Warren Clarke , Automotive Content Editor
Orange isn't an easy color to pull off -- just ask carrots, Doritos and people with bad spray tans. This fact alone makes our 2011 Volvo C30 test car quite remarkable. The handsome hatch turned heads and garnered compliments from our editors and complete strangers alike during its time with us -- Orange Flame Metallic paint job be damned.
There's ample substance behind the C30's Euro-chic style. Volvo's turbocharged five-cylinder engine provides enough pep to keep the journey fun, and handling is reasonably sharp and responsive. The C30 isn't as sporty as the hot hatches it's frequently shopped against, but it compensates by offering impeccable refinement. More "premium hatch" than "hot hatch," this upscale, well-mannered Volvo will never make you regret choosing it as a daily driver.
The C30's rivals are as different as apples and oranges. The Subaru Impreza WRX is the racehorse of the group, offering performance-tuned reflexes and blisteringly quick acceleration. With its retro-cute styling and vast array of customization options, the Mini Cooper is the pick for those who like their fun-to-drive hatch in an unabashedly adorable, uniquely tailored package.
Perhaps the most direct competitor to the 2011 Volvo C30 is the Volkswagen GTI, which offers comparable levels of refinement and sophistication. In the end, though, the VW looks decidedly less distinctive than the suave, continental Volvo. Buyers in search of a sporty hatch that's as easy to live with as it is to look at will find the C30 to be a cut above the rest.
Providing the spring in the Volvo C30's step is a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-5 that delivers 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. That's more horsepower than you'll find in the Mini Cooper S (172 hp) and Volkswagen GTI (200 hp), but less than is seen in the Subaru Impreza WRX (265 hp). The engine is lively off the line, and is consistently energetic on both highways and side streets. Torque is impressive, and the mill shines in the middle of its power band.
A five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability governs the action. In automatic mode, shifts are smooth and well-timed. Manual mode finds the transmission executing reasonably quick gearchanges, but the fun is dampened somewhat by the absence of paddle shifters. Manual gearchanges are made by slipping the shifter into the right gate.
At the track, our 2011 Volvo C30 completed the 0-60-mph sprint in 6.9 seconds, placing it around midpack for the segment. Braking was average as well, with the C30 needing 130 feet to stop from 60 mph. This places it just behind the GTI (129 feet) and well behind the Mini Cooper (121 feet). Handling is more than respectable; the C30 sailed through the slalom cones at 68.2 mph, making it more adroit than rivals like the Mini Cooper S (67.4 mph) and the GTI (67.1 mph).
With EPA ratings of 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined, the C30 is less frugal than the GTI and the Mini Cooper S; the VW and the Mini are both rated at 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway. We averaged 22 mpg during our time with the car, with mostly city miles.
Unlike some of the hot hatches it competes with, the Volvo C30 doesn't serve up its thrills at the expense of comfort. The car's suspension keeps you in touch with the road, but also offers a fair amount of protection from bumps and potholes.
Both taller and shorter drivers declared the driver seat a hit, thanks to its supportive seat bottom and artfully shaped seatback -- the seatback's bolsters are set wide enough apart to comfortably stabilize drivers of varying sizes, without ever being too intrusive. Despite the hatch's compact exterior dimensions, there was adequate front headroom and legroom for drivers of varying sizes.
Wind and road noise were barely noticeable in both city and highway driving. There was some engine noise to contend with, but given how pleasant the turbo 5 is to listen to, it was hardly a burden.
Controls in the 2011 Volvo C30 are refreshingly straightforward. The audio system is governed by equally sized volume and tuning knobs, located just below the display screen. The close proximity between knobs and screen adds a logical simplicity to the layout that we appreciated every time we cranked up the volume or changed radio stations.
Climate controls are similarly intuitive. Fan intensity is controlled by a knob on the driver side of the center stack, and temperature by a knob on the passenger side. The C30 uses a design seen in other Volvos, in which mode settings are governed by buttons with arrows pointing to various parts of a recumbent human figure. This design is pure Volvo: uncomplicated, useful and pleasant to interact with.
Instead of the typical bench seat, the C30 has two bucket seats in back. Each seat cradles the body like an embrace -- some of us even felt that these are among the most comfortable rear seats we've ever experienced. The drawback to these seats, though, is that they offer less hiproom than bench seats. If you frequently transport rear passengers of wider girth, these seats would make the C30 a poor fit.
Legroom in back is less than stellar -- though the Volvo presents more space for your stems than the Mini Cooper, it's still less roomy than the Volkswagen GTI. Taller passengers will feel the pinch, though ample toe room helps a bit by providing rear passengers with space to comfortably scoot their feet under the front seats.
With 15.3 cubic feet of luggage capacity, the 2011 Volvo C30 offers more room for your grocery bags than the Mini Cooper (5.7 cubic feet) and the GTI (12.4 cubic feet), but less than the four-door WRX (19 cubic feet). Lower its split-folding rear seats and this Volvo gives up 33 cubic feet of room for your cargo.
In our real-world usability tests, we had a hard time getting a child seat through the C30's door. We managed it, but it required some gymnastics, as the front seat didn't fold forward far enough to create a wide aperture. Once inside, the rear-facing car seat was a tight squeeze in the second row; it made contact with the seatback when the front seats were adjusted for taller passengers.
The cargo area swallowed a suitcase with no complaint, but drew the line at golf clubs. To make these fit, one of the car's split-folding rear seats had to be lowered. Visibility is excellent. A rising beltline gives this Volvo narrow rear windows, but its huge glass hatchback and supermodel-thin C-pillars more than compensate for this deficiency.
Design/Fit and Finish
With sheet metal that looks expensive and effortlessly stylish, the C30 manages to make a compelling visual statement without looking as if it's trying too hard. It's the antidote to the generic hatchback, from its gracefully sculpted nose to its seemingly frameless rear hatch glass.
Inside the cabin, the look is spare and Scandinavian. A backless center stack lends a feeling of airiness, and metal-ringed gauges catch the eye with elegant fonts and discreet lighting. Materials quality is decent but not great, as there's a fair amount of hard plastic lining the cabin.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Volvo C30 is the perfect choice for those looking for a more sophisticated alternative to the ordinary hot hatch. It's fun to drive, with eye-catching looks that make it a great choice for drivers drawn to statement-making hatchbacks like the Mini Cooper. Best of all, its superb refinement allows it to serve as an accommodating daily driver. Hard-core enthusiasts, however, will be better served by a more performance-oriented machine like the Subaru Impreza WRX.
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