April 14, 2008
Oshawa, Ontario – For the longest time, Volvo seemed to have a creed: yes, it’s safe, but it’s going to be stodgy. The cars were like sensible shoes – good for your feet, but don’t expect them to be pretty.
But it seems that the market finally balanced out. Other automakers caught up in terms of the safety features stuffed into their vehicles, and Volvo broadened its appeal with smoother styling. Finally, for 2007, it introduced the C30, a model that takes design to a whole new level.
The C30 shares its platform with the company’s entry-level S40 sedan and its V50 wagon sibling, and comes with a choice of two powertrains: a turbocharged T5 version, or my tester, the naturally-aspirated 2.4i. That’s one more choice than the U.S. gets: in a land where hatchbacks aren’t especially popular unless they’re house-sized SUVs, the company offers only the upper-line T5. In Canada, where buyers tend to be more practical, the 2.4i offers a lower buy-in and reduced operating costs. But the initial price is relative: in the U.S., the T5 starts at $22,950, in dollars that are practically at par with ours. North of the border, it’ll cost you $27,495 to get into the 2.4i, and $31,995 to start building your T5. It’s somewhat hard to understand why it costs $4,545 more to get into a Canadian 2.4i than it does an American turbo.
The C30 was designed in Sweden by Simon Lamarre, a native of Montreal, and what a job he’s done. From the front, the C30 shares the S40’s gently rounded snout and curving headlamp treatment. Follow it through to the rear, though, and the C30 finishes with a unique sloping roofline and trademark glass hatch that pays homage to the iconic Volvo 1800ES. The frameless smoked glass opens and closes effortlessly and provides plenty of rearward visibility, but you’ll definitely want to order the optional cargo cover. Without it, any valuables you leave back there might as well be in a display case, and in warm weather, the sun will cook your groceries long before you get them home to the stove.
The 2.4i uses a 2.4-litre five-cylinder engine that produces 168 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque (by comparison, the turbocharged 2.5-litre produces 227 horses and 236 lb-ft of torque). It’s not as quick as the huffed version, but I actually prefer it for everyday driving: unlike the turbo, it doesn’t have the feeling of always being "on the muscle", and it delivers smooth and linear power. By comparison, the turbo feels a little too much for this car, and it seems to lack the delicate balance that the 2.4-litre finds so easily in this chassis.
Surprisingly, fuel economy figures for both engines are very close. The 2.4i is officially rated at 10.5 L/100 km in the city and 7.0 on the highway; in very cold weather, I averaged 11.9 L/100 km.
A five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode is available, but then you’d miss out on Volvo’s cream-smooth six-speed manual. Both shifter and clutch glide through their movements and are as effortless as they are precise.
For all its drop-dead good looks and sporty proportions, though, the C30 isn’t a sports car. It’s nimble, the steering is quick and it’s nicely weighted, but there isn’t any drama. Toss it into a corner, and while it’s initially nose-heavy, it immediately levels itself out and brings everything smoothly around, with the stability control tucking it all in if you’ve been a bit too harsh with it. But don’t get me wrong: that is not a criticism. Rather, there are as many drivers as there are cars to go around, and a large number of people like a car that looks slick and slippery, but that allows them to sit back and enjoy the ride without the pressure of twitchy handling and heavy clutch. This is, quite simply, an extremely sweet car to drive. Hard-core enthusiasts probably won’t be impressed, but this car is not meant for them.
As with the S40, I’m less than satisfied with some elements of the interior. It’s gorgeous, and screwed together impeccably, but there’s a lot of form over function.
The interior’s most noticeable styling feature is its "floating" centre stack, which cascades like a waterfall from dash to console. You can’t put anything in the front of it, and the small storage space in behind is difficult to access. The stereo and climate controls are gathered into a cluster that resembles a television remote, and very little of it is easy to figure out quickly. Considering that Volvo stakes its reputation on safety, I have to spend far too much time with my eyes off the road to find and work the buttons.
When you’re accessing radio stations, the screen comes up with a display that looks like an old-fashioned dial. It’s cool, but the buttons aren’t: a few times I would be running through the controls just fine, and then I’d come to a screen where none of the buttons seemed to do anything. I know the car comes with an owner’s manual for a reason, but too many of the functions that should be simple are overly complicated.
The seats are incredibly comfortable, but while the foot wells are long, they aren’t very wide. Space can also be a problem with the shifter: I had no trouble with my small hands, but those with larger mitts may end up hitting the climate control buttons when shifting into third gear. The cupholders are far enough back that they don’t interfere with the shift lever, though. There’s a roll-up cover that hides them when they’re not in use, but if you push it all the way back to use the cupholders, the end of the cover has a tendency to disappear under the console box lid, where it’s tricky to pull it back out.
The C30 is strictly a four-seater. It’s a tight fit getting back to the rear chairs, but once you’re in them, they’re as comfortable as those in the front, with a fairly wide centre armrest and with legroom as expected in a vehicle this size. The seats fold easily, increasing the cargo space from a length of 70 cm to as much as 140 cm when they’re down.
For me, the C30 is a perfect example of the strength that styling can have. While both the C30 and the S40 have virtually identical driving characteristics, I wouldn’t buy an S40; the combination of lack of interior space, the unnecessarily complicated controls and the price would have me looking at simpler, roomier and less-expensive competitors in the segment. But when it comes to the C30, I would be willing to overlook all that on the grounds that nothing else in this segment looks even remotely as cool as this glass-butt hatchback. GM stylist Harley Earl once famously remarked that an oblong is much more attractive than a square, and indeed, how very right he was.
Pricing: 2008 Volvo C30 2.4i
|(Sport Package of dual-zone climate control, heated seats, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, power driver seat with memory, headlight washers, aluminum inlays and front fog lamps $2,500; DynAudio premium six-CD stereo $1,250; metallic paint $650; sunroof $1,500)|
|Price as tested:||$||35,110|
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