Welcome to my review of the 2012 Volvo C30 R-Design with the Polestar Performance Package. Yep, you read that right: Polestar, as in Polestar Racing, the company Volvo has charged with souping up their engines. Now, I know what you're thinking -- or at least what my male readers are thinking -- about the name Polestar. Yes, there is a very obvious joke, and no, I am not going to go there. Accuse me of dancing around the issue if you like, but I'm going to focus on my job, which is to strip the C30 down to its bare essentials.
Largely unchanged, and that's good
I've always liked the C30; when it first debuted, it earned a spot on my fledgling Best New Cars of 2008 list, both for its driving dynamics and its style. Outside, the C30 sports those timeless Volvo details that never seem to age; inside (link goes to photo), it's the same Swedish Modern look that gives Ikea furniture its eternal simplistic appeal, although cool details like the two-tone front seats and the "floating" center stack with its asymmetrical circular-groove carving keep the C30 from looking like Every Other European Car. Only the old-school LCD stereo display and the navigation system -- which has a pop-up screen and a thoroughly ridiculous hand-held remote -- belie the C30's age.
Unlike most of its competitors, the C30 is only available as a two-door. Getting into the back seat requires the flexibility of a, um, gymnast (come on, you didn't think I'd rise to the bait, did you?), but once there, it's fairly spacious and comfortable -- good thing, as you won't relish the thought of squeezing yourself back out. While we're discussing practical matters, I'll mention that trunk is a useful 12.9 cubic feet, although the narrow hatch opening and cheesy soft-fabric cargo cover leave a bit to be desired. But I like the big glass area -- over-the-shoulder visibility is far better than most coupes. Like other Volvos, the C30 has fantastic crash test scores; unlike other Volvos, it doesn't get the pedestrian-avoidance or collision-warning system. The latter is so annoying and intrusive that everyone I've ever asked says they disable it, so I suppose the C30's lack is also its gain.
I drove the C30 R-Design model, which gets a few jazzed-up styling details to go with its sport-tuned suspension and quick-ratio steering. I'm not a big fan of Volvo suspension setups -- they always seem to make the ride too hard or too soft -- but the C30 is about as close to "just right" as Volvo has yet managed; the C30 R-Design feels properly sporty, and yet always errs on the side of ride comfort.
Dancing with the Polestar
New for 2012 is the aforementioned Polestar Performance Package, a software upgrade that cranks the turbocharged 5-cylinder engine up to 250 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, a hefty increase over the stock 227 hp and 236 lb-ft (and with no decrease in EPA fuel-economy estimates; impressive!). Tied to a six-speed manual transmission -- you can get a 5-speed automatic if you like -- the Polestar-enhanced engine delivers impressive power (albeit with a bit of turbo lag) and a very cool soundtrack, a forlorn wailing noise unique to haunted mansions and five-cylinder engines.
Unfortunately, the Polestar-equipped C30 suffers from a wicked case of torque steer. Accelerate hard in first gear, and as soon as the tach hits 4,000 RPM the steering wheel jerks to the right. Lift off to shift gears, and you'll find yourself veering to the left as the pull against which you are fighting suddenly disappears. I drove the C30 in Arizona, far away from the Top Secret Curvy Test Road, but I can't imaging tackling those tricky curves while fighting the steering. For that reason -- well, that and the hefty $1,295 price tag -- I'd skip the Polestar upgrade, as the base C30 is quick enough.
Bring cash... lots of cash
And that brings us to the sordid matter of coin, an arena where the C30 is fighting a losing battle. Pricing starts at $25,465, while the sporty R-Design model begins at $28,325. That's bad enough, but then you get to the pricey options, starting with the Premier Plus package (sunroof, power seats, and LED running lights, $2,000) and Platinum package (all of the above plus navigation, premium stereo, and that cheesy cargo cover, $4,000). Volvo even charges $550 extra for metallic paint. My Polestar-equipped tester was no stripper -- there, I said it, are you happy? -- but I thought it was overpriced at $35,370, and Volvo has priced the fully-loaded C30 at nearly $38,000. Funny, I didn't realize drug use was legal in Sweden.
It's a shame, because the C30 is a lovely car. It's attractively styled, good fun to drive, and refreshingly unique. But when you consider that all of its best rivals -- the better-behaved Volkswagen GTI (and Jetta GLI), the racier MINI Cooper S Coupe, the rear-drive Hyundai Genesis Coupe, and the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX -- can be had for less money, it's difficult to make a case for the Volvo C30... even if it is a Polestar. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the 2012 Volvo C30 R-Design:
- Attractive design inside and out
- Lots of power
- Good fun to drive
What I didn't like:
- Massive torque steer
- Awkward navigation system
2012 Volvo C30 details and specs
- R-Design is the sporty version of the C30 coupe, now with available Polestar engine tuning
- Price range: $25,645 - $37,865
- Powertrain: 2.5 liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder/227 hp or 250 hp, 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 21 MPG city/29 MPG highway (manual), 21/30 (automatic)
- Best rivals: Volkswagen GTI/Jetta GLI, MINI Cooper S Coupe, Hyundai Genesis Coupe