My blood ran cold when I heard Volvo tout the composition of its C30 design team: "Most of the key designers do not come from the automotive industry." One was a clay modeler, another a part-time architect. The woman who did the interior came from the textile industry. I bit my lip, but kept cool until the next surprise was dropped. "For inspiration, we looked at furniture, sunglasses and shoes. Lots of shoes."
I knew it. When the Volvo peeps called with enticements of a hip, new hatchback, one with exciting performance and dramatic styling, it sounded too good to be true: turbocharged, 227bhp engine, six-speed manual, and a bhp/pound ratio of 14.1 (better than the Audi A3, VW GTI and MINI Cooper S). Wait... this is a Volvo?It is indeed, but not your father's Volvo. Not your uncle Sven's, either. No, the all-new 2008 Volvo C30 was designed for you-as long as you're young, active, with no kids, but three friends and a stylish pad in the city.
Just look at that curvy exterior. Only dead-on would the C30 be passed off as just another Volvo. At any other approach angle, you'll find exaggerated lines and curves only hinted at in previous Volvo vehicles.
Take the rear, for instance: a soft-edged square of back-sloping glass set in a pair of obscenely flared fenders that narrow dramatically at the waist as they rise to become the C-pillar. The designers call it a strong Volvo shoulder. I call it one sexy booty. Too bad the driving dynamics don't cut as bold a profile. The word soft springs to mind when describing everything from the suspension to the steering to the feel of the clutch. Gear shifts seem sheathed in rubber, steering is slow and a bit soupy-not bad for puttering around an urban jungle, but in canyons, the vagueness of both leave you desiring precision and feedback.
The turbocharged, five-cylinder engine is carried over from the S40/V50 combo, yet somehow feels livelier here. It could never be confused with a high-revving Japanese screamer, but it pulls hard. Volvo engineers claim it beats the GTI and Cooper S to 60mph. It might, but you'd never know from the driver's seat. In its quest to deliver a soft, comfortable ride, Volvo has smoothed out all the edges of this hot hatch.
The cabin is surprisingly quiet. Even when slapped into gear and kicked wide open, the T5 engine never complains. In sixth gear at 100mph, it just hums along, not even cracking 3500rpm. The upside: a quiet cabin, where conversations can be had without difficulty. The downside: a flaccid drive when the roads get twisty. No surprise, given the curb weight of 3200 pounds. Even with the higher-spec Dynamic chassis, the strut-suspended C30 feels, again, soft.
I drove the Volvo C30 T5 Version 2.0. Version 1.0 is the $22,700 entry-level model and substitutes the fancy custom-painted body kit for plain black plastic, though you still get 17-inch wheels and a close-ratio six-speed manual.
Bottom line: the C30's exotic curves and stunning measurements promise a drive that the steering, shift feel and suspension can't deliver. The good news is that the aftermarket should be able to provide a cure for most, if not all, of these shortcomings.