CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
At the C30's introduction in 2006, it came out as a retro-look vehicle, evoking the historic Volvo 1800ES. The car remains largely the same, a two-door hatchback with a stylish design and premium interior. Smaller engines are available in Europe, but the U.S. has only ever gotten the turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder, the largest engine in the lineup.
Already decently powerful for a hatchback, Volvo offers a power boost through Polestar, its tuning partner. The Polestar option brings the horsepower of the C30 R-Design up from 227 hp to 250 hp, and brings the torque up to 273 foot-pounds from 238. That boost and the suspension tuning included in the R-Design trim make for a surprisingly fast and nimble hatchback.
CNET's car showed in Ice White, a color that would have looked better offset by black trim rather than the matte silver of the wheels and grille. Thankfully the car was left with the standard transmission, a six-speed manual, rather than the available five-speed automatic.
Volvo's manual transmission fits the traditional European mold, giving precise yet comfortable shifts. The pistol-grip shifter offers a little play without feeling sloppy, slipping neatly into each slot in the gate. The ratios proved perfect for tackling mountain roads, with third gear offering a wide power band and second always handy for when the turns got really tight.
This C30 R-Design handled these tight turns so well that, when I got a chance to look down at the speedometer, I was surprised to see how much of the dial the needle had traversed. And there was clearly room to push the car even faster. It set up very easily for each turn, the steering wheel delivering tight response without feeling twitchy. Through longer, fast turns some small amount of understeer began to show. In the hairpins a little extra throttle made the front tires scramble for grip, pulling the car through the turn. And flashing traction control lights seemed to help, rather than hinder, the performance.
The Polestar power upgrade did not cause excess turbo lag. The acceleration mostly felt measured and even, with a slight bump at over 3,000rpm. The sport tuning for the R-Design trim maintains good everyday driving for the C30. The suspension struck a good balance between rigidity and comfort, letting the C30 handle rough city streets much better than a typical economy car.
Despite the lack of any hill hold feature, starting from a stop on a steep San Francisco hill was not a problem. The car feels light and the pedal ergonomics are good enough that I was able to release the brake and get on the gas ahead of any significant rollback. The C30 R-Design also seems to be one of the few cars left with a hand brake.
The C30 R-Design's fuel economy comes in at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway under EPA testing, not spectacular numbers when most compact cars are well into the 30s. But the numbers are realistic, as CNET's car came well within the range even with plenty of high-rpm driving.
The hatchback design leads to practical cargo space and pleasing exterior styling, but Volvo's use of rear bucket seats, setting passenger capacity at four, limits the car's utility. However, given the premium interior it is clear Volvo is going more for comfort than capacity. The two-tone buckets are very comfortable all around.
Despite the premium class, the tech in the C30 R-Design is only average, the curse of a smaller, independent car company. Ford launched Sync while Volvo was still in its portfolio, but that technology did not make it across the Atlantic. Although the C30 R-Design has a Bluetooth phone system and iPod integration, there is no voice command.
The navigation system, included as part of the Platinum package, is basically an add-in, a portable-like device engineered as a flip-up screen at the top of the dashboard. Meanwhile, phone and stereo information shows up on a separate radio display. Buttons mounted on the back of the right steering-wheel spoke control navigation, and another set of buttons on the center dashboard control phone and stereo. It took some time to get used to the various buttons. I would much rather see a single integrated interface.
However, Volvo's navigation system is not bad. I didn't recognize the interface as being from Garmin or TomTom, but it had a similar look and feel to devices from those makers. The maps, stored on flash memory, offered 2D and 3D views with traffic data overlaid. Programming in an address was tedious using the minimalist buttons, and made more difficult because they were hidden behind the steering-wheel spoke.
Under route guidance, the system showed rich graphics for turns with lane guidance for freeway merges. The voice prompts could be set to male or female voices, but in CNET's car these prompts were unusable, as, for some reason, possibly a loose wire, the prompts were terribly distorted. It was an odd problem, likely isolated to CNET's review car.
When a large, color LCD is available in the car, it is annoying to be forced to resort to a small monochromatic radio display to look up phone numbers and browse the music library for a connected iPod. A small four-directional button navigates through lists of artists and albums on the display, two at a time. With an iPod connected to the system, it is not immediately apparent how to find artists and album lists. Volvo buries these categories under the Playlists menu item.
As to audio sources, Volvo keeps the C30 R-Design modern. Not only does it offer Bluetooth audio streaming and satellite radio, it also has HD Radio. The optional Platinum package also brought in an upgraded audio system, using 10 speakers and a 650-watt amp. This system produced very palpable bass and distinct highs, but the midranges sounded muddy, reducing the impact of music. The audio reproduction fit the car's premium class, but did not reach audiophile quality.
Little of Volvo's vaunted safety technology finds its way into the C30 R-Design. Lacking advanced features such as City Safety, which comes standard on the XC60, adaptive cruise control, or even a backup camera, the only driver assistance option is blind-spot detection.
The 2012 Volvo C30 R-Design is a very fun car to drive and the hatchback makes it quite useful. The sport suspension handled cornering very well and the manual transmission shifted well. The cabin offers some solid tech features, such as the navigation and audio system, but the confusing interface doesn't live up to the premium tone set by the interior design.
|Model||2012 Volvo C30|
|Power train||Turbocharged 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||21 mpg city/29 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||650-watt, 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot detection|
|Price as tested||$35,720|