Brussels When Snow White and her clan hit the road, they must always roll out two Volvo C30 coupes--that's the only way they can accommodate all seven dwarfs. We bring up Snow White because the design of the new Volvo C30 pays homage to the 1971 Volvo 1800ES, which earned its nickname, "Snow White's coffin," due to its large glass tailgate. Although that two-door wagon attained cult status, it wasn't a big commercial success. Still, at fewer than 10,000 units a year, the 1800ES did better than the dull, front-wheel-drive 480ES (a similarly configured two-door wagon produced between 1985 and 1995 but not sold here), of which only 80,000 units were built. Volvo has more ambitious sales targets for its new C30. Of the 65,000 units to be assembled annually, about 6000 cars are earmarked for North America, where sales are due to commence in the spring.
It's impossible not to be smitten by the three-door Volvo's styling, which strikes a compelling balance between retro and modern. Among the strongest design elements are the long rear side windows, the muscular rear side panels, and the historically correct rear window flanked by a pair of trademark upright taillights. There are a few functional drawbacks, but the overall presence is just right, with surprisingly roomy rear seats and front-seat occupants traveling in the bosom of Abraham.
At Volvo, everybody praises the floating center stack for its puristic modernity. In daily use, however, you may soon dislike the smallish buttons on the numeric keyboard and the hard-to-read navigation screen. There are two upholstery colors and two trim materials to choose from, but the cockpit is let down by vast areas of rock-solid, drab-looking plastic.
Volvo expects that most customers will use their C30 as a two-seater with an extendable stowage area, so access to the cargo hold and general versatility are very important. The C30 delivers by offering easy-to-fold rear seats, a low loading lip, and a trunk that holds up to 32 cubic feet of luggage. With the rear seats in place, however, the volume shrinks to ten cubic feet. Despite the easy-entry system, getting into and out of row two requires a certain degree of physical fitness. Visibility is all right except to the rear, where the sloping roof creates a narrow view.
Since safety is Volvo's traditional first priority, the C30 looks after its occupants with utmost care and foresight. Although it's about eight inches shorter than the four-door S40, the C30's crash performance doesn't suffer because of its smaller size. And two of Volvo's newest driver-assistance systems are currently available on the C30: a blind-spot detector integrated into the sideview mirrors and a special computer chip that monitors steering, throttle, brakes, and turn signals. As soon as the driver starts working the car especially hard, the cabin spy will automatically suppress text messages and nonessential warning lights. Gimmicks or goodies? It depends, but neither feature can pay attention as well as a switched-on driver.
The C30 is powered by a turbocharged, 218-hp five-cylinder and will be available with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed manu-matic. It will come in two trim levels, with the uplevel model featuring a body kit, eighteen-inch wheels, and an MP3 jack. Two suspension settings are available: comfort and dynamic. (The European version also will have a sport setting.) The car we drove, a Euro-spec model, was fitted with the stiffest setup. The sport setting is fine for mirror-smooth pavement and well-kept racetracks, but on frost-eaten blacktop you would want more compliance, a better low-speed ride, and less brittle responses over transverse irritations such as highway expansion joints. We would also prefer more steering feedback than what's provided by the electrohydraulic setup, which feels artificial and not quite quick enough. Volvo officials emphatically defend this calibration, pointing out that it was selected to address the different requirements of the thumbwheel generation.
We aren't totally convinced by the five-cylinder engine. The numbers are solid (0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 146 mph), but although the torque delivery plateaus from 1500 to 4800 rpm (where 236 lb-ft is on tap), throttle response can be hesitant, and there is a prevailing feeling that you're in the wrong gear. Since a pushy driving style induces torque steer even before a corner comes into sight, it's best to leave the shifter in D, avoid the final 2000 rpm, and relish the considerable pulling power. In line with the overall dynamic mediocrity are the strong but uncommunicative brakes, the much too casual body control, and the predictably passive handling, which lacks the depth of modularity we are familiar with in the Volkswagen GTI.
You don't have to have a soft spot for fairy tales to appreciate the Volvo C30, but it helps. After all, this car has chosen the emotional route to your heart, and it begs to be measured by more subjective criteria than its run-of-the-mill rivals. In terms of sheer driving pleasure, the new Volvo meets only our most basic expectations. But as far as performance and street credibility are concerned, it combines the charm of an icon with the A-to-B competence of a modern hatchback. While the C30 is clearly the wrong choice for the evil mother-in-law, Snow White and her Prince Charming are going to love it.