Volvo C30 Frankfurt Auto Show 2009

Sometimes, You Shouldn’t Meet Your Heroes

While driving around town the other day I saw a Volvo C30, and shook my head in disappointment. “Man…what a letdown,” I thought.

Normally seeing a funky European hatchback does not elicit such reactions from me. I love hatchbacks! I have a VW GTI and an Audi A6 avant. Janette has a Mazda3 hatch. We enjoy the practicality and styling that these things offer. But to help you understand my reaction, perhaps we should look at the C30 a little more closely, and see how at drives.

The Volvo C30 was a 3 door, premium compact hatchback that was sold in the US from 2008-2013. It had a funky glass rear hatch that was meant to evoke the lovely old P1800. It was front wheel drive, and had a quirky turbo 5 cylinder engine that made a reasonable 227hp and 236 ft-lbs of torque. The dashboard was minimalistic and interior materials and build quality were all quite nice for the segment –pretty typical stuff for a Swedish car. So far so good!

Volvo C30 rear
Photo courtesy of Volvo. Rear view of C30.

In the search for my daily driver (which ultimately wound up being the previously mentioned A6), all the Volvo’s features and designs were checking my boxes. I had a newer Subaru Legacy at the time that I purchased to replace an aging Audi A4. A few months into ownership and with a tortuously long commute, I realized that the Subaru was not meeting my comfort needs. The gas mileage was excellent and the ride was cushy, but there were lots of little quality and handling nitpicks that drove me nuts (excessive wind and tire noise intrude into the cabin, hearing a little solenoid every time before the wipers did their job, floppy handling, numb steering and brakes). With all this in mind, it was back to the Europeans I went.

Anyway, there was a local Volvo dealer that I figured I’d visit to scout some V70s or XC70s. After all, we had just purchased a house so a wagon or hatchback seemed practical for an only car. After driving an XC70, I quickly realized that it was not for me (deceptively slow and very, very heavy feeling). And then I saw one of my favorite little hatchbacks of the past few years, the C30. Out for a test drive we go!

This led to much frustration and disappointment. The interior was fine, but the minimalist vibes grew old after only a short test drive. The features present were well behind the competition when it was new. As for the driving experience, buckle up for this one. While steering heft may be typical of European cars of this era, the C30 was unusually numb. Power delivery was…ok. The automatic transmission was slow to respond to input and took its sweet time on upshifts. Maybe some sporty handling could remedy these faults?

Volvo C30 interior photo
Photo courtesy of Volvo. Volvo's minimalist interior, featuring their "waterfall" center console.

Wrong. The Volvo displayed everything bad you associate with front wheel drive cars. Torque steer under modest throttle application? Check. Understeer as soon as you start to think about pushing it? Yep. And don’t forget wheel hop with any enthusiastic moves you might try. Even the 5 cylinder engine note, which is usually distinct and bubbly, sounded muted and generic from inside the cabin. Throw in a surprising amount of body roll for such a low slung and small car, and what you have is a recipe for a miserable driving experience.

While there were some sporty-ish options available for suspension, it’s not clear that they would have made this hatch any better. I haven’t personally had the opportunity to try, but my guess is they would have succeeded in making the car feel more capable by ruining the ride (ie. making it more harsh with no performance gain). Even contemporary reviews of the hotted up Polestar versions come up with the same critiques as the base model-the handling is such a let down from what this car is on paper.

So who should have bought this car new, and who wants it used? Likely someone who insists on having something visually unique and relatively rare (hey, they didn’t exactly sell like hotcakes), a Volvo fan, or someone who wants a vehicle perceived as very safe that happens to come in an appealing package. The only common traits the customers have to share? They can’t care about how it drives.

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