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2008 Volvo C30 T5 test drive

Volvo's sport-hatch returns after 34 years -- and it was worth the wait

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


2008 Volvo C30 right-front view

Note the C30's massive wheels and brakes, chocolate-colored sills and valance, raised nose designed to meet European pedestrian safety standards

Image © Philip Powell
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Volvo's all-new C30 is a 2-door, 4-seat sportswagon powered by a 2.5 liter, all-aluminum, DOHC turbocharged 5-cylinder engine, hooked up to a 6-speed close-ratio manual transmission. The C30 comes in two trims, Version 1.0 ($23,395) and Version 2.0 ($26,395); I tested the latter. Large 4-wheel disc brakes feature electronic brake distribution and electronic brake assistance plus ABS. Steering is electrically power-assisted. The hatchback provides access to a luggage area made larger by 50/50 flip-down rear seatbacks.

First glance: Loved it then, love it now

Larger photos: front side rear

Volvo, we've waited a long time for this. Since 1973 in fact, when you abandoned the 1800ES (link goes to photo), a 2-door sportswagon based on the P1800 coupe. Designed so well it still looks impressive, the 1800ES was perfect for a family man with two youngsters and an urge to drive. Thirty-four years later, you're back with a 2-door sportswagon that embodies the spirit of the original, wrapped in a svelte new body. I had the privilege of test-driving the the ES back then so perhaps it's appropriate that I should test the 2008 C30 for About.com Cars now.

Obviously the C30 includes superior technology and a raft of safety aids that weren't available in those years. The T5 that I drove featured a turbocharged 5-cylinder engine with a 6-speed manual transmission and front-wheel-drive. Its ancestor was motivated by a 2.2 liter 4-cylinder working through a 4-speed manual and rear-drive. And yet the driving dynamics, sporty and fun, are alike, and the interior packaging's not too dissimilar.

However I mustn't get carried away with nostalgia, for this review is about the new C30 and I'll be the first to admit that in most respects it is a much better car, detail exceptions being the styling (admittedly subjective) and visibility to the rear. There is, however, one huge difference. The 1800 ES was purebred Swedish, whereas the C30 is built around the European Ford Focus platform, the result of owner Ford's multinational approach. As we shall see, that's no bad thing.

Continued below...

In the Driver's Seat: Great interior design, but what about rear visibility?

2008 Volvo C30 side view

As a beauty shot not it's not the C30's best angle but this side view best illustrates the pudgy yet aggressive shape

Image © Philip Powell
Larger interior photo

My first act was to remove two bottles of water that Volvo kindly placed in the cupholders. Located directly behind the gear lever, they made it impossible to shift. "Talls" aren't going to work in this car, friends. Once out of the way, I had a chance to admire a slickly functional interior with details like this that reminded me of why Swedish furniture design ranks among the very best.

The instrument panel is a model of simplicity, with just two large dials facing you while you work; all else is handled by warning lights. Climate and sound system controls reside in an attractive vertical stack. My tester featured a Dynaudio 10-speaker stereo , leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter and yes, I tested my favorite station (KPLU Seattle) and drove away smiling. We jazz fans are hard to please. Air distribution is represented by a graphic shaped like a human body, a unique idea that makes one wonder why someone didn't think of it sooner.

Uhhh... that someone might have given more thought to rear visibility, for the wide rear-corner window pillars combine with a tapered tail and small rear window in such a way that driving the C30 demands careful attention to what's behind: a classic case of "form before function." Designers love that. Architects love it. Ordinary folk like you and me wonder if those guys ever sat in a driver's seat. I did and can happily say that, in spite of a few minor beefs, I was encouraged to (forgive the cliché) hit the road.

On the Road: Pining for the roads of Europe

Long-time friend Paul Enock is a former speed skater whose claim to fame is that he was first to wear a body-fitting suit that added tenths-of-a-second to lap times. Didn't win a world championship yet managed a third plus a photo in Time magazine. As a track cyclist Paul was equally successful and now in his 70's still rides every day. I mention this because Paul ordered a C30 for European delivery, which he will drive from Norway to Hamburg via the Swiss mountains before returning home. He is no doubt hanging on every word of this review, wondering whether Philip will endorse his choice.

Relax, old buddy, the C30 is one I'd choose for a European tour and be equally happy in less exotic though demanding North American traffic. The roadholding is superb, stable, with exceptional steering turn-in. You'll pay a price in firm ride and tire rumble but overall the atmosphere is one of quiet relaxation. In deference to his wife, Paul ordered a 5-speed automatic whereas my tester was a 6-speed manual. Shifts are short, clutch take-ups abrupt, and if I were to spend my life on California's Highway 1 or hairpinning to the Matterhorn it would be my choice. Back here in North America, it's auto all the way.

Five cylinders and turbo may be unusual but the payoff is in rapid acceration, albeit sacrifying fuel economy. A less powerful version (the 2.4i) is available in Canada; hopefully US marketers will soon wake up to its advantages. That would be the Volvo C30 I'd buy.

Journey's End: Aside from the back seat, it's all good

You'll note I didn't comment on the back seat roominess of this 4-seater. That's because, having entered without difficulty except for tripping over the seatbelt, I couldn't get out.

Okay folks, just kidding, but in spite of the ease with which the front seat can be slid forward, and regardless of the spacious leg and headroom offered in back, egress requires the assistance of a crane operator. As a guy who drove 2-door cars most of his life, for reasons of style or image, I hereby apologise to everyone who was forced to climb in and out of the back seat of various Morris Minors, VW Beetles, Volvos, BMW 2002s, and even my current 2003 Hyundai Accent GLI hatchback. True confessions now made, I'd probably do the same thing again if the Volvo C30 fit my budget. It's so much fun to drive, so sophisticated in its features, that one can easily forgive any shortcomings.

The hatch opening is small and trunk space is suited to a brief two-persons trip, but drop one or both of the rear fold-flat seats and this hatch becomes a long-distance hauler. Folding them, by the way, improves rear vision. Choose your passengers, be prepared to compromise, and the C30 becomes a grand tourer in the classic sense. Which brings me back to that Volvo 1800 ES estate wagon: given a choice I'd take the original. The 2008 Volvo C30, however, would be my selection if I were once again a young guy with a young family. And, um, the same pretty wife. -- Philip Powell

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