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

Despite its flaws, I fell in love with this Polestar limited-edition Volvo C30 R-Design. I just wouldn't buy one.

Antuan Goodwin

Antuan Goodwin

Reviews Editor / Cars

Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and performance to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.

See full bio
9 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

We've seen the current iteration of the Volvo C30 R-Design before, but with the model ending production in December, it seems appropriate to take another look at what has been one of my favorite hatchbacks. Volvo must also want to give the C30 an appropriate sendoff, because it has furnished us with a Polestar limited edition -- one of only 250 examples -- that features more power than the standard C30 R-Design, an eye-catching color scheme, and all of the tech and comfort bells and whistles available on the model.

Volvo, C30, Polestar, R-Design

2013 Volvo C30 R-Design

The Good

The 2.5-liter turbocharged engine gets a horsepower and torque bump with the <b>2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design</b>'s Polestar limited-edition package. Audio quality from the premium stereo system is quite good.

The Bad

The handling of this performance variant isn't as sharp as I'd like. The navigation system and infotainment interface are complex and frustrating to use.

The Bottom Line

The 2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design is a fun and stylish little hatchback in its own right, but the performance, tech, and value of this Polestar limited edition all fall short of the competition.

Even fully loaded, the C30 is Volvo's lowest-tech car, offering almost none of the automaker's advanced driver aid technology and features. That's fine, because the little hatchback's practical design deals with most driver awareness issues the old-fashioned way: with great sight lines.

I'm a huge fan of the all-glass rear hatch, which offers fantastic rear visibility. No rearview camera option is available on the C30, but I can't imagine that a camera would be much of an improvement over this massive glass portal. On the other hand, the hatchback's opening is a bit small for loading large items given the amount of cargo room available with the second-row seats folded flat. I could lay my hipster fixie bike in the Volvo without removing its seat or front wheel, but getting the bicycle through the small opening took a lot of fiddling and finagling -- just invest in a roof rack, cyclists.

Volvo, C30, Polestar, R-Design

The C30's rear hatch offers excellent visibility, but the opening is a bit small for loading bulky items.

Josh Miller/CNET

Wraparound side windows and smallish C-pillars also give the compact C30 excellent 360-degree visibility, which is great because blind-spot monitoring is also not available. Good visibility, when combined with the short nose-to-tail length, makes the C30 hatchback remarkably easy to park, well suited for threading through heavy traffic, and perfect for tight quarters in the city. Ford's Focus Titanium, with its optional automated parking, might be even better suited for drivers uncomfortable with parallel parking, but the C30 offers better visibility without electronic aids, for drivers who keep their head on a swivel.

From an aesthetic standpoint, I love this little Polestar Volvo. Its broad-shouldered design looks muscular and sporty from almost every angle. Meanwhile, the optional R-Design aero kit -- while perhaps a bit bulbous -- gives the C30 a hunkered-down and lowered appearance without a slammed suspension. The C30 is handsome, but it's the Polestar limited edition's Rebel Blue paint and matte black wheels that turned heads and elicited thumbs-ups from other drivers on the road. If you like the idea of a "sleeper" car, you'll want to skip this special edition.

The two-tone leather seats were comfortable and power-adjustable, with three memory settings for the driver's seat. However, they aren't as well bolstered as they could be and didn't move out of the way very quickly when passengers needed to get into the rear seats.

Speaking of the rear seats, I'm not a fan of the two-bucket-seats-with-fixed-armrest setup back there, which limits the C30 to a four-seater configuration when there is space for five. I know because I managed to cram three pretty girls back there during a night on the town -- don't ask how. The ladies were, by the way, also very complimentary of the C30's exterior design and color scheme.

Engine and transmission
Our C30 is a T5 model, which means that it is powered by a turbocharged, 2.5-liter gasoline engine with an inline, five-cylinder configuration. Normally, this engine outputs 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, but we also had the limited-edition R-Design/Polestar package, which bumps output to 250 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque by way of increased turbocharger boost pressure and engine recalibrations. Speculation around the Web points to there actually being more torque on tap than Volvo is claiming, but I've got no way to confirm or deny this rumor.

Volvo C30's T5 engine

At full bore with the windows down, you can almost hear the C30's turbocharger happily whistling.

Josh Miller/CNET

That power and torque flows through a six-speed manual transmission on its way to the front wheel. The throw on the leather and aluminum shifter is precise and smooth, but also ridiculously long. If you're not careful, you will hit center-stack buttons with your knuckles. I actually had to move my seat forward a few inches from my standard driving position to reach sixth gear without stretching.

Power delivery is good, with a meaty torque curve that delivers most of its grunt in that very usable midrange of the RPM range. The car feels powerful around town and on the highway. When the road gets twisty it supplies plenty of forward thrust for scooting out of bends.

Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with a combined average of 24 mpg. I averaged about 20 mpg on a combined cycle mixed in highway cruising -- including an approximately 2,500-foot climb up and down the mountainous Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles -- and a weekend putting around LA itself on surface roads and in the area's world-famous traffic.

Comfortably warm hatch
The T5 R-Design package brings an array of suspension upgrades, including stiffer springs, a 10-millimeter-lower ride, unique shock absorbers, bushings, and antiroll bars. The Polestar special edition doesn't mess with that formula, which is unfortunate because this more powerful model could use a bit of sharpening up in the handling department. As is, the C30 is responsive, yes, but from my point of view it's too compliant. It's got decent grip, but it still understeers more than I'd like it to. For a hot hatch, I got a lot of comments from passengers about how comfortable it was.

Polestar badge in the Volvo C30

Only 250 Polestar limited-editions were built. Ours was No. 249.

Josh Miller/CNET

But I don't want a compliant ride from this car, I want fun, an edge, a proper hot hatch. This is more of a lukewarm hatch. Polestar is supposed to be to Volvo what the M badge is to BMW, what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz. I should be impressed by its quickness and nimbleness. If compromises are made, they should be in the name of performance, not comfort.

Not that the C30 T5 R-Design handles poorly. You probably won't be disappointed with the C30's handling prowess, that is, if you never bother to test-drive it against the Ford Focus ST or Mazdaspeed3. The C30 just doesn't feel as sharp as either of these vehicles; it offers less feedback, requires larger input, and exhibits more understeer than either of its hot-hatch cousins. On the other hand, it gives a considerably smoother ride, as well, with less road noise and less harshness over bumps.

As a starting point for modification or as a casual autocrossing machine, the Polestar C30 shows promise. Grippier tires with a wider contact patch than the stock 205-width all-season rubber would be a good first step in the right direction.

Volvo C30 Polestar wheel and tire

Swapping the all-season tires for stickier rubber would be a good first step toward better performance.

Josh Miller/CNET

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

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

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

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

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
Model2013 Volvo C30
TrimT5 R-Design Polestar limited edition
Power train2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy21 city, 29 highway, 24 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy20 mpg
NavigationDVD-based, 6.5-inch screen, remote controller
Bluetooth phone supportYes
Disc playerSingle-slot CD
MP3 player supportStandard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audioSiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio tuning
Audio systemOptional 10-speaker Premium Sound System
Driver aidsn/a
Base price$27,850
Price as tested$35,545
Volvo, C30, Polestar, R-Design

2013 Volvo C30 R-Design

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 5Performance tech 7Design 6


Available Engine GasBody style Hatchback