2013 Volvo C30 R-Design review: Polestar edition of Volvo C30 is a not-so-hot hatch

There are, of course, those who will argue that you don't buy a Volvo for performance, that a Volvo is purchased for its safety features, and that I have no business comparing the C30 with the Focus ST or Mazdaspeed3. I get that, but I don't feel that C30 isn't necessarily any safer than either of those vehicles. When Volvo decided to slap that little blue Polestar square on its hatchback's bumper and squarely in the center of the dashboard, the automaker was also throwing down the gauntlet in the global hot-hatch battlefield.

If the Swedish automaker wants anyone to take that blue square seriously, it's going to have to try a bit harder on the next outing.

Frustrating cabin tech
Frankly, the C30's dashboard tech situation is pretty bad.

Volvo C30 navigation system
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Don't adjust your screen; the Volvo navigation interface is just that pixelated. Josh Miller/CNET

For starters, the optional navigation system is horrible. The motorized 6.5-inch display pops up out of the dashboard at the touch of a button. However, I had to break out the instruction manual to even figure out where that button was located. It's not on the dashboard, no. Volvo's DVD-based navigation system (DVDs?! What year is this?!) is controlled by a small joystick-and-button combo mounted on the back of the steering wheel.

The interface is obnoxiously complex in itself, but with the buttons on the back of the steering wheel, I kept confusing Enter with Back. The system ships with an IR remote control for when passengers want to take a stab at entering an address into its non-touch-sensitive interface.

The navigation was so maddening that the best thing I can say about it is that the screen can be folded flat into the dashboard again with the touch of a button and simply ignored.

Volvo C30 navigation
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The best feature of the navigation system is that it can be totally hidden. Josh Miller/CNET

With the navigation system sorted, I turned my attention to the audio and climate controls below, which are a mess of buttons and knobs bunched on the floating center stack with no separation between the controls for phone, climate, and audio. Every adjustment to the temperature or audio source becomes an eyes-on interaction that takes longer than it should.

Let's say you're driving along and a good song comes on the satellite radio. In most cars, you glance at the screen and everything that you need to know is there: artist's name, song name, and channel ID all on the same screen. However, the Volvo's monochromatic LCD can only show one bit of data at a time and changing the displayed satellite radio metadata from artist name to song title takes about five or six button presses -- and that's after you've memorized all of the weird 10-key shortcuts and didn't get lost in the menu or use the arrow keys. Trust me, you don't want to be doing any of this while driving.

Volvo C30 radio display
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The 10-speaker premium audio system sounds fantastic, but the tiny interface is difficult to work with while driving. Josh Miller/CNET

It's not all bad, however. The 10-speaker, 650-watt Premium Sound System that comes as part of the technology package is most excellent, with great bass and remarkably little distortion. The list of available audio sources also checks many of the right boxes, including AM/FM radio with HD Radio tuning, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, USB/iPod connectivity, Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, and an analog auxiliary audio input.

After a day of fighting with the obnoxious interface for the navigation and infotainment, I just slapped a smartphone to the dashboard with a suction-cup mount, paired it with the stereo via Bluetooth, and left it there for the duration of testing. Problem thoroughly solved.

In sum
The TL;DR on the 2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Polestar above works out to three key points: the T5 engine is great with gratuitous amounts of usable torque, the handling is softer than I'd like for a hot-hatch and could benefit from grippier tires, and, with the exception of the sweet Premium Sound System, the cabin technology is just terrible.

That's a pretty tepid assessment of the most powerful, most exclusive variant of this marquee. Interestingly, I didn't find myself sweating most of this when I was behind the wheel. Volvo hasn't built the hottest hatchback, it hasn't loaded the car up with the best tech, but it has created something special -- something fun -- that I really enjoyed driving. Some drivers will just get it; others won't be able to see past the cons. Both camps will be right.

Volvo C30 Polestar edition
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Volvo's C30 isn't the fastest or most high-tech hot hatch, but the Polestar edition is something special. Josh Miller/CNET

However, the C30 faces some very stiff competition in the compact performance arena. Personally, I'd look elsewhere for my hot-hatch thrills were it my own money on the table. Starting at a base price of $27,850, our tester added $1,000 for the R-Design/Polestar limited-edition package, $5,000 for the Platinum package that adds all of the tech and comfort options, $800 for heated seats and automatic climate control, and $895 for destination charge. All in, Volvo wants $35,545 for this example. That's as expensive as an Audi A3 Quattro and thousands more than a comparably equipped 2013 Ford Focus ST, Mazdaspeed3, or Subaru WRX. Any of these cars would be a better buy.

I was sad to see the playful little Volvo go at the end of my week behind the wheel and I'll be sad to see the C30 go when it ends production soon. Only 250 examples are being made of this swan-song Polestar limited edition -- ours was No. 249. I only wish that the model were going out with more of a bang.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Volvo C30
Trim T5 R-Design Polestar limited edition
Power train 2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy 21 city, 29 highway, 24 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 20 mpg
Navigation DVD-based, 6.5-inch screen, remote controller
Bluetooth phone support Yes
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio tuning
Audio system Optional 10-speaker Premium Sound System
Driver aids n/a
Base price $27,850
Price as tested $35,545

What you'll pay

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