choose my own gears. Volvo’s automatic is a decent unit. It was responsive to inputs from my right foot and the gear ratios were well-paired with the motor. For enthusiasts, though, it should be no surprise that I think a six-speed is a must (and it’s less expensive to boot).
Handling is a bit of a mixed bag. Like the auto trans, I would rate it as good, but not great. There was more body roll than I was expecting from a sporty hatchback, although not so much that I didn’t feel confident. Give the throttle a hard stab in mid-turn, however, and you are in for a big surprise. When the surge in power breaks the front tires loose, the traction control comes in — and it comes in hard. So hard, in fact, that I was literally jolted forward in my seat. This is a huge concern for me because, if I had been carrying more speed, such a violent overreaction could easily have snapped the car in to oversteer, sending me spinning in to the highway. I don’t remember this problem at all in the ’08 model I drove, so maybe Volvo dials it back a little in the manual transmission cars. Regardless, I was left seriously unsettled. I don’t know if there is a way to disable the traction control, but if there is not there should be.
The ride is tight, but I found it to be a little hard through bumpy roads. For a car with this much body roll, I was expecting to find that Volvo had made some compromises in the damping to gain some comfort at the expense of some handling. That is not the case. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not what I would expect from a European luxury carmaker in either department.
I was impressed with the steering, however, which was pleasingly responsive. The wheel gave good feedback, too, not exhibiting the numbness I have felt in some of Volvo’s larger offerings. The car always went where I pointed it and returned how and when I asked it to.
The brakes, however, were a little disappointing. Though they stopped the car with authority, the pedal was soft and I was surprised how much travel there was when I pressed it firmly. I can imagine that, after some spirited driving on a hot day, this could become a problem. Spongy brake pedals are an enthusiast’s worst enemy and this car has one before you even start to drive it.
Aesthetically, I really like what Volvo has done with the outside of the car. The ’08 thru ’10 models harkened back to the P1800 in many ways and it was a genuinely nice car to look at. The ’11 takes those classic cues and sharpens them a bit, giving the car a more modern, less conservative, sleek look. The newfound edge suits the body very nicely.
Inside, Volvo really hasn’t change much and this is both good and bad. That center console has always been a design triumph, from the time it first showed up in the S40 and V50. It is a combination of elegant and high-tech that no other car in this class has. The rest of the interior, though, feels a bit cheap in comparison. The dash and door panels are flat and bland, with a low-quality feel. Perhaps the designers were hoping that all eyes would be drawn to the console and so they could skimp on the other areas. If so, they didn’t pull it off.
Volvos are known for the quality their seating, though, and they most certainly did not skimp here. The seats were supportive in all the right places and easy to adjust quickly to my ideal position. In addition, Volvo’s “textile” fabric has always been a favorite of mine. I find it versatile and comfortable without the frailty of leather and the two-tone fabric pattern sets off the otherwise bland coloring of the paneling nicely. The rear seats have enough room for smaller people, but full grown adults may not fit comfortably. Cargo space is surprisingly small with the rear seats in the upright position, but not bad when they are folded flat.
The view from the seats is another story. The rear glass hatch is incredibly small and a first glance in the rearview mirror is a little disconcerting – like looking out the porthole on a cruise ship. Strangely, it somehow doesn’t result in terrible blind spots. Still, if Honda can make the visibility out back of the new CR-Z as good as it is, with as little glass as they do, a car maker of Volvo’s caliber could do much better than they have.
My overall opinion, though, despite all the quibbles I dropped here, is very positive. It is a genuinely fun car to drive, even equipped with an automatic, and so I am inclined to say that yes, it is as good as I remember the ’08 to be. If there are mitigating factors now, I think they are more from the experience I have gained from driving and critiquing other cars over the past four years, not new faults developed in that time.
I am still concerned about the price. Volvo’s web site indicates that a C30 built to my specifications would run just over $28,175. For comparison, VW estimates that a similarly equipped GTI would be $25,795. That’s a difference of nearly $2400. Granted you get a lot more motor from the Volvo (the C30′s turbo 2.5-liter 5-cylinder makes 227 bhp; the GTI’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo makes 200 bhp), but you lose space and handling.
In the end, I suspect it will come down to personal preference for most. Those willing to expend a little extra for a Volvo will get exactly what they pay for. The C30 exudes character in a way I have never felt around a Volkswagen and the new styling only enhances that. Buyers just need to be aware of the trade-offs that come from adopting that personality for themselves.