When thinking about hot hatchbacks, Volvo may not be the first company to come to mind, but the latest R-Design version of the 2012 Volvo C30 gives the Swedish automaker a significant foothold, in competition with the likes of the Volkswagen GTI and the Mazdaspeed 3.
At the C30's introduction in 2006, it came out as a retro-look vehicle, evoking the historic Volvo 1800ES. The car remains largely the same, a two-door hatchback with a stylish design and premium interior. Smaller engines are available in Europe, but the U.S. has only ever gotten the turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder, the largest engine in the lineup.
Already decently powerful for a hatchback, Volvo offers a power boost through Polestar, its tuning partner. The Polestar option brings the horsepower of the C30 R-Design up from 227 hp to 250 hp, and brings the torque up to 273 foot-pounds from 238. That boost and the suspension tuning included in the R-Design trim make for a surprisingly fast and nimble hatchback.
CNET's car showed in Ice White, a color that would have looked better offset by black trim rather than the matte silver of the wheels and grille. Thankfully the car was left with the standard transmission, a six-speed manual, rather than the available five-speed automatic.
Volvo's manual transmission fits the traditional European mold, giving precise yet comfortable shifts. The pistol-grip shifter offers a little play without feeling sloppy, slipping neatly into each slot in the gate. The ratios proved perfect for tackling mountain roads, with third gear offering a wide power band and second always handy for when the turns got really tight.
This C30 R-Design handled these tight turns so well that, when I got a chance to look down at the speedometer, I was surprised to see how much of the dial the needle had traversed. And there was clearly room to push the car even faster. It set up very easily for each turn, the steering wheel delivering tight response without feeling twitchy. Through longer, fast turns some small amount of understeer began to show. In the hairpins a little extra throttle made the front tires scramble for grip, pulling the car through the turn. And flashing traction control lights seemed to help, rather than hinder, the performance.
The Polestar power upgrade did not cause excess turbo lag. The acceleration mostly felt measured and even, with a slight bump at over 3,000rpm. The sport tuning for the R-Design trim maintains good everyday driving for the C30. The suspension struck a good balance between rigidity and comfort, letting the C30 handle rough city streets much better than a typical economy car.
Despite the lack of any hill hold feature, starting from a stop on a steep San Francisco hill was not a problem. The car feels light and the pedal ergonomics are good enough that I was able to release the brake and get on the gas ahead of any significant rollback. The C30 R-Design also seems to be one of the few cars left with a hand brake.
The C30 R-Design's fuel economy comes in at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway under EPA testing, not spectacular numbers when most compact cars are well into the 30s. But the numbers are realistic, as CNET's car came well within the range even with plenty of high-rpm driving.
The hatchback design leads to practical cargo space and pleasing exterior styling, but Volvo's use of rear bucket seats, setting passenger capacity at four, limits the car's utility. However, given the premium interior it is clear Volvo is going more for comfort than capacity. The two-tone buckets are very comfortable all around.