Volvo, looking to offer an affordable car to the U.S. market, rejuvenates a model from the past with the 2008 Volvo C30. This new small car borrows much from the Volvo P1800ES, produced from 1972 to 1973, down to the shape of the back glass. Similar to the Mini Cooper, the C30 represents a very attractive modern take on a classic design.
The C30 is a classic hatchback, with two long doors allowing access to the backseats. These seats fold down to maximize cargo area. Like the old P1800ES, the C30's hatchback is all glass. Its styling is superb, with a softly curved front end and a belt line that stretches back across haunch-like rear fenders. Those rear fenders give the back a wide stance, giving the C30 a sporty look.
Volvo also jumps on the trend to offer personalization with the C30, similar to the Mini Cooper and the Scion xB. Volvo claims that more than 5 million configurations can be derived from the C30's customization options. Amongst its accessories, you can get many youth-oriented touches such as bicycle, snowboard, and surfboard racks. Volvo even offers a walnut steering wheel for the sports car purist.
Test the tech: Surrounded by sound
The Volvo C30 is available in two trim levels, Version 1.0 and Version 2.0 (names obviously come up by marketers with no knowledge of software development). Version 2.0 comes standard with a Dynaudio premium audio system, pumping 650 watts through 10 speakers. This system has Dolby Pro-Logic II surround sound and lets you fine-tune it with forward and rear 5 band graphic equalizers.
Normally, we would expect to be impressed by an audio system of this caliber, but when we tested the Volvo S80 with a similar system, we found that backseat occupants didn't get to enjoy the audio. With the C30, we did a simple test to determine whether the back seat would benefit from this system by using a sound meter to check the decibels in the front and back seats.
Our sound meter test shows if the back seat passengers get cheated out of the audio system wonderful output.
Beyond the graphic equalizers, this audio system lets you further tweak it by turning the surround sound from minimum to maximum. In normal driving, we found the maximum surround setting to deliver superb audio, with a really immersive experience. Running the dial up from minimum to maximum surround creates a dramatic difference, causing incredible separation. We really like the way different instruments seem to come from all around, with exceptional clarity and a seamless transition in emphasis around the cabin.
For our quantitative testing, we played a section from the Gorillaz Demon Days CD at half volume. We measured the decibels in the front and back seats, with surround at full and at minimum. With full surround, we got an even decibel measurement of 78 in front and back. With surround off, we saw a 5 decibel difference, with 80 in front and 75 in back. We tried the same test with a steady tone, this time getting 83 decibels in front and 82 in back, with surround on full. With surround off, we got 85 decibels in front and 83 in back.
From these results, and our own qualitative testing, we found that the backseat isn't left out in the surround-sound experience, as it was in the Volvo S80. The even decibel ratings in our music test shows that the maximum surround setting spread the audio out evenly through the cabin. The steady tone test showed less variance, but this test is less realistic as it only used the higher frequencies, and nobody drives around listening to a steady tone.
In the cabin
The interior of the Volvo C30 is well-designed and built, and we particularly like the floating stack, a panel holding audio and climate controls mounted in the center of the dashboard. This panel also has a keypad, which only served to call up radio station presets in our test car. However, if you get the Bluetooth hands-free cell phone option, you can use the keypad to dial phone numbers. The steering wheel is satisfyingly thick, and has audio and cruise controls mounted on its spokes.
There's very little difference between the Version 1.0 and Version 2.0 trim levels, except for the sound system. As we mentioned above, the premium sound system uses Dynaudio speakers and has superb surround sound. We did notice one problem with the audio, which might have been a glitch in our test car: We heard bass pops from the front tweeters. We heard it most while playing a White Stripes disc, so you might want to bring similar music along to the showroom.
The audio system combines 10 Dynaudio speakers with an Alpine amplifier, good for 650 watts.
Beyond the audio quality, we really like this stereo's simple display. It uses black LCD letters on a greenish background, but will invert its colors for night display. For audio sources, the premium audio system comes standard with Sirius satellite radio, a single disc player that can read MP3 CDs, and an auxiliary input in the center console. We like that the display shows track information from MP3 CDs, but the interface doesn't let you navigate a disc by folder. Instead, you start at track 1 and have to keep on turning the dial up through the tracks to get to the first song in the folder to which you want to listen. The same goes for Sirius where, instead of choosing music categories, you have to keep on turning the tuning dial until you reach your desired station. It's a very inconvenient design.
We were very impressed with the dramatic difference maximizing surround sound makes to the audio experience.
Along with Bluetooth, navigation was another option that we didn't have on our test car. However, we used the same navigation system on the Volvo C70 and found that it functioned well. This nav system comes with a remote control for the passengers, or the driver can operate it with a joystick and buttons mounted on back of the steering wheel spoke. Our only problem with the system is that the LCD, which pops up from the dashboard, is subject to glare on sunny days. We found glare a serious problem with the C70, but don't know how bad it will be on the C30.
Under the hood
Beyond the premium stereo, the other major difference between Version 1.0 and Version 2.0 is a sport-tuned suspension on the latter, what Volvo calls its Dynamic Chassis. The suspension felt like it had the right amount of rigidity to us, doing a decent job of damping out the bumps while also minimizing body roll during hard cornering. We put the Volvo C30 through its paces on Highway 9 and Skyline in the Santa Cruz mountains, two winding roads with some tight hairpins. The C30 didn't strike us as an ultimate sports car, but its powered front wheels dragged us through the corners with minimal wheel slip. Understeer wasn't a large problem as we took the car around mountain curves that seemed to end somewhere in the vicinity of 270 degrees, a lot of time to wonder if the turn would ever finish.
Volvo's T5 engine, the identifier standing for turbocharged five cylinder, is mounted transversely in the C30.
Our big regret was that our C30 came optioned with a five-speed automatic transmission, rather than the standard six-speed manual. This automatic seemed to hold back the potential of this car, with little inclination to downshift as we hit the brakes before a hard turn. Even in manual gear selection mode, we found the transmission sluggish, taking too much time to perform the up- or down-shift we selected. However, this transmission performed all right under hard acceleration, holding gears to about 6,000 revolutions per minute.
But, with the car's turbo-charged five cylinder engine, torque steer was an issue under hard acceleration. This 2.5-liter engine throws plenty of power to the small C30's wheels, making 227 horsepower at 5,000rpm and 236 ft-lbs of torque from 1,500 to 5,000rpm. We had no problem getting a squeak out of the front tires when we stomped the gas.
You will pay for the turbocharger at the pump, as the Volvo C30 gets an EPA rated 19mpg in the city and 27mpg on the highway, figures that should be better for a car of this size. During our time with the car we weren't able to get a conclusive observed fuel economy rating. As of our review, no emissions ratings were published for the C30.
Volvo makes its BLIS lane-change warning system available in the C30, a great safety option we used in the S80. We're happy to see an advanced safety system like this available on a less expensive car. Volvos also makes front and rear parking systems available, which seem unnecessary on such a small car.
Our 2008 Volvo C30 Version 2.0 had a base price of $25,700. The Version 1.0 C30 will cost you a base $22,700. For options, our test car only came with the automatic transmission, which adds $1,250. With a $745 destination charge, our total came out to $27,695.
We really liked the looks of the C30, both inside and out. Except for the transmission, it drove very well. Its hatchback gives it a practical side, but there isn't much legroom in the backseats. The stereo is phenomenal, although the interface could use some work. Equipped with the optional Bluetooth and navigation, the C30 becomes a very techie car. Although it has a smaller engine, the Mini Cooper S has better handling and is a worthwhile competitor. And if you're really into odd body styles and from-the-factory personalization, the Scion xB is a cheaper alternative, although it doesn't perform nearly as well.