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.