Volvo C30: Vroom with a view

No chunky pillars and tiny windows here; Volvo's new hatch is airy, with great visibility. And it's a Ford Focus under the skin, so it drives very nicely

Price: from £21,495 (range spans £14,750 to £23,795)
Engine: 2,521cc, five cylinders, 20 valves, turbocharged, 220bhp at 5,000rpm, 236lb ft at 1,500-4,800rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox (five-speed automatic option), front-wheel drive
Performance: (manual) 149mph, 0-60 in 6.2sec, 32.5mpg official average
CO2: 208g/km

Good things about modern Volvos: an air of Scandinavian cool; solid yet stylish design; an aura of sensible safety without spoiling the sense of driving adventure. The Volvos-are-tanks stereotype is long dead.

If this is true, the idea of a compact, carefree-looking hatchback infused with those good Volvo things is appealing. Maybe you're fed up with defaulting to something German, an Audi A3 or - if you're brave - a BMW 1-series. You might like the idea of an Alfa 147, because it's a sort of premium-brand compact hatchback with strong "emotional" elements, but it's old and not all that great. Mainstream makes are too, well, mainstream. Here, then, is the answer; a Volvo C30, the car to enfranchise the upmarketly dispossessed.

Look at it. The face is Volvoid, but lower and more aggressive than that of the S40 saloon, from which the C30 is derived. It's odd to hear Volvo designers talk of aggression, but there it is. The waistline rises as it heads rearwards, flowing into the broadest rear "shoulders" yet seen on a Volvo production car. This breadth comes about because the upper cabin tapers back in plan view, culminating in a narrow but very deep rear window that forms, without any frame, the rear hatch.

Inside the C30, the effect is a welcome change from the claustrophobia induced by many new hatchbacks, whose roof pillars are ever thicker and whose usable window areas become ever smaller. The dashboard is low, the windscreen is deep and the rearwards view wonderfully open, helped by the way the rear side-windows curve inwards.

People sitting in the back feel good, too, because their two seats (no provision for a third person) are set further inwards than the front seats so the occupants can see forward easily. With the rear centre armrest down and no luggage cover in position, you can see right through the C30 from rear window to the "floating" centre console that is the interior's other main design signature.

Not everything is good about the interior, though, however excellent the front seats (taken from the C70 coupé-cabriolet) might be. The textures of most trim materials and the padded headlining are convincingly upmarket, but rear passengers are short-changed. The panels below the rear side-windows are of hard plastic, and moving the front seats forward for rear access is done by electric motors of tedious slowness. Nor do the seats "remember" where they were before, unlike the instantly manually movable seats of nearly every cheap three-door supermini. And the glovebox is barely big enough to hold the handbook.

But if the C30 is bought by its intended customers, this should hardly matter. They are young, mainly single, often female people with a hectic urban lifestyle and a rapid career path that will mean they'll have no problem funding a C30. They are independently minded style sophisticates - all told, exactly the sort of buyers dreamt of by every purveyor of marketing baloney. Still, marketing aspirations seldom reflect reality, and even the empty-nesters who will doubtless be a significant buyer base will bask in the reflected youthfulness.

Branding, image, marketing... all potent forces in today's consuming world. These forces swamp the fact that, under its shapely skin, the C30 is really a Ford Focus that has been Volvo-ised. All its four-cylinder engines - petrol units of 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 litres, plus 1.6 and 2.0 diesels - are as found in the Fords. For true Volvo engine character you need one of the three five-cylinder engines, the most powerful of which (a 2.5-litre turbo with 220bhp, called the T5) is almost the same as the one Ford borrows for the Focus ST. There's also a non-turbo 2.4 with 170bhp, and a 2.4 D5 turbodiesel with 180bhp and a generous 258lb ft of torque (as a five-speed automatic only).

Emphasising those Volvo genes, the test cars for our early drive were the two turbo five-cylinders, both with five-speed automatic transmissions called Geartronic; not ideal, given the notion of the C30 as a frisky, fun-to-drive car for which a manual box would be a better fit. The lack of paddle-shifters on the steering wheel compounded the mismatch. It didn't help that this isn't the most smoothly shifting auto when you're performing a manual downchange, so it's better to let the automatic do the work that the buyer will have paid it to do.

So... great driving position, good view out, the smooth sound of a five-cylinder engine. But is the C30 as sharp and agile as it looks? It has those Focus sinews; usually a good thing.

Straight away, the C30 feels tough and solid, free of resonances and unflappable over bumps. UK cars will all have the so-called "dynamic" suspension, firm but well behaved, which should be fine on our roads. The ride comfort is as good in the back as in the front, too, which is by no means usual.

But when you arrive briskly at a bend, the C30 feels less focused than a Focus. Its steering lacks the Ford's transparency and precision, feeling lighter and more rubbery. The response is still accurate and progressive, but less immediate. Maybe it's meant to feel more luxurious, but it chips a little off the youthful image.

This is hardly a big issue, as in isolation the C30 feels fine. It holds the road beautifully and changes direction quickly and tidily. It's a relaxing, confidence-inspiring car, and a quiet one, especially with petrol power. The D5 diesel sounds gruffer but it's not unpleasant, and both turbo "fives" pull with gusto.

But the cheapest C30's 100bhp, 1.6-litre engine is unlikely to be a ball of fire. For some buyers, this won't matter at all. They will be more interested in the trim options, such as a centre console finished in satin off-white or in aluminium etched with sea-wave patterns. There's a Sport pack, too, which includes bigger wheels, wider sills and valances, and a bigger rear spoiler, all painted instead of in textured black plastic. This can be in the main body colour or a contrast.

One option is a pearlescent white body with metallic brown edges, which sounds odd but looks very good. It echoes the colourway of the C30 "concept" car (the production version was long signed off by then) seen at last January's Detroit show.

This isn't the first time Volvo has attempted a car like this. In many ways, it's a modern interpretation of the radical but initially troublesome Volvo 480, made from 1986 to 1994. This time, though, there's the benefit of hindsight and the Ford sugar-daddy. The C30 is a cool Volvo. And it's a while since there's been one of those.

The rivals

Alfa Romeo 147 2.0 TS Lusso: £16,650

This is the most powerful 147 now that the V6 GTA has gone. It's an agreeable if somewhat dated premium hatchback, and is good value. The new 149 isn't far off.

Audi A3 3.2 V6: £24,685

Has six cylinders to the top C30's five, and quattro four-wheel-drive transmission, but you will enjoy driving the Volvo just as much. The finish is better in the A3, though.

BMW 130i SE: £24,770

It has five doors, but rear-seat space is negligible. Some may regard rear-wheel drive as the enthusiast's choice. Odd looks, but a lovely, smooth straight-six engine.

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