Entry-level halo

2008, Volvo, C30

There's a cartoon-like quality to the compact car scene lately. Minis are saucy; Scions are quirky; Hondas are punky you get the idea. So imagine this scene if you will: Into a crowd of Minis, Audi A3s, Volkswagen GTIs and so forth, a Volvo rolls up. What will the Toon-Car crowd say? That Volvos are...tweedy? Fusty? Yucky? You're probably not looking closely enough. This is the new Volvo C30, and it might as well be wearing an earring and a little rosette tattoo "just above the coccyx," as it were. So what do you call a car like that? "Sweet!" would seem to be the compliment du jour.

This unprecedented new C30 is the hatchback that has the potential to destroy every dull-spirited stereotype Volvo has had to endure for decades. It's a commonplace, isn't it, for every unenthusiastic commentary about any Volvo model to end with the reprise: "But at least it's a really safe car." Well, here's a kicky, sporty, Volvo three-door coupe that may put an end to such grousing forever.

In its own weird, cartoony way, it looks like a cross between a cute little pug dog (from the side) and a surfboard (from above). Let Pixar figure out the computer rendering for all that. What matters is that the C30 is Volvo's first real attempt to give the motoring public a smirky nod and a wink. And it's even "a really safe car."

In more ways than one, the 2008 Volvo C30 represents the wave of the future. Like the A3 and the Mini before it, the C30 is letting the world know that "small" is no longer a synonym, in automotive parlance at least, for "impoverished." Small can also be clever, witty and wise. Small is efficient. Small is "resource" friendly. Small is green. In other words, this car simply could not have appeared in North America at a more auspicious time.

When Volvo debuted the C30 before the automotive media in San Diego in July, a couple of grizzled scribes could be heard prophesizing: "A three-door will never make it in this country. Remember the Mercedes C230 hatchback? It flopped. Remember the BMW ti? It flopped." Ah, but the convenient truth is that times have changed. What might once have been considered penance is now considered grace downsizing is on its way up.

But let's not get too carried away. True, the C30 is small. Easy-to-park small, in fact. And it only seats four; the two rear bucket seats mean that the only space left over is across rear passengers' laps. But this Volvo is hardly tiny, by any stretch of the imagination.

Its 104-inch wheelbase is rather lanky, in fact to the great benefit of ride quality. Volvo designers have cleverly tucked the C30's wheels into the farthest extremes of the bodywork, giving the car an athletic, coiled-spring appearance in the process.

Inside, headroom is ample, and adult-length legs will extend comfortably up front, and feel only slightly "squoze" at rear. Anyone who's experienced the Volvo S40 sedan or V50 wagon will recognize most of the instrumentation and controls; and Volvo's elegant "waterfall" center console remains home for audio and climate electronics.

With all seats deployed, there are 13 cubic feet for rear storage, and this grows to 20 cubic feet with the split rear seatbacks folded. Hardly a massive payload, indeed. But keep in mind there's a naff Volvo-designed roof rack available that fits into camouflaged mounting ports and vests the C30 with even more street-punk attitude.

For North America, Volvo equips the C30 with a single engine choice, a 2.5-liter, twin-cam inline-five boasting both turbocharging and variable valve timing. At risk of opening Pandora's Box, it should be mentioned that this "T5" motor is but one of eight engines otherwise available worldwide in the C30 three of which are diesels.

Sadly, we Yanks haven't shown ourselves discerning or trustworthy enough to be trusted with such a luxuriant panoply of fuel-efficient engine alternatives. So we have to settle for the "flagship" motor that makes 227 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque. Moreover, one mark of the T5's sophisticated engineering is its broad threshold for maximum torque: 1,500-5,000 rpm. This translates into progressive, smooth acceleration without the jerkiness that characterizes other, higher-stressed turbos.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard with the C30, and a five-speed auto, with Geartronic autoshifting, is optional. The car's a front-driver, of course; but it still gobbles up twisty mountain roads with enthusiasm. Suspension tuning is on the firm side, and road noise can be a bit loud. But handling is surprisingly neutral for a front-wheel-drive car, thanks to the electronic vigilance of the C30's Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DTSC) system, which comes standard. Purists, of course, can sniff all they want at such electronic countermeasures; but the C30 is a commuter that feels racy, not a racer reduced to commuting.

For the U.S., there are basically two C30 models available: Version 1.0 ($23,445) and Version 2.0 ($26,445). The principal differences are the 17-inch wheels and 160-watt audio system in v1.0; and the 18-inch wheels, adjustable Dynamic Chassis suspension system, sporty bodywork and Sirius-compatible, 650-watt Dynaudio system for v2.0. But wait, there more: numerous stand-alone options like the automatic transmission, sunroof, DVD navigation and leather seating are available.

Then, there are so-called Custom Build options (like Xenon headlamps, fog lamps, parking assist and a blind-spot warning system) that trigger a $300 one-time surcharge to order. In other words, a Volvo C30 can inflate from quite affordable to omigod expensive in the blink of a turn signal.

But the point is, it doesn't have to. Making the most of Volvo's surprisingly spunky C30 compact means getting in touch with your inner downsizer. This is Volvo's new "statement" car; and the halo it's creating for itself is meant to be shared.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Volvo C30

2008 Volvo C30 front shot
2008 Volvo C30 front shot
2008 Volvo C30 interior view
2008 Volvo C30 interior view
2008 Volvo C30 center console
2008 Volvo C30 center console
2008 Volvo C30 rear view
2008 Volvo C30 rear view