Volkswagen fans might not agree, but the Mini Cooper is America's first premium hatchback. It might be the size of a grown-up go-kart, but the Mini has enough style to get pretty people out of their BMWs and enough cool features to make tech geeks drool.
Now there's another premium hatchback playing the same game — the 2008 Volvo C30. Like the Mini, it has retro styling to get your attention and all the latest features, but underneath the throwback bodywork is an S40 sedan without the rear doors. It's bigger than the Mini, so the C30 is a more practical package, but it has enough power to make it quick.
To see if the civilized C30 has a chance against the recently redesigned 2007 Mini Cooper S, we put them together head to head. We did all our usual track testing and back-to-back comparisons, and then plugged all that data into our scoring spreadsheet to determine the winner.
There is one small problem, though, because the spreadsheet keeps spitting out the same two numbers. Yes, after all the track-testing, road-tripping, errand-running, feature-counting and cost-comparing, the Mini and the C30 land in a virtual dead heat — 79.1 percent to 79.2 percent, a tie in our book. Here's why.
Starting on Equal Footing
Neither the Mini nor the Volvo has an advantage in the features department. Although both cars have options lists that can land you in BMW territory when it comes to a bottom-line price, these particular ones are relatively modestly equipped.
For the Mini side of the equation, we brought the Cooper S that we recently acquired as a long-term test car. It has the Sport package that adds 17-inch wheels, xenon headlights and stability control, plus stand-alone options like sport suspension, a limited-slip differential, heated seats and a center armrest. These extras add roughly $4,000 to the base price for a total of $25,220.
For the Volvo, we chose the more expensive Version 2.0 over the base model. It comes standard with features like a sport suspension, 18-inch wheels and tires and a 650-watt Dynaudio sound system, among others. The only extra-cost additions are foglights, cruise control, special paint and an extra charge for ordering the special paint. The grand total is a still-reasonable $26,745.
Nothing Settled on the Drag Strip
Judging by the engine specs, it looks like the Volvo C30 should toast the Cooper S in straight-line performance. With its 227-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder, the C30 has a sizable power advantage over the Mini's 172-hp, turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder. The Volvo also delivers 236 pound-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm, while the Mini peaks at just 177 lb-ft at 1,600 rpm. Both cars come standard with a six-speed manual transmission.
What the Mini lacks in power, it makes up in size. From nose to tail, the Mini is nearly 20 inches shorter. It's also roughly 4 inches narrower and sits about 1.5 inches lower on a shorter wheelbase. Not surprising then, that the Cooper S has an as-tested curb weight of 2,623 pounds, some 575 pounds less than the C30.
Then there's the Mini's overboost feature. It cranks up the turbo for short bursts to increase torque as high as 192 lb-ft. This output, combined with a limited-slip differential, helps our Mini turn a 6.9-second 0-60-mph time — just 0.3 slower than the Volvo. At the quarter-mile, our Mini surpasses the C30's performance, as the Cooper S records a 15.0-second pass at 93.9 mph versus the Volvo's 15.1-second effort at 94.3 mph.
One Stops Shorter, the Other Slaloms Faster
Neither of these hatchbacks enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to braking or handling. The Mini is slightly better on the brakes with a solid pedal feel and a 115-foot stop from 60 mph. The Volvo isn't far behind with a 117-foot stop, but its soft pedal makes the distance feel longer.
Through the slalom, the Mini has everything going for it: a smaller size, quicker steering, upgraded 17-inch wheels with 205/45R17 Dunlop SP Sport tires plus the optional sport suspension. It comes through with a blistering 68.5-mph run, a fast speed for any car in any class.
Then the Volvo threads through the same set of cones at 69.1 mph. Sure, the body rolls more and more steering input is required, but the speed speaks for itself. It's easy to push the C30 hard thanks to loads of grip from the standard 215/45R18 Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires. It also has a stable, well-sorted chassis (derived from the Mazda 3) and accurate steering. The C30 held its own on the skid pad, too, with a 0.85g versus the Mini's 0.87g.
It's a Different Story on the Highway
So the Volvo is bigger and more powerful, yet no faster in a straight line; the Mini is smaller and feels more nimble, but its slalom speeds are slower. Two good performances, but neither car has a clear advantage, so we left the drag strip for some real roads.
After some highway miles, the C30 takes a slight edge on our scoring sheet. Between the soft seats, the expansive field of view and the simplicity of its controls, the Volvo feels immediately familiar. There's nothing to figure out with the C30. It has simple, clear gauges right in front of you, a twist-and-turn ignition key and pictograph-identified climate controls.
The suspension that helps deliver the C30's surprising slalom times isn't the least bit stiff, either. On the highway, the C30 feels isolated from the pavement, with none of the road noise you would expect from its aggressive tires. Turbo whine is virtually nonexistent so the engine is quiet, too.
There's nothing vague about the Mini. It gets right to the point by clearly communicating the texture of the road surface through the steering wheel. The switch to electric steering certainly hasn't dulled the Cooper's reflexes, although the car does feel slightly less twitchy over rough pavement. And unlike the first Cooper S that rode too harshly when equipped with the optional run-flat tires and sport suspension, the latest Cooper S has the right bushings to keep hard impacts in check without compromising road feel.
While it may not be as comfortable as the C30, the Mini is still accommodating. You sit far more upright in the Cooper S and the windshield is a little low if you're tall, but overall the view is good and the seats are supportive.
It takes more time to get used to the Cooper S, though, as Mini insists on being different when it should be simple. There's no key, just a fob that you insert into the dash before hitting the start button. The centrally located speedometer still annoys us and the radio controls are poorly placed.
The Mini Takes Over
On more entertaining roads, the advantage swings the other way and the Mini is the clear winner. The immediacy of its steering, its lack of body roll and the predictable levels of cornering grip allow you to push hard into any corner with complete confidence. The cornering transitions of its lightweight chassis are quick and the brakes always feel strong. You simply don't fear what this car will do, and even if you push too hard the stability control system intrudes only briefly.
There are some problems, like the Sport button that doesn't seem to do much. The shift linkage isn't perfect either, but it has straight throws and solid gates, so you can whip through the gears quickly without being delicate.
Power from the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine is remarkable. It might only have 4 horsepower more than its predecessor, but it feels stronger and revs smoother. Mileage isn't bad either, as the Mini averaged 26.4 mpg during the test.
Go straight from the Mini to the C30 over the same roads and the Volvo feels like a rolling bean bag. All the controls — the steering, the shift lever and the brake pedal — feel isolated and imprecise. You can still have fun, as the capability is there, but everything feels geared toward less stressful cruising.
There's also loads of understeer, and when you power out of corners, the front tires wind up in a ball of torque steer. Longer, sweeping corners suit the C30 much better. With the accurate steering and plentiful grip, the C30 will hustle through fast turns, but it never has the eagerness of the Mini.
Daily Grind Goes to the Volvo
As fun as it is to thrash the Mini and the Volvo at the track and in the mountains, they'll spend more, if not all, of their time as daily drivers. For such chores, the Volvo is a far more agreeable hatchback.
All that softness we felt in the mountains translates into pure relaxation around town. The shift lever feels weightless as long as you're not trying to jam it into gear and the steering is equally light at low speeds.
You can also fit four real people in the Volvo with cargo room to spare, and once the rear seats are folded down there are just over 20 cubic feet of usable space. Basic stuff like storage bins and the cupholders are better in the C30 as well, and the stereo is one of the best you'll find at this price. Everything in the cabin looks and feels a step above the Mini, too.
You can't beat the Mini's size when it comes to parking in tight spots, but the car's overall dimensions take their toll when it comes to practicality. There's just not enough room to do much in the Mini if it involves anything more than the driver and a passenger. Rear-seat passenger room is laughable, and although folding the seats opens up more measurable space than the Volvo, it is not as usable because of the shape of the floor.
Storage space is in short supply in the Mini, and placing the cupholders right in front of the shifter lever hasn't been Mini's brightest idea. And the choice of materials isn't great either, as they all look a bit cheaper than we remember from the first Mini.
Two Very Good and Very Different Hatchbacks
On the surface, these two hatchbacks might be battling for the same customers, but once you dig deeper, it's clear they're very different cars. The Mini Cooper S is still built for the true enthusiast. It forces you to give up some comfort and convenience for a purer experience when you toss it into a corner. Nothing new to that equation, but the C30 makes that compromise a little more obvious.
The Volvo isn't the opposite of the Mini by any means. The C30 proves that it can deliver the right numbers if you push it hard enough and it's equally as stylish as the Cooper, both inside and out. Drive the C30 every day, however, and you'll realize that it's much happier at a lazy pace. If you are, too, buy the C30.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
These two premium hatchbacks have more available features than your average car in this price range. Get too greedy with the options sheet on either one of these cars, and you'll blow well past $30,000 without much trouble. With that in mind, we narrowed down our list of must-have features to just five. This list combines performance, comfort and convenience, but it's by no means completely comprehensive. Scoring is based on whether the chosen feature is standard equipment, optional or not available.
|| 2007 Mini Cooper S
|| 2008 Volvo C30
|Steering-wheel audio controls
N/A: Not Available
Bluetooth connectivity: We used to think this was for tech heads only, but using the car's audio system to make phone calls is a far better option than one of the those geek collars hanging from your ear. It's an option on both vehicles, but neither of our cars had it installed.
Limited-slip differential: Putting down the power through the front wheels is far easier when both tires are sharing the work. A limited slip is by no means necessary for day-to-day driving, but if you want maximum drive out of the corners it's worth the money. You can buy one as a stand-alone option on the Mini. It's not available on the C30.
Steering-wheel audio controls: We're talking basic convenience with this feature. With the right set of steering-wheel controls, you can keep your hands on the wheel at all times and still fiddle with the radio, adjust the cruise control and answer your Bluetooth phone. It's optional on both cars, but only our C30 had a fully decked-out stereo.
Upgraded audio: If you're going for a premium hatchback, you should have more than your average stereo system. Both of these cars offer excellent sound systems if you're willing to spend a little extra. Volvo's system comes standard with the 2.0 trim level, while the Mini's optional 10-speaker setup is a $550 stand-alone option.
Xenon headlamps: They do more than just look cool; they work better than your average halogens and generate a clearer, more defined light pattern that we prefer.