Rounding the a bend on a windy backroad, I was greeted by the familiar tail lamps of a 2010 Mazdaspeed3, fitting as the 2011 Volvo C30 R-Design that I was piloting shares its Ford C1 platform with the Mazda3. Weeks earlier, on a similar road, the Mazdaspeed had scared the crap out of me with its turbo lag and snap torque steer. My current ride was down about 50 horsepower from the Mazda, but felt about as surefooted with more predictable power delivery. In a classic case of "less is more," I was able to hang fairly close to the Mazda's rear bumper as we snaked through the countryside, grinning all the way.
To be fair, the Mazda driver wasn't trying too hard to lose me in the little Volvo C30, but that doesn't discount the amount of fun supplied by the little white hatchback. New for 2011, the C30 features an updated visage, but beneath its hood beats the same 227-horsepower turbocharged 5-cylinder engine that's powered the U.S. market C30 since 2007. Volvo's done a good job of tuning out turbo lag, as the T5 engine's 236 pound-feet of torque comes on as early as 1,500rpm. Though the Volvo doesn't blow you away with its power--an enthusiast's car it is not--it does feel confident during freeway passing maneuvers and, as indicated above, back-road blasts.
Drive the C30 like an EPA tester and you'll be rewarded with an estimated 21 city and 29 highway mpg with the standard six-speed manual transmission. The optional five-speed automatic tranny, with which our tester was equipped, actually boosts the highway fuel economy to an estimated 30 mpg. The automatic transmission features an "autostick" manual-shifting mode, but without paddle shifters we found it easier to simply let the computer handle the shifting.
Inside the Volvo's cabin is a handsome (if not also a bit plain) dashboard with a two-gauge instrument cluster, monochromatic LCD display for stereo information, and a floating center console with audio and climate controls. Standard equipment includes an eight-speaker, 160-watt audio system with USB and analog aux-in connectivity and HD Radio. Bluetooth hands-free calling is also standard. For the CNET crowd, the C30 is also available with a Dynaudio sound system with Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound. Speaker count has been pushed to 10, but they are also of higher quality and are pushed by 650 watts of amplification. This system also includes Volvo's hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic information.
The C30's R-Design trim level is so called because it's mostly an appearance package. On the outside are a more aggressive color-matched body kit and spoiler, R-Design badging, and matte-finish wing mirrors. Inside are R-Design logos embossed in the leather seating surfaces, R-Design blue gauges, and sport pedals and steering wheel. However, it's not all just styling fluff. The trim level also includes what Volvo calls a "Sport Chassis" (as opposed to the standard C30's "Comfort Chassis"). Sport Chassis upgrades include stiffer springs with firmer dampers and bushings, a faster steering ratio, and bigger wheels with stickier tires.
Handling, thusly equipped, was neutral and predictable. The C30's longish wheelbase for a coupe made it a much better highway cruiser than canyon carver. Later on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper S, and the very same Mazdaspeed3 we chased earlier would show us how a true front-wheel-driven enthusiast car should handle. But at fewer than 9/10ths on public roads, the littlest Volvo was still good enough to put a grin on our face through more than a few hairpin turns.
The standard 2011 Volvo C30 T5 starts at $24,600, but users who want the better styling and handling of the R-Design package will have to fork over $26,950. Add $1,250 for the automatic transmission and a $850 destination fee to reach our as-tested price of $29,050. Add the $1,800 Preferred package for power seats and moon roof and $2,000 Multimedia package for the premium audio and nav and that price jumps up to $32,850. That places the C30 well above the price range of the Mazda3 (and its Mazdaspeed variant), but squarely in the price range of potential Volkswagen GTI buyers.