Volvo translates from the Swedish (roughly) as I roll. Not rock and roll. The company is known for building conservative, sensible shoes cars – not saucy cars.
So what to make of the C30 Polestar?
It’s a factory made (well, dealer-tuned) higher-performance version of Volvo’s sporty C30 hatchback – packing 250 hp vs. the regular C30’s 227. It’s not a rabid wolverine like an M-tuned BMW or an AMG Mercedes. But it also doesn’t cost $60k, as those cars do. And therein lies the charm. This Volvo has the upmarket cachet of a premium brand – giving it a leg up, status-wise, over similar-performing hot hatches like the MazdaSpeed3 – and enough performance to outclass the only ballpark-priced competitor it has that’s comparably euro-lux: VW’s GTI and Golf R.
WHAT IT IS
The C30 is a compact hatchback sport coupe, available in T5 ($24,950) and R-Design ($27,450) trims.
Polestar equipped C30s have had their computers reprogrammed to increase the amount of turbo boost fed to the five-cylinder engine, along with more aggressive throttle response.
The package adds $1,295 to the bottom line .
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The Polestar enhancements, along with Bluetooth streaming and new-design LED headlights, constitute the major changes for the 2012 model year.
The C30 is a deal. It’s the only premium-brand sport coupe you can buy for under $25k – and a top-of-the-line R Design with the Polestar upgrades can be had for under $30k – about $4k less than a VW Golf R.
Polestar = sleeper. No one expects a Volvo to be quick. Have fun messing with BMWs and Audis.
No MPG penalty for Polestar performance upgrade.
C30’s expansive greenhouse glass provides superb all-around visibility.
Your back will love the seats.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Clutch take-up can be a bit abrupt.
No turbo boost gauge – and very little turbo whistle.
Pop-up nav system – you’re better off with an aftermarket Garmin.
Back seats area is spacious but awkward to access.
All C30s are powered by a 2.5 liter, in-line five cylinder engine. But Polestar-modded versions up the ante to 250 hp from the standard car’s 227. This is enough extra juice to get the C30 to 60 in about six seconds – much quicker than the only other car that’s roughly similar in terms of price, general layout and Euro-lux brand cachet – the VW GTI.
The overweight VW (3,034 lbs. and just 200 hp vs. the C30’s 3,200 lbs. and 250 hp) needs 7.3 seconds to get to 60 – not even in the same ballpark. In fact, it’s in the economy compact ballpark. The higher-performance Golf R measures up to the C30 Polestar on power with its 256 hp turbo’d 2.0 liter engine. But it’s still a fatty (at 3,300 lbs., even fattier than the Golf GTI) and still not as quick (6.2 seconds to 60) and its starting MSRP of $33,900 is at least $4,000 higher than a Polestar-tuned C30 R-Design.
It’d be reasonable to expect the Polestar-modded C30 to drink more gas than the regular C30, but it doesn’t. The more potent Polestar-tuned engine returns the same 21 city/29 highway as the run-of-the-mill C30. A Lexus CT200 hatch will beat this by more than 10 MPG – but the hybrid hatch Lexus also needs more than 10 seconds to lug itself to 60 MPH.
Another nice surprise, C30-wise, is the standard six-speed manual transmission – a rare thing for a Volvo.
You can also order a six-speed automatic if you prefer – but the fact that a clutch is available at all is pretty cool.
ON THE ROAD
Swedes are quiet, orderly people, generally – but that Viking berserker DNA is still there. The C30 is very Swedish in this respect. It does not look particularly aggressive; it does not even have a boost gauge to monitor the doings of the turbocharger under its hood – let alone a gnarly vacuum cleaner hood scoop like an overtly obstreperous MazdaSpeed3. Nor does the turbo boost come on like a sudden thunderstorm, ripping tread off the front tires as they try to maintain their grip on the pavement – as in the 263 hp Speed3.
Yet, it’s quicker than the Speed3 and walks away from the also-peakier GTI and Golf R.
Part of the why is weight – as mentioned earlier. The VWs – and the Mazda – are all heavier than the Volvo. (The Speed3, like the Golf R, weighs nearly 3,300 lbs. or about 100 pounds more than the C30).
But another element is how the power is produced. No, make that when. The C30’s five-cylinder turbo engine makes peak torque at just 1,500 RPM. In contrast, the Speed3’s similarly powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine doesn’t produce its peak torque until 3,000 RPM. The Golf R’s torque peak is lower – 2,400 RPM- but still way up there relative to the Volvo’s.
What this means on the street is more immediate acceleration – with much less drama. It is not necessary to rev the engine much to get a reaction – very much unlike the Speed3 (and the VW, though to a lesser extent). You can stay in fifth and still pull an efficient pass at 50-60 MPH. No need to grab fourth in order to up the revs – and get some action from the boiler room. And coming off the line – even coming off the line WOT – there’s no herky-jerky torque steer caused by sudden power spikes. The car just… goes.
This is both a pro and con, though – depending on your outlook.
The Speed3 is a firecracker – even if it’s not the speediest thing going – because it feels speedy. The blitzkreig surge of high-pressure boost hits you in the face – or rather, in the small of the back – as the car literally lunges forward, tires squealing – and jerking, left-right, as they try to cope with the sudden onrush of turbo-boosted hp.
The C30 is much calmer in its application of acceleration. It does not feel – or even sound – like a turbo engine. It feels – and sounds – like a naturally aspirated, larger-displacement engine. You’d swear there’s a V-6 around three liters under the hood – not a tiny five of just 2.5 liters, huffing force-fed atmosphere and fuel. This was in fact Volvo’s specific objective – the seamless feel of a powerful V-6, when the power of a big V-6 is wanted – with the fuel economy of a four when the power of a big V-6 is not needed. It is thus a very composed and comfortable engine to partner up with. If you want sturm und drang, this one’s not for you, though. In fact, the only thing remotely touchy about the C30 Polestar is the clutch take-up, which is minimal and so the engagement’s sometimes a little abrupt – or at least, was minimal and sometimes abrupt in my press test car. That might be the result of previous hard-driving by the gaggle of auto journalists who got the car before me.
You’re going to have to try that for yourself and see.
The handling is a little soft for a “tuner” car – much softer than the Speed3 and Golf R, which have near zero give but as a result simply do not lean when you put them through a corner at Ludicrous Speed. But, again, this is a matter of one’s perspective. The C30’s ride is lux-plush. Even the tested R-Design model with the Polestar stuff. It has firmer (by about 30 percent) suspension settings than the regular T5 and also rides on more aggressive 18 inch (vs. 17 inch in the T5) wheels. However, these eighteens are nowhere near as severe – as single-minded – as the now-current 19 and 20 inch wheel and tire packages that are to be found as elements of many high-performance “sport” packages. They – and the C30’s overall road manners – are aggressive enough to be fun. But not so aggressive that you get sick of the car after 30 minutes.
Especially if you’re over 30.
Four years out of the gate and the C30 still looks very current on the outside. Though technically a hatchback, the C30 is more kin to what they call in Europe a shooting brake – meaning, a fastback-ish sportwagon.
In the typical hatch, there’s not much happening behind the doors. The rear quarters are usually stubby, with most of the car forward of the B pillars. In the C, there’s still plenty of car left after the doors – this portion of the car forming a tunnel-shape that’s best seen from above. It tapers back for a good bit, ending at the notched-down rear gate/glass. Stylistically, it is a very interesting look that’s all the more interesting because of the subtlety of the look. You need to view the car from different angles to appreciate the different drummer-ness of the forms. Volvo did not just reach into the grab bag of performance car cliches and fit pontoon fenders, wings and air foils to the thing.
I like it.
And you will probably like the excellent all-around visibility. This is another unusual in a performance-minded car. Just last week I had a Mini Cooper Coupe and the thing was borderline dangerous due to the Stevie Wonder blindspots to either side created by the tag team of a chopped roof and keyhole-sized rear quarter glass. You took your life in your hands every time you pulled into a busy intersection. Though I am as far from being a Safety Nazi as President Obama is from being a Libertarian, being able to see where you’re going – and what’s going on around you – is a good thing. And the C30 is very good at that.
Inside, it’s Volvo typical: Tasteful – and restrained. Nothing flashy. Just classy. Detail touches include a floating center stack that’s no thicker than an iPhone – and behind which there’s a handy (and out of sight) storage cubby. R-Design C30s get cobalt-blue gauge faces, brushed metal trim and handsome leather-stitched seats, which by the way are outstandingly supportive and comfortable at the same time. Everyone else may have caught up to Volvo on the safety front – but when it comes to seats, few if any can touch The Swede.
Final point: The C30 is much more practical than a car like the Speed3 or the VW Golf. It has usable back seats, for one – although it can be a bit gymnastic to get into (and out of) the back seats. This is a functional compromise of the two-door, two-plus-two layout. But Volvo makes the best of a not-ideal situation by adding a button on top of the front seats to electra-slide them forward. This is much easier on backseat occupants trying to escape than grubbing around for a low-floor mounted slide switch.
And, the backseat space does not come at the expense of cargo space behind the back seats – which is about 13 cubic feet, or (for some perspective) about 2 cubes more trunk space than you’d get in a BMW 3 coupe. The VW Golf and Speed3 Mazda have slightly more trunk/cargo capacity – but the back seats in these cars are much more cramped, rendering them effectively two-seaters. The C30 will honestly take four adult passengers.
Others have noted – and I will, too – that the Volvo’s technology suit – in particular, its optional GPS system – is out of date. Also clunky to use. It rises from the dash – via remote control – and involves too many fussy inputs to operate without first reading the manual and later, having memorized all that, too much of your attention while the vehicle is moving. I recommend skipping it – and if you want GPS, buy an aftermarket Garmin or similar unit instead. These cost only $500 or so – much less than the typical factory GPS – and unlike factory GPS, can be used in multiple cars, carried with you when you’re not in your car – and can be kept with you if you sell your car.
A six-speed, turbocharged Volvo that will smoke a GTI, match moves with a Speed3 – and costs $4k less than a Golf R?
That’s not a bad sales pitch, is it?
Throw it in the Woods?
I have always liked the look of this little car. Based on Eric’s review, I took a 2010 R-spec auto for a test drive yesterday.
– Beautiful interior.
– Climate control
– Analog controls (knobs) for most things
– Comfortable seats
– Great seat belts
– Some poke when you want it
– Very compliant ride
– Excellent steering
– Fairly quiet ride
– Doors are heavy and long. (Typical two-door car problem.)
– Horrible blind spots (but has warning light when car present in blind spot which actually works)
– Tiny interior rearview mirror
– Auto does not kick down soon emough
– Brakes are only okay
– Not enough poke (get Polestar option)
Great little car. Get a brake upgrade from Brembo or StopTech and the Polestar performance booster. I would buy the manual over the automatic.
Did you have the sunroof, Eric? How did it affect headroom?
Yes – and no issues at all. This is generally the case with all European cars. With the Japanese cars, I often have issues with headroom, even without the sunroof. I suspect the reason why is obvious: Swedes and Germans are (generally) talller than Japanese – including engineers. They build their cars assuming certain parameters. I’ve noticed this with bikes, too. I can’t deal with most Japanese sport bikes for more than about 30 minutes at a time; the ergos are just not made for 6 ft 3 riders. But on a BMW? No problem!
Hm, I thought you mostly rode Japanese bikes. No?
Yeah – but not hypersports! (R1s, ZX10s, GSXRs, CBRs, etc.) I’ll ride these bikes on the track at press events, but won’t buy one. I have a “super standard” ZRX1200 – which has more comfortable ergos for a bigger guy like me. It’s also still more than quick enough to get me into (and then out of) serious trouble!
Other bikes currently in the garage:
’76 Kz900 (modded with big bore kit and pods).
’75 S1 triple (stock/restored)
’83 GL650 Silverwing (stock).
What are “pods?”
Individual air filters – one for each carb! Four o’ demz on the Kz900!
Ah, I see. I remember back on my first street bike (an FZR) I put straight up open cones on each carb. That was neat and the bark was crisp.
If one wants Japanese reliability in a comfy road bike, the Kawasaki ZZR600 has great ergonomics even if you’re tall, or have a potbelly, and so on. I went bike window shopping with some friends this past weekend and all of us were comfortable on it, despite various body types.
It’s based off an sport bike, but the insurance rates on it are much less, not sure why, and it’s been made for a decade or more so parts should be easy to find for a long time to come.
I had tons of headroom in the MINI, but the Fiat 500 I sat in the other week was far too cramped – I had to scrunch down to clear the sunroof.
I asked the Fiat rep that was standing there if the car could be ordered without it (aka build-to-order) and he said theoretically yes, but every one he’s seen has come with one. So a mandatory option. :-/
There should be a law that limits the total number of Mikes who can post here. If Clover shows up his head might explode from all the confusion LOL.
Very nice review Mike. I own a C30 T5 (non R-Spec) and love it. Besides the many virtues that you mentioned, one I and other owners have noted is the smoothness of the clutch take-up. I have to tend to think that you may have drove one that as you suggest, may have had a few too many ham-fisted (ham-legged?) press drivers…..
And the sound of the 5 cylinder in full wail as you go by 4K is real music …….
We’re hearing rumors that model year ’13 may be its last one – would encourage folks to test drive one before its too late…..
Again, nice comprehensive review.
I appreciate the feedback – especially about the clutch feel. I expect you’re right. The cars I get lead a hard life… then get sold as “dealer demos” to some poor Rube…..
Eric, have you ever written about how you got into the car-review biz? How did you turn your passion for wheels into a respectable day job? Inquiring minds gotta know. Post a link if you have one.
I too like it… a lot.
Just two negatives you didn’t mention.
The first negative is only “potential” at this time. Volvo is owned by a Chinese company called Geeley, right? Hard to predict how this will influence dealer service and manufacturing quality. It would be hard to do a worse job than Ford did. But they may not be much better, either.
Second, that five cylinder engine makes a unique, slightly flatulent, droning sound. Perhaps it’s worth it for the virtues it offers. I was able to tolerate it in my 850 Turbo. But its not pleasant. Just something potential buyers should listen for, and decide for themselves.
Geeley seems to have adopted a (so far) mostly hands-off policy. As you say, it could hardly be worse than being in the clutches of PAG!
Me and my wife test drove a C30 at the dealership last week. Very nice car, but to be honest my mind was still on the red S60 in the showroom and the beautiful blue C70.
Volvo has done a nice job on their lineup.
I test drove the regular and R version last summer when I needed a new commuter car to go from Stafford to Sterling. I liked it a lot, except the clutch was a little on the twitchy side as you mentioned. I ended up buying a Golf TDI for a lot less money. There is (or was) a pretty big gap between the MSRP and what the dealers are actually charging for these cars.
I guess the clutch issue I experienced is not the result of press car abuse!
I agree on the dealer over-charge. That’s a common problem with prestige-branded cars. However, I suspect one might have a bit more wiggle room on the C30 given the current model is pushing five years old now and a major redesign is surely not far off.
Great review, Eric. The C30 is the only Volvo I could ever see myself in. Other than the strange configuration of the hatch window that may interfere with loading gear, I’ve always thought it had the near-perfect combo of form and function form its size class. Alas, I could never afford to maintain one so there’s no point to indulging my fantasies of ownership, but I appreciate your review in any case.
The hatch opening is actually pretty large; you can cart a fair amount of stuff in this thing. I took it to Wally World one day to stock up on bulk supplies and took home, well, a bunch of bulk! I should have taken some pictures….
Eric, I’m not thinking so much about the total cargo space but the rear ‘lip’ that you have to hoist things over in order to load up. On nearly all SUVs there is no lip so the user just can slide things in and out or the cargo area. Unless I’m mistaken, there is no such option with the C30. I’m I making sense?
Oh, I know what you mean!
It’s not an issue with this car – or at least, wasn’t for me. The lip is minimal; unless you are trying to slide some really heavy item in, it’s not an obstruction. I should have taken some pics to show you what I mean….
i have liked this car since i first saw them at the local volvo dealership. i figured they were at least reaosnably quick because i rode in a friends coupe (think it was a c70) a few times and it wasn’t bad.
this polestar is nice but this is the version i want