Carl Linnaeus, known today as the inventor of the system of biological taxonomy, was a brilliant man. Despite said brilliance, Linnaeus was astonished to discover you couldn't grow coffee and bananas in Sweden. His Lutheran minister father could only roll his eyes.
What made me think of dear, dead Linnaeus? The new-for-2008 Volvo C30. Like fellow-Swede Linnaeus, Volvo is trying to cultivate a crop the Gothenburg-based company is not known for: a premium sport hatchback, the likes of which has not been attempted since the 1800 ES Wagon in the early '70s. The C30 likewise confounds easy categorization. The company's products fall into a number of genera, including Safe, Family, European (Suburbanus heterosexuali). But it is hard for U.S. consumers to square Volvo with Hip, Sporty, Nocturnal, Male (Metropolitus promiscuous).
And yet, biology is not necessarily destiny. The C30 is a terrific little car, a hugely entertaining and deftly engineered piece of Scandinavian design entering a market that is just about panting for cooler, and greener, small cars. Arriving many months before the BMW 1-series and wading in against the likes of the Audi A3, the VW GTI and the Mini Cooper, the C30 feels like the emergence of a new species, Volvo rockinus.
Of course, no car is so good that Volvo Corporate cannot tie an anchor round its neck and throw it into the Gulf of Bothnia. According to Automotive News Europe, Volvo marketers plan only limited advertising around the C30 launch this fall, in keeping with their modest sales expectations (about 8,000 units annually in the United States). Allow me to predict a diet of crow: When kidless urbanites start seeing this car on the streets, they will want it.
From the curb-skimming front spoiler to the tips of its bodacious dual exhausts (more rear breathing for a 2.5-liter turbo than is absolutely necessary), the C30 is one of the most successful modern hatchback designs since the Mini Cooper. Sleek and fluent and next-year contemporary, it wears its glass-and-steel exterior like a Size 0 dress.
Mechanically, the C30 is nearly identical to its S40 sedan and V50 wagon siblings - the wheelbase (103.9 inches) is the same as the S40 - but overall length (167.4) is 8.7 inches shorter. The short front and rear overhangs give the car a feisty aggressiveness more like an Asian sport import than anything from the land of universal health care.
From a formal perspective, the most notable design feature is the car's dramatic tumblehome, which is the inward cant of the canopy toward the roof. This is the sort of concept-car styling that almost never makes it to production - in this case, because the inward taper cuts down on interior room, which is one reason the C30 has two bucket seats crammed in the back instead of a three-seat bench.
As a nod to its Generation D target audience, the C30's two trim levels are called Version 1.0 ($23,445 base price) and Version 2.0 ($26,445). The 2.0 comes with a lowered suspension, 18-inch wheels, and a full-skirted aero kit in contrasting color. Fully decked out with all the performance pieces, including Pirelli 245/45 R18 PZero Rossos, the C30 looks like it has graduated from the most ornery outlaw tuner shop in Uppsala.
Both versions are powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter, five-cylinder, 227-horsepower engine hooked to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift gate ($1,250). I drove both versions recently, and I have to say the manual is the better choice. Obviously, you have more opportunity to leverage the turbo's low-end torque (236 pound-feet at a mere 1,500 r.p.m.) in hard driving. But, also, the clutch is so light, and the uptake so agreeable, that the manual is almost effortless in city driving.
With a dry weight of 2,970 pounds (curb weight is about 3,120 pounds), the C30 - U.S. models all get the T5 designation - does not have a lot of mass to push around. Zero-to-60 m.p.h. acceleration with the manual comes in at about 6.7 seconds, which makes it notably quicker than the Audi A3 with the 2.0-liter engine. I was surprised at how much the C30 loves to run and rev. The turbo engagement is smooth and linear, so that, for all your right foot knows, this might as well be a naturally aspirated engine with one more cylinder. Fully set the spinnaker, and this car will sail along at 100 m.p.h. without a whiff of complaint.
With the Version 2.0's sport-tuned suspension, the C30 feels well-planted and predictable, with unusual amounts of sideways grip from its Pirellis. Even with the car bent into a corner and the power rolled on, there is not much front-wheel-drive kickback coming through the leather-and-alloy steering wheel. Steering is light and accurate, but not particularly reactive, so you really need to commit to a corner to get the car to turn. The car's balance is inclined toward a confidence-inspiring understeer, but you can get the tail to rotate if you jump out of the throttle. The chassis (front struts, rear multi-links with separate coils and shocks) does not seem to mind, but eventually the standard stability control will object and begin to chatter the front brakes.
Base price: $23,445.
Price, as tested: $30,000 (est.).
Power train: Turbocharged 2.5-liter, DOHC in-line five-cylinder with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 227 at 5,000 r.p.m.
Torque: 236 pound-feet at 1,500 r.p.m.
Curb weight: 3,120 pounds.
0-60 m.p.h.: 6.7 seconds.
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches.
Overall length: 167.4 inches.
EPA fuel economy: 24 miles per gallon city, 30 m.p.g. highway (premium fuel recommended).