Why should we get excited? It’s just a hatchback version of the S40, right?
Well, yes and no. The C30 is Volvo’s fourth car – after the S40, V50 and C70 coupe-cabrio – off the Ford C1 platform which also underpins the Focus family. That bodes well for dynamics, and means the C30 launches with an impressive choice of eight engines, borrowing the engineering work done for its bigger-selling brethren. There are five petrols from 99bhp to the 217bhp T5 we test here, and three diesels from 108bhp to 177bhp. But the C30 has been badged as a model in its own right, gets very distinctive styling and has been set the task of recruiting new, younger buyers who have never considered a Volvo before. The firm has seen sales of the BMW 1-series and Audi A3 explode and wants a slice of the premium hatch market, which keeps growing as buyers switch away from mainstream hatches and saloons to SUVs, MPVs and sports cars, or desirable entry-level cars from the premium makers. Volvo sees the C30 as one of the latter, but has priced it quite aggressively, with the cheapest 1.6S starting at £14,750, deep in Focus territory. Remember, the last time Volvo launched a new car in a new segment was the XC90 in 2002, and that wasn’t exactly a failure…
Definitely looks like a Volvo…
That’s the idea. The firm wants to bring all its brand values – comfort, design, safety – to a new sector of the market. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but you won’t mistake it for anything else. The nose and hallmark pronounced shoulders are pure Volvo, and the all-glass tailgate makes the rear end very distinctive and harks back to the 480 sports-hatch Volvo introduced in the late '80s. Inside the front cabin is a straight lift from the S40 and the others, which means serious quality for the money, distinctive design like the ‘flying’ central console, but a few ergonomic niggles like the tiny glovebox and fiddly stereo and heating control buttons. The individual rear seats – it’s strictly a four-seater – are comfortable and happily accommodate six-footers. The deep glass tailgate and side glass that curves inwards makes for great rearward visibility, but you have to lean in far over the deep rear bumper to access the boot.
But does it drive like a Volvo?
Not like Volvos of old, certainly. Our T5 at £21,495 shares its five-pot, turbocharged 2.5-litre engine with the Focus ST. And although the chassis they share has been tuned more for comfort in the C30, it gives a very un-Volvo like performance on B-roads. There isn’t much steering feel but it’s meaty and accurate. The power goes down cleanly, both ends grip well and you have to be pushing very hard before the C30 starts to roll heavily or lose its vertical composure. And the engine’s great too, with gutsy, linear thrust up to the 6800rpm redline accompanied by an off-beat, five-pot growl. Pity about the gearchange; short in action, but not fun to use.
But is there a payoff on the motorway?
Not really. Mile-munching is one of those Volvo core values, and the C30 still rides well, though we noticed a little tyre roar from the 205-section Continentals on 17-inch rims fitted to our C30. You’ll appreciate the seat comfort on longer trips, and our car was trimmed in the Kalix and T-tec synthetic fabrics inspired by wetsuits and running shoes, which Volvo is offering in addition to cloth and leather. They look original, and we like them. We also love the optional sat-nav – perhaps the best we’ve ever used and so good Aston Martin nicked it – but were unconvinced by the optional blind-spot warning system, in which a warning light by the wing mirror illuminates when there’s a car lurking where you might not see it. Perhaps helped by the C30’s good visibility, we’d always seen it.
Should Audi and BMW be worried?
A little. The C30 isn’t intended to outsell the A3 or 1-series, but with strong pricing, a big choice of engines and dynamics to rival both, it might do better than the modest 50,000 Volvo hopes to shift in Europe in a full year; the A3 sells 200,000. The most expensive C30 will be the D5 Sec Lux at £23,795, but most will leave the showroom from early next year at around twenty grand for a mid-spec petrol or diesel, and at these prices the C30 looks very good value next to its rivals. So yes, it is just a hatchback S40. But yes, you should be a little excited.
Volvo doesn't enter a new market sector without very serious reasons, so the C30 is a hugely important car. For hardcore drivers looking for sheer return in terms of handling and overall poise, the BMW 1-series is still a better car, but increasingly that's not the main issue in the hot hatch market. The C30 has captured Volvo's deep-rooted brand values (build quality, safety, value) with precision, and added enough pazzazz to make a very appealing package. The brand just took a big step towards earning the coveted 'aspirational' badge, and once that box is ticked you can start officially Wanting One.