A halo car is an automaker's most desirable model. It's meant to bring new customers into dealerships with the hope that they'll buy another car in the lineup. It's often a test bed for performance technology, and it's usually inserted at the top of the company's lineup. A halo car shows what a company is capable of, and it can change an automaker's overall reputation.
With the release of the 2008 Volvo C30, Volvo is offering what one company executive calls a reverse halo car. Although this two-door hatchback comes in at the bottom of Volvo's lineup, Volvo hopes it can bring new people into its dealerships and give the company a sportier reputation.
The C30 is a new model for Volvo, but it shares most of its mechanicals with Volvo's compact S40 sedan and V50 wagon. While similar to these cars, the C30 has considerably less standard equipment, allowing Volvo to make it its lowest priced car.
That value pricing doesn't make the C30 a typical economy car, though. Instead it's more similar to the Audi A3 and Volkswagen GTI class of sporty hatchbacks, a fun-to-drive car aimed at younger buyers.
And fun to drive it is: The C30 is Volvo's best handling car. It has good steering feel, stays flat in corners, and is nimble enough to slice through traffic. The 227-hp turbocharged five-cylinder engine provides plenty of punch to keep the fun coming. Ride quality is generally good, though it can become a little hard with the available 18-inch wheels.
Inside, the C30 offers a pleasant, fairly roomy cabin for four. The standard cloth upholstery is a unique fabric that resembles wetsuit material. Room up front is plentiful, and the controls are easy to spot and use. The two-door body style makes getting into the backseat a bit of a hassle, but the rear seat is comfortable for two passengers, provided they're not NBA players. Those rear seats fold down to create a large rear hatch area with lots of carrying capacity.
As Volvo's lowest priced car, the C30 is a bit raw. The five-cylinder engine is powerful, but makes coarse sounds. The cabin isn't as well insulated from exterior sounds as other Volvos. Road noise is especially noticeable on rough pavement, a problem exacerbated by the open hatchback body style.
Overall, the Volvo C30 is good looking, fun to drive, and offers the easily accessible cargo utility of a hatchback. Volvo's value pricing makes it affordable, but it also means that the standard equipment list is light (cruise control isn't standard). Volvo offers numerous Custom Build Options, so buyers can personalize their C30s, much like the Mini Cooper. With a few well-chosen options, the C30 can be a fine choice.
Volvo C30 T5 1.0 ($22,700); 2.0 ($25,700)
The Volvo C30 is based on the same platform as the S40 and V50. All share the same 103.9-inch wheelbase, but the C30 is 8.5 inches shorter, all behind the rear wheels. Up front, the C30 is similar to its siblings, with the characteristic Volvo upright grille and sharply v-shaped hood.
Volvo designed the C30 with two doors and the design is striking, particularly from the side. The roofline starts out high and slopes gradually down, pinching the rear windows. Those windows are drawn in, leaving room for another Volvo characteristic, pronounced shoulders. Sporty characteristics include short front and rear overhangs, an integrated body kit, and big wheels on wide tires. The ground-effects-type body kit outlines the bottom of the car from front to rear and includes wheel flares at all four corners. On the 1.0 version, the body kit is rendered in a textured contrasting flat black plastic. On 2.0 models it is painted a contrasting gloss color, and Volvo offers several colors so customers can personalize their cars.
The story isn't the C30's front or sides, though. It's at the rear. Volvo is putting more emphasis on the rear aspect of the C30, choosing to show that angle in promotional materials. The most prominent feature is the dark-tinted rear glass, an attractive frameless trapezoidal shape that recalls the rear of the 1971-73 Volvo P1800 ES wagon. The glass dips down low and is flanked by unique taillights that rise up to the roof and jut out at the bottom to match the shape of the car's shoulders. The look is different from anything out there and is strong enough to give the car a distinct character.
All C30s have alloy wheels, with 17-inch wheels standard on 1.0 models and 18-inch wheels standard on 2.0s. Sixteen-inch wheels and tires are available as well, for drivers who value ride quality. The look is more attractive and more menacing with the 18s. Only five exterior colors are offered as standard options, but the Custom Order Options up the total to 16.
Volvo views its main competitors as the Audi A3, Mini Cooper S, and Volkswagen GTI. The C30 has a longer wheelbase than all three. Like the A3 and GTI, it's about two feet longer than the Mini. From the rear, it has more character than any of those competitors, including the Mini. From the front, it would be easy to mistake the C30 for its S40 and V50 brothers.
Volvo aims at sportiness inside the C30, along with high-tech, Scandinavian style. Volvo's trademark floating center stack is the central design element. The brushed aluminum center stack's design is simple, with four round knobs for the main audio and climate controls. Along the center is another series of buttons for more audio and climate functions, including a telephone-like set of buttons for the audio presets. As a unique feature, the center stack can be ordered with an integral surface design Volvo calls surf. Should this idea catch on, Volvo may offer more patterns in the future.
The standard cloth upholstery is also unique. Volvo calls it Kalix T-Tech. It has the look of wetsuit material. Kalix has a higher quality appearance than most cloth, fitting somewhere between regular cloth and leather. Leather seating surfaces are also available. Overall materials quality is typical Volvo, meaning excellent. The dash panel is made of a quality soft-touch material, and all the panels fit together with close, uniform gaps.
The C30 is comfortable, but not as comfortable as other Volvos, which are among the most cosseting cars available. The driver's seat has enough manual adjustments to tailor a comfortable driving position and enough side bolstering to keep backsides planted in corners. The front seats have plenty of head room and good leg room, though very tall drivers might wish for more seat travel. The tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps the driver adjust for a comfortable and proper driving position. The steering wheel seemed too big to us, though. Many manufacturers opt to go with a smaller diameter steering wheel for sporty cars, and the C30 would benefit from one, too.
Visibility is generally good, though Volvo's typically thick front pillars can restrict vision to the corners at intersections.
The audio system was given special attention as Volvo designed the C30 for young, active city dwellers. The standard radio in 1.0 models is a capable 160-watt AM/FM/CD stereo with eight speakers and MP3 player connectivity. The better-equipped 2.0 models get a 650-watt Alpine unit with 10 Dynaudio speakers and Sirius satellite radio with a six-month subscription. A USB port for iPod or flash drive connectivity is available as an accessory. It allows customers to control their iPods through the radio. The high-end stereo can really crank, and the sound is clear even at high volume.
Interior storage consists two cupholders located ahead of a console bin that is just big enough to hold CD cases. Additional storage can be found behind the center stack in a rubberized tray. Unfortunately, it's hard to access. Map pockets are also located in the doors.
Though the C30's two-door body style doesn't encourage family use, the rear is fairly easy to access and offers decent room. The front seats tilt and slide forward to provide an open path to the rear seat, though it still requires passengers to twist and duck. Once inside, they sit back and into the seats. Leg room is good unless the front seats are far back and toe room under the front seats is plentiful. Head room is sufficient for six footers, but tall riders might need to slouch.
The C30's hatchback body style gives it a fair bit of utility. The rear seats fold to create a flat load floor with 20.2 cubic feet of easy-to-access cargo room. With the seats up, there is still 12.9 cubic feet, so you can pick up your groceries while driving with friends.
The C30 isn't your typical Volvo. It's the smallest Volvo and the most athletic. Volvo has succeeded in its mission to build a fun-to-drive, sporty car.
The turbocharged five-cylinder engine provides 227 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque all the way from 1500 to 5000 rpm. That means the C30 has good power both off the line and in highway passing maneuvers. The engine is responsive, with a minimum of turbo lag. Torque steer, felt through the steering wheel as a slight pull to one side under hard acceleration, is well checked, which is impressive for a front-wheel drive car with this much power.
With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the C30 is capable of sprinting from 0-60 mph in just 6.2 seconds. That's quite quick, and comparable to the acceleration performance of the Volkswagen GTI. The manual shifter's throws are a little long and rubbery. It doesn't feel as sporty as some customers might like, but it is easy to shift.
With the optional automatic transmission, 0-60 mph comes in 6.6 seconds, which is still quite quick. The automatic transmission kicks down quickly when extra power is needed. It has a manual shiftgate for more driver control, but the C30 lacks the steering wheel-mounted paddles found in some of its competitors.
The turbocharged five-cylinder engine offers a nice balance of power and fuel economy. Under the tougher 2008 EPA guidelines, the engine is rated 18 mpg City and 28 Highway with the manual transmission and 18/27 mpg with the automatic. We expect most drivers will average 22 to 24 mpg depending on driving style.
On the road the C30 handles well, with flat cornering and fine balance in quick changes of direction. The 1.0 model, with its standard 17-inch tires, is a bit less sharp than the 2.0 model with its 18s. Steering in both models is direct, but it could stand to be a little quicker for a car with C30's sporty aspirations. Slow steering and big steering wheels are just part of the Volvo driving experience. The 2.0 model's sport suspension and larger wheels and tires provide a bit more road feel through the steering wheel.
Both models have a firm ride, but the 1.0 is smoother. While neither model feels harsh, the 2.0 is more prone to pounding over sharp bumps. The 1.0 model is close to the surprisingly refined VW GTI for ride quality, but the 2.0 has a rougher ride. The C30 looks better with the 2.0's larger wheels, but you'll want to try it before you buy, especially if you live in an area with bad roads.
The brakes have good pedal feel and fine stopping power. Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution assist the driver in emergency stopping situations. While the C30 is generally light on content, it's still a Volvo, which means it's safe. It has all the safety equipment, including front side and curtain side airbags, traction control, electronic stability control, and Volvo's WHIPS active head restraints that are designed to reduce the risk of whiplash.
Volvo set out to build a fun, sporty car aimed at active young buyers, and has accomplished its task. The engine is powerful, handling is responsive, and ride is reasonably comfortable. The hatchback body style offers useful cargo room, and inside there is plenty of room for four. If you're looking for a quality compact that makes a personal statement, the Volvo C30 is worth a look.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report after test driving the C30 around San Diego.