Volvo automobiles do not scream sports or sporty or sporting. I can say this given that my extended family has owned cars from this venerable Swedish nameplate for decades. Our Volvo chariot of choice has always been the company’s comically capable wagon, which in XC guise provides a reassuring combination of cavernous utility and foul-weather reliability, not to mention some of the most comfortable front seats this side of an Eames lounge chair. But gliding around in this sculpted rectangle on wheels does not make one pine for a race track.
All that to say that this Volvo fan’s brain was a bit scrambled when a Papa Smurf Blue (sorry, make that Rebel Blue) C30 T5 R-Design presented itself for review. One look is all it took to make clear that this was a Volvo of a different feather, one with unmistakable sports car aspirations.
At the curb, this C30 immediately distinguishes itself from its siblings via aggressive R-Design front and rear spoilers, black 18-inch rims and 3 ½-inch polished exhaust tips. Inside, the coupe is all business with its contrasting black and white leather seating surfaces, a stubby six-speed manual shifter and a thick, grippy steering wheel made for apexing. But the real clue to this Nordic chariot’s intentions is a small badge mounted just below the hazard-lights switch that reads, “Polestar, 249 of 250.”
Polestar is not is a new planet visible from the Arctic Circle but rather Volvo’s tuner of choice, akin to BMW’s M and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG divisions. This official Volvo partner has been tweaking the automaker’s European racing fleet since 1996, and it only made good Volvo marketing sense to begin offering a few upgraded vehicles to consumers. Later this year, Australia should be first to see the S60 Polestar sedan; although in concept guise it promised to make a BMW M5 nervous with its 508 hp engine, the showroom model will be good for “only” 350 hp and 368 ft-lb of torque. Not the usual grocery-and-kids-moving numbers Volvo typically posts.
For this limited-edition C30 coupe, Polestar gives a Swedish massage to the car’s standard 227 hp turbocharged five-cylinder with 236 ft-lb of torque, delivering 250 hp and 273 ft-lb of the tire-squealing good stuff. Meanwhile, R-Design features include those aforementioned exterior and interior touches as well as stiffer springs, unique bushings and anti-roll bars and a ride height that’s pleasantly lowered by 10 millimeters. Not much, but just right. All these ingredients look boy-racer tasty.
Hopping behind the ribbed steering wheel of the C30 R-Design Polestar Limited-Edition machine (that’s just too long; can’t we just give it a simple Kid Rock-approved name like the “C30 Badass?”), I was immediately thrilled to see a 6-speed stick. I make no bones about my preference for stick over paddles, and that includes the wickedly responsive units from BMW, Mercedes and Ferrari. Sorry, but unless you’re actually tracking the car you just don’t need shift times of, well, zero (the new Ferrari F12’s boast, thanks to its F1-derived dual-clutch technology). Far better to row the gears and have what amounts to a conversation with your machine’s metallic muscle and sinew.
That said, the C30 T5 R-Design needs to head back to the gym. The gearbox itself simply isn’t a taut enough affair; if Mazda’s notchy, short-throw Miata box is a benchmark of sorts, the Volvo falls short with too much rubbery play and throws that are just too long. Similarly, the car’s composure is almost too refined. While the C30 looks the business from a few paces away, driving the car is too similar to a Volvo wagon cruise, which is to say comfortable and quiet.
What the car’s looks and stance telegraph are Slot Car Experience, perhaps something like the Mazdaspeed3, Subaru Impreza WRX or Volkswagen GTI. But the actual drive is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde affair. Your gut tells you there’s a little monster lurking somewhere under this stylish sheetmetal, but it’s either sleeping or, when woken, a bit unruly. Dive into a tight turn and there’s too much roll. Romp on the gas from a stop and the car takes off quickly, but the shift to second doesn’t quite continue that rocketship ride. What Volvo does have here, however, is one heck of a platform to really give a few hot-hatches a run for the money.
They certainly have a head start. The Scandinavians have always found ways to make products both functional and stylish, and the C30 T5 R-Design is all that. The exterior really is both elegant and aggressive, and I’m particularly fond of the car’s rear end. All that rear-hatch glass, which dips into the rear bumper’s space, helps give the car an airy feeling inside and out.
Despite tight ingress points to the rear seats, space there is ample for adults, though why Volvo insisted on popping a fixed center-armrest in there is a space-limiting mystery. When it comes to storage space, that’s modest with occupied rear seats, but folded down the C30 can pull duty as a major errand or gear hauler.
A stylistic feature that I haven’t quite figured out is the center console. It’s a clever and optically illusory number: it looks like a typical deep stack of instruments until you reach your hand behind it and realize there’s nothing but air. That’s right, it’s just a panel, and one that could have been designed with a bit more visual flair and tactile pizzazz. Another Nordic country standout comes to mind here: Bang & Olufsen. True, their stuff is pricey, but you can’t take your eyes off it, and something in that general design wheelhouse would have vastly spruced up this Polestar show pony.
Two final but important words about the C30 T5 R-Design: price and mileage. Both make arguments for a purchase, with the latter ringing in at just under $28,000, while the latter posting impressive numbers of 21 mpg city and 29 highway. Sure you can load the car up a bit; our tester added options such as navigation, power seating, a glass moonroof, Xenon headlights and a climate package to bring the total to $35,545. But you don’t need that stuff to make a splash in this truly unique ride.
With so many cars out there looking so similar, it’s nice to know you can make some sort of automotive statement without risking debtor’s jail. And for that, we stateside auto geeks must say to our Swedish friends, tack sa mycket. Thank you very much, indeed