The Volvo C30 is kind of the thinking person's alternative to the Volkswagen GTI. Not that the GTI is for dummies, far from it. But the C30 is a little different, a little cooler, and much less common. Its styling evokes the old P1800 ES from the '70s, but this isn't a retro car like the Mini. And it's based on the same platform as the second-generation Ford Focus (the one that came out in Europe, but not the United States), so the handling is pretty darn good.
The C30 is a compact three-door hatchback that doesn't bother with the stupid little middle seat most cars have in the back. It's purely a four-seater with relatively decent levels of passenger space. The front seats are typical Volvo, super-comfortable and ergonomically spot-on, while the rear seats are also a pleasure to occupy. The big glass hatch helps to keep the cabin airy, but cargo space is not great: 13 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, 20 cubic feet when they're folded down.
Another Volvo hallmark is the center console with the "waterfall" floating aluminum feature housing a few controls. Many options were available and it was also one of the first compacts to offer blind spot monitoring (BLIS—Blind Spot Information System). Naturally, safety is a major consideration, and even though the C30 is a small car, Volvo still installed full-length side curtain airbags.
There was a choice of engines in other countries (including a diesel), but the United States only had the 2.5L, turbocharged inline-five making 227 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a five-speed automatic as an option. The car uses front-wheel drive only and can sprint from standstill to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, which is fairly quick.
When the car launched in the States, it came in regular T5 and T5 R-Design forms, which were then split further into Version 1.0 and Version 2.0 trim sub-levels. That must have felt very cutting edge and Silicon Smorgasbord to the marketing department at the time, but it lasted only one model year and by 2009 it was just the C30, already with some interior and exterior styling tweaks and a better navigation system.
The regular T5 has 17-inch alloy wheels, power windows and locks, and a sport suspension that's still pliable enough for regular use. The T5 R-Design received 18-inch alloy wheels and an even firmer suspension (though still not teeth-jarring), partial leather upholstery, fog lights, aluminum pedals, and a special instrument cluster inspired by chronographs.
More rationalization of standard and optional equipment took place in 2010, when Bluetooth and cruise control came on board, but the customization program was discontinued. Options were put into bundles. For example, the Preferred package brought a few luxury touches; the Climate package came with heated front seats, automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, and headlight washers. And the Multimedia package included a surround-sound system and satellite radio.
A more extensive styling refresh happened in 2011, especially at the front end, where the intent was to resemble the newer XC60 compact crossover. In 2012, a USB port was added, along with new trim sub-levels to both the T5 and T5 R-Design. Premier Plus added LED daytime running lights, power sunroof, power-adjustable seats, and aluminum cabin accents. Platinum included the 10-speaker surround-sound system, satellite radio, navigation, and driver-side memory settings.
Polestar was a tuning house, similar to the relationship Mercedes-Benz had with AMG. In both instances, the larger company has since bought the smaller one—back in 2012, though the tuners were still independent. A Polestar-edition C30 boosted the engine to 250 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, and an even stiffer suspension and a faster steering rack were installed.
In 2013, the last year of production, a new Premier sub-trim slotted below Premier Plus. Standard equipment included a sunroof and a power-adjustable driver seat with driver-side memory settings. Premier Plus now had adaptive bi-xenon headlights, power-adjustable passenger seat, and keyless entry/ignition.
And 250 2013 Polestar special versions were imported to the United States, with 250 hp again, but a little more torque: 273 lb-ft. Critics haven't gone soft on the suspension, mainly because it never went soft on them, and that extra power going solely to the front wheels does result in some inevitable torque steer—not helped by the fact that the steering system itself doesn't offer a lot of feel.
In general, though, complaints are few. The first year seemed to have a few teething troubles, and the 2009 model was singled out for a leaky seal around the windshield. Otherwise, there isn't much to look out for other than changing the timing chain every 10 years. The C30 is new enough to come with full maintenance history. Recalls are similarly thin on the ground, the two main ones being the possible rupture of a power steering hose in 2008 and 2009 models, plus a possibly loose manual shift lever in the 2010 model.
But don't take all this as permission to not use common sense or arrange an expert inspection. Having a decent amount of power going just to the front wheels could easily result in greater tire wear. And be wary of any repaired damage, especially at the front end—this car is more likely to understeer before anything else happens to it. Check the condition of the pedals and seats, and make sure all the electric stuff works.
Taking a 2011 T5 specimen with a manual transmission, in good condition and bought from a private party, we're looking at $11,389. Scouring through the online classifieds unearthed one 2011 model at $15,998 (from a dealer). The cheapest example we found was a 2008 with 108,000 going for $7,000. We also came across a 2013 Polestar version priced at $25,000.