2012 Volvo C30 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 20, 2012

The 2012 Volvo C30 has top-notch safety and style; but it's not as racy as it looks and not any more practical than it looks.

As part sporty coupe, part chiseled hatchback, the 2012 Volvo C30 manages to spearhead Volvo's appeal to a more performance-minded and style-conscious crowd.

No Volvo model has reached back and modernized a portion of Volvo's design heritage quite as successfully as the C30, which in some respects found inspiration from the early 1970s Volvo 1800ES 'shooting brake' sports car. The Volvo C30 was one of the most stylish small cars on the market when it was first introduced, about five years ago, and it remains that way today—a sign that it's aging well. The C30 has a design that clearly makes some packaging sacrifices for the sake of being sleek, low, and rakish, but overall the C30 looks unabashedly proud of it. Inside, the C30 has a design that'smore sophisticated and laid-back, compared to most 'hot hatches', with the now-familiar Volvo 'floating' center stack, a thin panel housing radio and climate controls, with a pass-through compartment just ahead, by the footwell.

The C30 might be a compact hatchback, but it's tuned to feel like a slightly larger, more mature coupe, with none of the eager, sometimes twitchy feel you'll fine in some alternatives like the MazdaSpeed3 or even Mini Cooper S.  Power comes in a remarkably linear fashion from the proven 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, here turbocharged and producing a healthy 227 horsepower. Its peak torque of 236 pound-feet of torque is reached at just 1,800 rpm, so it does very well with the automatic; the standard six-speed manual is also pleasant but a bit notchy.

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The price of the C30's rather low roofline and rakish look is that there's a shortage of headroom; tall drivers might find themselves surprisingly short on space, as the sunroof makes it scarce. There are two rear seats—separately contoured positions—though they're snug and scaled-down and best kept for children. And the rather narrow cargo area and high floor limit luggage space, though the seats fold and the glass hatch is convenient.

Safety is a point not forgotten in the C30, even though it hints at performance—and delivers it to a degree. The 2012 C30 is an IIHS Top Safety Pick, with top 'good' ratings in all of the organization's tests, and a rear obstacle detection system, blind-spot alert system (Volvo's BLIS), and lane-departure warning system are all available. Other options include a moonroof, leather upholstery, a climate package, and a preferred package with rain-sensor wipers and headlight washers.The highlight of the lineup, at least visually, remains the style-centric R-Design model, which includes different front and rear aerodynamic work; a sport suspension; Pirelli performance tires; special 'Midir' wheel design; xenon HID headlamps with Active Bending Light; and a hard-drive-based nav system with live traffic.

For 2012, Volvo has added Bluetooth audio streaming to the sound system, added a rear armrest to all models, and revamped the option packages on both standard C30 and C30 R-Design models.

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2012 Volvo C30

Styling

The racy shape of the 2012 Volvo C30 makes it stand out from pretty much any other compact car--resembling a sporty coupe more than the three-door hatchback it actually is.

The shape of the 2012 Volvo C30 has worn well, despite being around for several years now. It's recognizably a Volvo in the front, with a strong visual resemblance to the S40 compact sedan and the newer S60 mid-size sedan. And it's stayed up to date with a mild frontal restyle last year, giving it new headlamps, reshaped front fenders and hood, and a revised front fascia.

But the C30 has entirely unique sheetmetal, and it's the sole three-door hatchback in the Volvo range. From the windshield pillars back, it's not quite like any other model. Not unless, that is, you harken back to the 1800ES two-door sport wagon of the early 1970s.

The C30's all-glass rear hatch echoes its ancestor's raked glass hatch, complete with a shoulder line over the rear wheels, giving it a rakish silhouette that's distinctive and appealing. Wheel wells are outlined in contrasting trim, and the alloy wheels are large for the segment--and flashy too--giving the C30 the look of a fastback coupe rather than a more upright three-door hatchback.

Inside, the interior too is a unique design, with Volvo's now-familiar "floating" center stack holding the sound system controls as well as those for the climate system, and a slightly awkward storage space behind it on top of the tunnel. Aluminum trim inlays with a honeycomb pattern updated the interior trim last year, keeping it modern and sophisticated.

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2012 Volvo C30

Performance

The 2012 Volvo C30 offers solid handling and smooth power, but it's far from the hair-trigger, twitchy feeling of a traditional hot hatch.

Though three-door compact hatchbacks often qualify in the "hot hatch" segment, the 2012 Volvo C30 is somewhat different. Despite its stylish interior, the road feel and handling are tuned to feel like a larger coupe that's neither twitchy nor begging to be flung through corners. The turbocharged 227-horsepower five-cylinder engine provides a steady flow of linear power, with its peak torque of 236 pound-feet achieved at a remarkably low 1,800 rpm. That makes it tractable and well-suited to the optional automatic transmission, which gets marginally better fuel economy on the highway cycle. The six-speed manual transmission is fine, but some drivers may find it somewhat notchy.

Traction control can be an issue in sending more than 200 hp to the front wheels of a small compact, and the C30 occasionally scrambles side to side under hard acceleration at low speeds on bumpy or uneven pavement. But its wheels are pushed out toward the ends of the car, meaning the wheelbase is long enough to give the car stability and relaxed cruising at highway speeds. The steering ratio is longer than most hot hatches, meaning you'll spend more time turning the wheel, but the benefit is a total lack of twitchiness at any speed.

The C30 is among the less nimble compact hatches, even when fitted with the sport suspension and performance tires of the R-Design package. But it feels hefty, and the five-cylinder engine makes it nose-heavy. That plus the low-geared steering detract from any desire to throw the C30 into corners. All that said, the car delivers when pushed into action--it just doesn't encourage doing so the way other sporty hatchbacks do.

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2012 Volvo C30

Comfort & Quality

The impressive and stylish interior of the 2012 Volvo C30 is surprisingly tight for adults, with precious little rear-seat or cargo space, and the suspension and noise suppression isn't very refined.

Though the C30 has been with us for several years now, its interior design is still a knockout. The thin center stack panel "floats" between the dashboard and the console on the tunnel, leaving an open space behind it for storage. It's not the easiest space to reach, but the effect is still striking. The front seats are stitched in an attractive two-tone pattern, with thread colored to contrast, and soft-touch materials cover most of the points where occupants will touch the interior of the C30.

But the 2012 Volvo C30 is still a small three-door compact, and space inside is sparse. Tall drivers will want to avoid the sunroof, which cuts further into headroom that's hardly abundant to start with. The two bucket seats in the rear aren't quite sized for full-scale human adults, and those who manage to clamber back into them won't be happy. Cargo space is disappointing too. The glass rear hatch is a great style piece, but the opening is narrow and the cargo floor is high. That means that you are forced to trade off rearward visibility for storage space--a safety anomaly, especially for the Volvo brand.

The ride comfort is no more than adequate. The suspension is firm, and it doesn't absorb sudden jolts particularly well. The car can get boomy over roads with coarse surfaces, which indicates to us that the C30 has fallen behind in noise suppression and insulation compared to Volvo's other, newer and more luxurious models.

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2012 Volvo C30

Safety

The 2012 Volvo C30 is an IIHS Top Safety Pick and provides several safety features you won't find in other compact hatchbacks at any price.

Befitting Volvo's decades-long reputation as a safety pioneer, the 2012 Volvo C30 includes all the usual safety equipment, earns good ratings where it's been crash-tested, and includes a few features that are far from common on small hatchbacks.

The list of expected safety features includes electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags, and side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors. There's also the Intelligent Driver Information System (IDIS), which monitors the car's maneuvers and may choose to delay certain functions to prevent driver distraction--an incoming phone call, for instance. Optional equipment that's unusual among compact hatchbacks includes both a lane-departure warning system and a rear-obstacle detection system.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't rated the 2012 C30 under the new, more stringent crash testing system it introduced last year. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, however, gives the C30 its highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset, side-impact, and rear crashes, as well as roof strength--making it an IIHS Top Safety Pick.

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2012 Volvo C30

Features

The standard equipment on the 2012 Volvo C30 exceeds that of any other premium hatchback at its price, and a variety of options can take it even higher up the luxury list.

Volvo's not known for compact cars, and it's increasingly viewed as a near-luxury brand. The 2012 Volvo C30 plays right into this positioning by including an impressive set of standard features. Choosing among several options packages will let buyers turn it into a very small luxury car, or give it an upscale, sophisticated appearance with the R-Design trim.

A base C30 T5 comes well-equipped at about $25,000 (before delivery), but a liberal hand on the options list can easily add $10,000 to that sum--so shop carefully. It includes as standard not only cruise control and a trip computer but also Bluetooth hands-free compatibility, along with more standard features like air conditioning, power windows and locks, and an adjustable steering wheel that both tilts and telescopes.

The sound system on the base model is far from skimpy, including both 160 Watts of output and standard HD Radio compatibility. On the high end, a premium Dynaudio system is simply the best one you will find in any compact hatchback.

The R-Design model is clearly the pinnacle of the C30 lineup. Its aero package at the front and rear promises a different, more performance-oriented car, which is delivered by the Pirelli high-performance tires on unique alloy wheels, a retuned sport suspension, xenon High-Intensity Discharge headlamps, and a standard navigation system that includes live real-time traffic data.

Satellite radio, on all trim levels, is a separate option, as are leather upholstery, a moonroof (to be avoided by tall drivers!), a preferred options bundle that includes rain-sensing windshield wipers and washers for the headlamps. 

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2012 Volvo C30

Fuel Economy

The downside to the safety and features provided in the 2012 Volvo C30 may be unimpressive gas-mileage ratings from the EPA.

As a compact three-door hatchback, you'd expect the 2012 Volvo C30 to be fairly green. But its fuel efficiency is disappointing, with EPA gas-mileage ratings of just 21 mpg city and 29 (manual) or 30 (automatic) mpg highway. Those figures are closer to what you'd get in a mid-size four-door sedan, and rank on the low end of the compact scale in a year when more than one compact sedan achieves 40 mpg on the highway.

The EPA's ratings are realistic, according to our test drives; we saw a real-world 23 mpg during a particularly cold winter road test. And you may not be comparing to economy-oriented compacts, either, but to sportier hatchbacks like the Mazda3 or the Volkswagen GTI. If that's the case, the C30 looks somewhat better--but still nowhere near the top of the fuel efficiency list. And with Mazda having launched its new, more economical SkyActiv Mazda3 this year, the competition is getting steadily tougher for the littlest Volvo.

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