What It Is
Swedish Boy-Racer Hatchback's Last Hurrah
As fast and fun as it looks
Nokia 3310-era Interior
Limited Edition soon-to-be classic, if by soon you're thinking 2023
In October 2007, before the recession, before Jersey Shore, before the Shake Weight, and right around the time that Mitt Romney quit governing to run for President--the first time--my local radio station ran a contest to give away a brand new Volvo C30. I had just completed my second combat tour to Iraq, and I was out of the Army and working in a dead-end sales job. But I wanted that car.
Not that I had the money for it at the time, and I remember thinking, "Wow, that's a lot of coin for a small car." But still. Not since the 850R Sport Wagon a decade earlier had Volvo released something so whoa. And here we are, about six years later, post-recession (more or less), post-Snooki, and Volvo's still putting out this still-gorgeous "shooting brake" hatch-thing.
Not much has changed for the C30 in these last six years, except here. This C30 represents the end of an era, the last of its kind. There are 299 of these 2013 C30 T5 M R-Design's with an upgraded engine software package by Volvo's Swedish tuning house, Polestar. And that's it. Done and gone like the 850R Sport Wagon before it.
So when Volvo asked us if we wanted to live with one for a week, the only appropriate response was, "Yes, please."
WalkaroundIt's small. Perfectly small and rounded and low. But it's wide, too. Will it roll over, or will it pounce? And is it Harmony Smurf, or is it Disney's Stitch, a cute-looking but indestructible extra terrestrial of monstrous intent?
The first thing that captures your attention is the paint. Rebel Blue Paint is as deep as the Atlantic Ocean. That much doesn't just stand out. It's not just a blue in a sea of "grayge." It's a 48-font bolded and italicized exclamation point. And it certainly makes its point: Volvo has been fooling us, and for far too long.
No, not because of the paintjob. Not because of the promise this vehicle holds for those, like me, who would die for a chance to drive an 850R Sport Wagon (or an equally rare V70R). And not because of the Polestar package, or the R-Design wheels, aero, and other exterior and interior bits. No, it's because every ten years or so, Volvo quietly releases a limited edition car or wagon that is essentially a middle finger to the automotive industry. This one, this decade, fulfills that role.
Sitting DownIt's not that it's bad. It's just that we had higher expectations for a supposedly premium car. Whereas the exterior has yet to look dated, the interior was old when the C30 debuted on the auto show circuit in late 2006. Now? Its unsightly interior bits are hard to overlook, especially at $35,000.
Start with the steering wheel. It's the same wheel as was used in the 2003 Volvo S60 and probably countless others of the same era. One editor said that it felt like he was holding onto the lip of a Frisbee. That's a problem in today's post-recession industry where every single tiny detail has been sculpted and packaged for scrupulous buyers who want to look and feel the part of luxury and exclusivity. This isn't that.
But then there's the center stack. It looks like an iPad-sized Nokia cell phone from the late 90s. You know the kind--you probably had one or three. Above that, there's the pop-up navigation screen. We can usually forgive a pixelated cartoony screen with little more than a tisk! tisk! but here, it's more than that. You have a choice of using either buttons behind the steering wheel to or a remote control to operate the system. Neither is very good.
Gripes aside, the Volvo's fit and finish was excellent. The seats were supportive for spirited driving, and soft enough for commuting. In the backseat, we may have bumped our heads installing infant and booster seats, but that's not to say that the job was impossible. And in the back, we were able to fit a baseball bag and a couple grocery bags--though there'd be little room for more. Remember, it's not the showroom that entices you to buy a car--it's the test drive.
DrivingWheel Hop City would be a great name for an India Pale Ale, but for a front-wheel drive sport hatchback, it's recipe for frustration. That fun-killing hop is induced by a 250-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine. That's pretty impressive for a small, lightweight car, and it's good enough to propel the C30 T5 M R-Design to freeway speeds in about 6.2 seconds (while also rating 29 mpg highway). For the enthusiasts who care about such numbers, 6.2 seconds is squarely in the "fun" range, but still well below what many would consider "quick," or "fast." And, for the price, we suspect that many shoppers will be asking, "Can I get more for less elsewhere?"
The C30 T5 M R-Design is only equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, though it comes with traction control, electronic brake distribution, and beefier anti-roll bars attached to its suspension bits. It works well to keep the car flat while cornering, and we were impressed with its ability in that regard, at one time easily passing slow-moving cars on a 360-degree freeway onramp. When pushed hard, the little hatch deftly maneuvers spirited roads at greater than legal speeds as well as any front-wheel drive car that we can remember. And the brakes: on two occasions on the same day--after being cut off by lesser drivers--the C30 proved confidence inspiring. But that's not the entire story. Sure, the C30 T5 M R-Design with Polestar is moderately entertaining in the places you'd expect it to be engaging, but around town, it was nearly impossible to drive smoothly. The clutch has a long pedal, a vague engagement point, and the shifter, too, lacks articulation. A seasoned driver will have no issue, but a seasoned driver again, would expect more.
SummaryV70R. 850R Sport Wagon. 780 Bertone. 262C Bertone. 123 GT. Amazon 122S Rally.
C30 T5 M R-Design?
Right now, you have to believe that this author (and his editor, and one other co-worker) scoured Craigslist looking for derivations of those cars. It defies any semblance of logic. Each of us needs a project car like we need a hole in our head. Butwouldn't it be magical? Wouldn't it be worth it, to stroll into work with the windows down on a Summery SoCal morning behind the wheel of a Scandinavian legend?
And is this car, will this car, the 2013 Volvo C30 T5 M R-Design, be worthy of such praise?
Right now, no. In ten years? Absolutely, and let me tell you why. The C30 T5 M R-Design is unmistakably a Volvo of yesterday burdened by the constraints of today. You can do better right now with $35,000. If you really wanted a peppy, front-wheel drive sport hatch, and for less money, you'd get a Mazdaspeed3 or Ford Focus ST.
But that's not why you're reading this. You want something stupid and unique and crazy awesome. None of the crazy Volvos on this list are exceptional for any reason other than Volvo used to be INSANE. And that's why we love them. They were flawed but special versions of mediocre cars, and they had character. They were imperfect, but charming. And so, too, the C30 T5 M R-Design: There's only 299 of them. Let's hope each one of them survives the next decade.