LONDON, England - Even though Volvos have become considerably more stylish in recent years, they seldom inspire enthusiasts who crave a true sporting machine. Volvos are well known for sensible and safe motoring, not the sort of driving that elicits sporadic twinkles of delight.
Not until now, that is, with the emergence of the compact C30 hatchback. Currently on sale in Europe, and expected later in 2007 at American dealerships, the C30 signals a dramatic departure for the Swedish automaker. Audaciously styled with fashion in mind, the C30 is considerably smaller than the Volvos now sold in the U.S. This hatchback also exhibits a seriously sporting character that makes it actually fun to drive. In fact, it almost brings to mind Volvo's P1800 sports cars of the 1960s.
Hatchbacks remain highly prized in Europe (including the UK), but attract far less interest in the U.S. So, the decision to export this four-passenger hatchback across the Atlantic is another bold move - though sporty small hatchbacks do tend to fare better than larger or tamer models in that body style.
British C30 buyers get a dizzying choice of powertrains: eight distinct engines, two running on petrol (gasoline) and three for diesel fuel. Topping the range, the T5 edition contains a turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder, but smaller-displacement four-cylinder engines (and the diesels) are likely to attract economy-minded purchasers. When the C30 arrives on U.S. shores, it's sure to have a more limited powertrain selection. Volvo offers a six-speed manual gearbox as well as a five-speed automatic transmission.
Volvo kindly made a British-spec C30 T5 available for a trek through the English countryside, mainly in Kent - not far to the southeast of London. Whether on skinny rural lanes (barely wide enough for a compact car) or rambling up the M20 Motorway, the automatic-equipped C30 T5 demonstrated considerable sportiness, led by sparkling handling skills and an utterly sound overall feel.
Despite an automatic transmission, the C30 T5 is a seriously ďfunĒ car to drive. This one goes exactly where pointed, as quickly as youíve requested. Steering takes a bit of effort, which adds to the sporting flavor.
Seriously snappy performance is the rule at lower speeds, as the C30 delivers quick and enthusiastic responses to the gas pedal. On rural lanes, the C30 is in its prime. At highway speeds, however - when thereís an urgent need to pass - the necessary downshift could be delayed, somewhat negating the impact of the turbocharger. Manual mode in the automatic transmission works well enough, but here too there may be a significant delay when upshifting.
A lightly energetic sound may be heard when accelerating, but itís audible only with a window down. Tire noise is more noticeable, but also little-heard with all windows raised.
Occupants can feel the suspensionís tautness at all times, but despite the T5 designation, the ride is comparatively smooth - though hardly gentle. As the pavement becomes harsh, the ride does turn lumpy, which is no great surprise.
Considerably smaller than familiar U.S.-market Volvos, the C30 actually has abundant front space except for the likelihood that the driverís knee might bump the console. Though snug inside, there's adequate space for four adults - provided that the backseat riders are on the limber side. Access to the backseat isnít so difficult, using the slide-forward front passenger seat. Instruments are Volvo-familiar and easy to read, except when the midday skies turn gloomy grey.
Seats are seriously sporty in terms of back/thigh support. Seatbacks are on the hard side, but not uncomfortable during several-hour jaunts.
Over-right-shoulder views are not helped much by the C30ís long back glass, but visibility on the passenger (left) side is considerably better. Rear headrests do impede aft views, however. Storage space beneath the hatchback is shallow and somewhat constricted, making it necessary to pack and position luggage judiciously for a longer journey.
Despite its many merits, this is not the easiest car to judge for parking or maneuvering through tight spots. Like some other Volvos, the C30 is wider than it seems and the sculpted bodyside bulges outward, making it hard to tell where the wheels are positioned at all times.
Naturally, an evaluation of the coming-soon American-spec C30's performance and ergonomics details will have to wait until later this year.