Volvo's Zippy C30

Volvo's sporty new front-wheel-drive compact offers speed, safety, and style in a small, fuel-efficient package

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Speediness, safety, customizable interior and exterior

The Bad: Options jack up price, odd-looking rear end

The Bottom Line: A hip little Volvo that competes with the Mini Cooper and VW GTI

Up Front

If you're curious about the future of the American automobile, take a close look at the new Volvo C30. I suspect as gasoline prices rise inexorably to $4 or $5 per gallon, this is the type of car many more shoppers will turn to, especially if they want a sporty model that's fun to drive. In other words, more Americans are going to be buying European-style rides.

The appeal of Volvo's new front-wheel-drive entry model is that it's small, quick, and relatively fuel-efficient, yet also safe and practical. The C30 is only 167.4 in. long, almost exactly the same length as such diminutive rivals as the Volkswagen (VLKAY) GTI and Audi A3. Like those models, it's a bigger—yet still compact—alternative to BMW's Mini Cooper, which is 21 in. shorter.

Like the Mini Cooper, A3, and GTI, the C30 is very quick. The only available power plant is a mighty (for a compact car) 2.0-liter, 227-horsepower, turbocharged five-cylinder engine. As you would expect from a European car, a six-speed manual transmission is standard, but there's also an optional five-speed automatic with a manual shifting function.

The C30 only has two doors, but it's still relatively easy to get in and out of. The doors are wide, and the front seats slide forward at the flick of a lever. Unlike most small cars, the C30 has bucket-style rear seats and is designed to carry no more than four people. However, the rear seats are more comfortable than you'd expect in such a small car—slightly less roomy than in the VW GTI, but considerably less cramped than in the Mini.

The C30 comes in two trim levels, both with cutesy, software company-inspired names. Version 1.0 starts at $23,445, and comes standard with full power accessories, a tilt and telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, a CD player, and 17-in. wheels. Version 2.0, starting at $26,445, adds 18-in. wheels, a 10-speaker surround-sound audio system, extra aluminum interior trim, and sport body add-ons.

Volvo, which is owned by Ford (F), is pitching the C30 to the youth market so—like the Mini Cooper and Scion tC—it's highly customizable. For a one-time $300 charge, you can have one built to your own specs, choosing from 17 exterior colors, a dozen different interiors, and dozens of à la carte options. The downside of that is the options include stuff you'd think would already be included. For instance, a keyless starter goes for $450, cruise control for $185, a tire repair kit for $150, and a rear armrest for $40. Combine those costs with an automatic transmission ($1,250), sunroof ($1,200), and navigation system ($2,120), and the price can easily top 30 grand.

The C30 hasn't yet been crash-tested in the U.S. but, being a Volvo, it's packed with innovative safety enhancements. It has all the requisite air bags, plus seat belt pretensioners, antilock brakes with emergency braking assist, and traction and stability control. It also features VIVA (Volvo's intelligent vehicle architecture), which was first introduced on the XC90 sport-utility vehicle and provides extra protection in front, side, and rear collisions.

If fuel economy is a top priority, the smaller Mini Cooper, which is rated to get 22 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, does a lot better than the Volvo, though it only takes premium fuel. The C30 is rated to get 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway (28 mpg with a stick shift).

Premium gasoline is recommended, though the owner's manual says you can use regular. More fuel-efficient versions of the C30 with diesel power and a four-cylinder engine are sold in Europe, but there are no plans so far to sell them in North America, a spokesman says. There are also no plans yet to market a hybrid version Volvo has in its labs, he adds.

Volvo is targeting its C30 at the youth market with an unusual marketing plan that includes a short series of Internet films about a driving instructor starring Craig Robinson of the TV show The Office. However, early indications are that the car has broad appeal.

The Power Information Network (PIN) figures the average age of C30 buyers is 46, vs. 44 for the Mini Cooper, 42 for the Audi A3, and 38 for the VW GTI. Sales to women, at 38%, are relatively high for a sporty car—far higher than for the VW GTI and close to the level of the Audi A3 (39.2%) and the Mini Cooper (44%).

The C30 only hit the U.S. market last October, so sales totaled a mere 2,090 last year. Ford only expects to sell 6,000 to 8,000 C30s annually in North America.

Behind the Wheel

Car and Driver magazine complains that the C30 is more stylish than genuinely sporty, with a "softer" feel than the Mini Cooper and the VW GTI. There's some truth to that. But I tend to side with the editors of Automobile magazine, who included the C30 in their list of "2008 All-Stars," singling it out as one of the new models they most lust after.

I found the C30 really grew on me during the course of a week's test-driving. It handles well, and it's certainly fast enough for most people. Volvo says it will jump from zero to 60 in 6.6 seconds with an automatic transmission and 6.2 seconds with a stick shift. Top speed is electronically limited at 149 mph. I also like the car's braking power: Volvo says the C30 will come to a full stop from 62 mph in just 125 feet.

I also like the C30's interior styling, but I'm a Scandinavian American so a predilection for minimalist Scandinavian design was bred into me at an early age. The center stack is so plain it almost seems like a throwback to an economy car of a less pretentious era. The heat and entertainment systems are controlled via a keypad, four knobs, and a little monochrome screen, all surrounded by brushed aluminum. The door controls are equally unremarkable. I suspect the whole look may be too understated for many Americans.

The C30 has an adequate 12.9 cu. ft. of luggage space with the rear seats up (more than twice as much as the Mini Cooper), and 20.2 cu. ft. with both rear seats folded down. The rear seats also fold down separately in a 50/50 pattern so you can carry three people and still make space for skis and other long objects by folding down one rear seat.

The other downside of the C30, for me at least, is its rear end. The glass hatch is light and easy to raise and lower, but it looks odd to me, and I'm not sure the look would grow on me.

Buy It or Bag It?

Like the Volvo S80 sedan, the XC70 crossover vehicle, and the XC90 SUV, the C30 offers excellent features at a decent price. The C30 sells for an average of $27,690, according to PIN, making it competitive with the Mini Cooper, which sells for about $1,000 less, and considerably less expensive than the Audi A3 ($32,767) and the new Volkswagen R32 ($33,479). The budget model among rivals is the VW GTI, which sells for an average of only about $25,000. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

I still prefer the Mini Cooper, which handles a bit better than the C30, but it's too small for many people. Among the slightly larger alternatives, the C30 ranks with the VW GTI as the Mini Cooper's most desirable rivals. Whether you go with the Volvo is likely to depend on whether you think it looks cute or annoying.

See the slide show for more of the 2008 Volvo C30.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.