Gorgeous looks and a torquey engine, from a marque once known for being boring but safe, may make up for this city car's shortcomings.
2010 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Plus
Years ago, one of the most favourite of all television programmes for youngsters like myself at the time was The Muppet Show. Kermit the Frog, Animal and Fozzie Bear, along with famous guest stars every week, brought music and laughter into our homes. It also brought a little worldly knowledge, or so I thought at the time. He didn't offer much training on cooking, but the Swedish Chef gave us young viewers a glimpse into the mysterious Scandinavian culture. The unintelligible language, the overflowing moustache, the meatballs - that's what Sweden was all about, wasn't it?
Of course, as loveable as he might have been, the only muppet with real human hands wasn't a perfect example of Swedish culture, as I was to learn later in life. And, I would be pleasantly surprised to find that saunas, leggy blonde bombshells and progressive social views were part and parcel of this northern European country. Why, they even liked ice hockey! And so it has been with my views on Volvo, the Swedish brand that personified solid safety and boringness for much of its history (save a handful of cars, such as the P1800). But recently, the brand has surprised people -myself included - by becoming, well, rather sexy.
Nothing typifies that change with the car maker more than the little C30. Not since the sporty and aforementioned P1800 has a Volvo looked so darn good. It's a small hatchback designed to go against the likes of the Mini Cooper, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and even hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf, and I think it's the best looking of the lot. With a thoroughly modern look, there's nothing retro about it, unlike the Mini, and it's more aggressively styled than the German cars. And, to think just a few years ago of a Volvo coming in orange? Unheard of.
This year, the model gets a refresh with revised front fascia, among other small changes, and the R-Design Plus model gets extra bodywork to emphasise its sportiness. But it's the rear end that continues to be its most unique area, with its all-glass hatch and high bumper. This style, however, comes at a price: the hatch opening is tiny, and putting in heavy objects is not only difficult with the high deck lid, but the painted deck is also susceptible to scratches during loading.
The problems with the cargo area unfortunately don't end there. It has one of the smallest cargo spaces in its class, leaving little room for your groceries. And, what is this hard, folding cargo cover Volvo has in the back? If you need more room, it's an operation to take it out, and then you've got to find a place to put it - it won't stay in the car. Really, what's wrong with one of those rolling curtains?
Luckily, you don't have to sit in the boot, and Volvo takes care of you in the passenger compartment. The two-tone leather seats in the front offer enough comfort, but I was surprised at the room in the back: Room for two with an arm rest limits the car to just four passengers, but it's worth it for the comfort. Headroom and leg room in the rear seats was surprisingly good for such a small car, too, though I wouldn't exactly want to spend a cross-country trip back there. I could give you the musical cliché that I wanted Volvo to bring sexy back into the interior, but they've never really been renowned for their creativeness inside. Don't get me wrong, it's a pleasant and well laid out cabin, and it utilises nice, soft plastics throughout, but it could use a little colour and, well, oomph. The floating centre console is a nice touch, but I just wish it was in a contrasting colour, rather than the dark metal that seemed to blend in with the black plastic. This is where the Mini shines in the segment, with its youthful, imaginative cockpit design, if not with high-quality materials.
But then, the C30 is more of a mature car. It doesn't have the furious, go-kart handling of BMW's Mini, but it is fairly competent in the twisties. Though understeer shows up sooner than you'd like, the Volvo manages to keep its composure under heavy driving and even gives decent feedback through the steering wheel. Keeping with the grown-up theme, the ride is also much softer than other small cars, though not as much as in a larger car - potholes can be somewhat jarring, but not uncomfortably so.
There are two engines available for the C30, a 1.6L four cylinder and a 2.5L turbocharged, inline five cylinder, and by far my recommendation would be the inline five that comes with the upscale models. The power of this thing is exceptional for such a small car, and the turbo means the engine churns all its torque out at just 1,500rpm - it will never leave you wanting for more. All that power makes for considerable torque steer with this front-wheel-drive model, though, but it does deliver good fuel economy.
As the Swedes, it's possible to be sexy and sensible at the same time. Unsurprisingly, this Volvo is still packed with safety features, such as all the usual traction aids, multiple air bags, a blind-spot warning and whiplash protection with the front seats. And being a premium compact, it also comes with features such as rain-sensing wipers, memory seats, bluetooth connectivity and keyless entry.
The C30 is, admittedly, a bit of a compromise. It's small cargo area limits its usefulness, but it can be a rewarding car, especially for city dwellers. It's an interesting mix of style and sensibility, with a tiny dash of excitement thrown in - the type of recipe you'd expect from a Swedish chef.