Different is good – right? Try telling that to Volvo.
In the push for growth and profitability, conformity rules. The market isn’t habitually keen on niche cars and tends to reward bravery by studiously ignoring it in favour of something more conventional. Volvo played it safe with the C30, but not in terms of positioning, concept or indeed style. Intending to sell 65,000 per annum; when production ceased in 2013, an unsubstantiated 208,000 were sold amounting to about 29,000 per annum over seven years. Profitability was likely to have been marginal to non-existent, which may (at least partially) explain why Volvo elected not to replace it.
There were other reasons too. The Swedish marque embarked upon a roller coaster ride following Ford’s acquisition for a reputed $6.45bn in 1999. The American multinational was reputed to be in the habit of saddling the balance sheets of its trophy wives with the costs of purchase, necessitating (often ill-advised) product expansions. Once Volvo became part of Ford’s sprawling Premier Automotive Group, a good deal of cross-pollination took place, amongst the first being the handsome S40/V50 series, based on engineering elements of the second generation Ford Focus.
But even if it was decreed that the C30 was not to be an especially practical design, it would be a characteristically safe one. Its style being directly inspired by 2001 Safety Concept Car, created in Peter Horbury’s California studio with exterior styling by Stefan Jansson. The aim behind the SCC was to find a means of packaging a host of innovative safety features within a more alluring, dynamic silhouette – or to put it another way – to ‘sex-up the safe’.
The design came about as an amalgam. Horbury chose Jansson’s original theme as basis, upon which elements from alternative proposals were blended into a single form using advanced computer modelling. As Jansson pointed out to Car Body Design: “The design of a car needs to have one author. It needs to be conceived as a whole so it can later be perceived as a whole.” A core element of the shape was the style of the glassback rear hatch, which provided a clear reference to the preceding P1800 ES and 480ES coupé’s.
Five years on, sans rear doors and a good deal of conceptual addenda, the production C30 was launched to a broadly warm reception. Technically identical to its bigger brother in all key areas apart from overall length and having emerged with most of the SCC concept’s style intact, Horbury’s studio produced a neat, bobtailed coupe/hatch while not majoring on practicality, appealed strongly (to some eyes at least) on appearance. Launched with eight different engine choices – (Volvo, Mazda and Ford units according to Car) – the pick of the range arguably being Volvo’s own 2.5 litre five cylinder unit. Car‘s Ben Oliver tested a T5 model in the December 2006 issue, praising the C30’s looks, quality interior, pliant ride combined with good body control, strong performance and outsider appeal, gushing: “Different would have been enough. But different and good is so much better.”
Not that it made much difference, 2007 was the C30’s best year but it never came close to reaching its sales targets. In 2011, it received a modest facelift, major changes being reserved for the nose with new larger headlights and a reshaped more upright grille. Engine choices were rebalanced towards diesel and an ultra- economical DRIVe version was added. Sales were largely confined to what marketers like to call ‘downsizing empty nesters’ who weren’t necessarily bothered about luggage capacity – (with the rear seats down, there was a modest load bay) – but valued the image, style and compactness.
That same year, Ford offloaded Volvo to Geeley Automotive for $1.8bn as they cleared the decks of European-based distractions and any hope of a premium presence. Under new ownership, facing falling sales and a chronic loss of direction, there was little appetite to replace its slow selling coupé-hatch, so in 2013, it went quietly of its own volition – largely unmourned. The market at which it was aimed in 2006 now sits firmly in the crossover camp.
I have a genuine soft spot for the C30. I’ve always fancied one in a similar way that I’ve always quietly hankered after an Alfa 145. Both have a similar leftfield appeal, although the Volvo is not only more accessible – (when did you last see a 145?) – but also a palpably more viable ownership proposition. Volvo lost the bet on the C30’s sales success, but gave us one of the last compact hatches to offer something different – and different is good – it’s just unfortunate the market can’t grasp that.