2009 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Test Drive

By James Mackintosh, 06 July 2009

These days, there isn't exactly what I'd call a market shortage of hot hatchbacks. Pretty much everyone makes one of some variety or other.  Personally, I wouldn't blame you for being unaware that Volvo makes one.  The C30 hasn't exactly set the sales charts on fire since it went on sale in 2006.  Still, just judging the car on it's individual merits, it's a rather tempting automobile.  I had the chance to test drive a pretty loaded C30 T5 R-Design recently, so let's take a closer look at this hot hatch enigma.

2009 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design

The Volvo C30 is built atop the Ford C1 architecture, which underpins (among other things) the Mazda3, Volvo S40/V50/C70, new-style Ford Focus, and who knows what else.  The C30 is basically an S40 sedan from the A-pillar forward - no bad thing, considering the S40 is (in my estimation) one of the prettiest compact-executive sedans out there.

The C30 is a little funkier, though.  Yes, it's a 3-door hatchback, but it's distinctly Volvo.  See that rear glass hatchback?

Volvo C30 Rear Hatch

It's a throwback to the old, and much-loved, Volvo P1800ES from the 70's.  The P1800ES was basically the wagon version of Volvo's interesting P1800 sports car, although it was really more of a "shooting brake" if anything.  The glass hatch actually has a frame behind it, but it's perfectly hidden - it looks just like the fragile glass hatchbacks of yore.  Also, it looks a bit like a Fiat Stilo from the back.

Overall though, the shape of the C30 is both pleasing and practical.  The dramatically sloping roof is an interesting touch, but what's more interesting is there is plenty of room for my lanky 6'2" frame in the back seat, with no head-to-headliner interaction.  Overall, it's a very shapely and inviting design, managing to look both interesting and not completely tasteless like most hatchback.  So that's one thumbs up.

The C30, at least in the US market, only comes with one engine choice: the best one.  While the rest of the world gets gasoline and diesel four and five cylinders starting at 99 horsepower, the US market only receives the top of the line C30: the T5.  It's basically the same five-cylinder that Volvo's been making since the introduction of the 850 back in 1992.

Volvo C30 T5 engine

Now displacing 2.5L, the T5 has changed it's purpose in life from maximum performance to maximum low-end torque.  Thanks to a displacement bump (from 2.3L to 2.5L) as well as less boost from a smaller, faster-spooling turbo and the help of a variable-geometry intake tract, the T5 lays down 227 of the smoothest, torque-iest horsepower in it's market segment.  While most hot-hatch engine focus on maximum exhilarating performance, the T5 is more like deceptively fast.  This is understandable, with a meaty peak torque output of 236lb-ft from 1,500 rpm all the way up to 5,000 rpm.  Peak power comes in at a relatively low 5,000 rpm, leaving an additional 1,500 rpm before redline that you'll pretty much never use.

The C30 is available with other engines in other markets, as mentioned earlier, but there's really only one worth mentioning: the C30 D5 manual, a 2.4L I5 turbodiesel with an entirely adequate 178bhp... and 400nM (295lb-ft!) of torque mated to a six-speed manual.  Not to sound like a broken record, but why is it we don't get the good diesels in the US, again?

Now, I mentioned earlier that the C30 shares its chassis with a large percentage of the rest of the Volvo lineup as well as the ubiquitous Mazda3 and Ford Focus, so if you've been inside a Volvo S40, V50, or C70, the C30 will feel very familiar.  If you haven't been in any Volvos lately, you're in for a surprise.

Volvo C30 T5 interior

If you're a fan of Ikea, you'll love the C30's modern, minimalistic interior.  As a Saab C900 driver, I immediately felt at home with the Scandinavian minimalism  here, although the overload of buttons in the center of the dashboard reminded me more of the original 9-3 Sport Sedan interior, which was both a glorious geek-fest and an ergonomic trainwreck all at the same time:

Still, delightful details abound.  See that center stack?  It's about 2" thick, leaving a hidden recess behind it for storing... well, I suppose for storing stuff you don't like all that much.  The tricked out R-Design model I test drove sported a beefy contoured steering wheel that's about on par with the MKV Golf GTI's helm for sheer tactile awesomeness, with neatly integrated hand controls.  The gauges are a model of clarity, too.  The overall design is clean, modern, and quite charming if it's your cup of tea.

Sadly, there are some interior downsides that must be mentioned.  The seats are typical Volvo fair, which is to say that they're quite comfortable, but somewhat lacking in lateral support.  Also, the central strip of buttons all crammed together makes for a clean interior design, but they're clustered so closely and labeled in such minuscule print that it can take a second for you to find what you were looking for.  Also, the 6-speed manual my test car was equipped with caused my knuckles to whack the A/C on/off switch when shifting into third gear, which was annoying.

C30-2

So, the C30 presents an interesting, attractive exterior and has a comfortable, modern luxury interior.  Sadly, none of it quite adds up like you'd expect it to on the road.

First, let's review the C30's positive attributes.  This new low-pressure high-displacement T5 has almost no discernible turbo lag of any sort.  It's pretty spooky; it makes a VW 2.0T feel peaky and energetic.  It's got a decent amount of power, considering the relatively low curb weight of 3155 lbs.  The problem is the power delivery: it's been engineered to be so completely flat that it's not really any fun to use.  This is one of those cars where you look down at the speedometer and say "there's no way I'm going that fast." Much like a Lexus.  And that basically means, ugh.

Still, it's not all bad.  Like all five-cylinders I've ever met (having never driven an Acura Vigor), the C30 sounds fantastic, even stock, with an offbeat thrum to it that's quite endearing.  Mid-gear acceleration is strong and absolutely silky-smooth.  There's no light-switch power delivery like the old S60/V70R's here.

C30-6

And that's sorta how the C30 is.  The steering is precise and well weighted but completely devoid of road feel.  The shifter's throws are short but it's action soft and vaguely unsatisfying.  The brakes haul the car down rapidly, and can't really be faulted.  The problem is, here you are driving this 227bhp pocket-rocket tiny hatchback, and you're...  Why, you're bored.

Which gets us back around to the fact that this is a Volvo.  If you look at this car for what it is - a neat-looking, small Volvo, it makes a lot more sense.  For one thing, despite it's diminuitive size and low weight, the C30 feels like an absolute tank.  It feels like if you crashed this thing into a concrete wall, the Volvo would win.

I suppose the C30 can dice up a loose line of traffic like every other hot-hatch out there, with it's right-now torque and quick-shifting 6-speed and huge sticky Pirelli PZero Rosso's...  But it's not really a car that inspires that sort of behavior.

Summary

Manufacturer: Volvo CarsMake: C30Model (tested): T5 R-DesignBase Price: $23,800Price as Tested: $32,235

Engine: 2.5L DOHC 20v I5, Turbocharged and IntercooledHorsepower: 227@5000 rpmTorque: 235@1500-5000 rpmTransmission: 6 speed manual0-60: 6.2s (approximate)EPA Fuel Mileage: 19 city/ 28 Highway

Highs: Turbine-smooth torque generator under the hood, five-cylinder honk, short-throw six speed, quite quick, pleasing shape, neat rear hatch, surprising interior space, unusually comfortable and solid for a hot hatch.  Oh, and that steering wheel!

Lows: Not really fun to drive per se, doesn't feel as fast as it is, ergonomic nightmare that is the center console, can get quite pricey with options, it's a Volvo, no one remembers the P1800ES anyway.

Conclusion: Practical, promises on paper, but in the end aren't hot hatches supposed to be fun to drive?

Also Consider: Mini Cooper S, BMW 128i Coupe, Audi TT 2.0T, VW GTI, Alfa Romeo MiTo, etc.

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