Perfect Compromise

Dublin resident Mick reports on life with a Volvo C30. 

It really doesn’t look its age.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of love in these parts for the mark V Golf. Not so here. I had 4 of them. My favourite was the ’08 black 3 door. So much so I kept it for almost a decade. The TSI engine that was reputedly brittle brought me and my learner clients almost to the moon (well over 300,000 kms).

About 18 months ago it started to give a little trouble. Hardly all that surprising I suppose. Hundreds of people of all abilities had driven it. Over 40 oil and filter changes kept the mill running beautifully but it on other fronts it was becoming a case of running repairs and constantly switching off warning lights. I couldn’t put off replacing it much longer.

Everything in life is a compromise, never more so than buying a car. Especially one that I personally drive and teach in. I didn’t want to go brand new again (things were a little tight) but needed a car of similar size. Certain things were non negotiable. It had to possess the correct number of doors and a petrol engine. This is not as easy as it sounds. The ludicrous motor tax regime here in Ireland meant the vast majority of hatchbacks sold since 2008 were either woefully underpowered petrols or more likely, diesel.

I spread a wide net but kept coming back to the Volvo C30. It had many appealing factors, more of which later, but the problem was I could only find diesels. I drove a couple and the 2.0d was nearly as terrible as I feared. It was noisy and far too lumpy and clattery, I knew I could never live with it. I did see a few 1.8 petrols but it’s a heavy car and this too was one compromise too far.

I wanted to show the tapering rear, the lengths I went to…

Then I spotted it. A 2.0 petrol. 145hp. It has probably lost a little poke over the years yet it still felt just right, enough urge to make it driveable but not so much to scare the horses. The two significant entries in the debit column were its 10 year old number plates and the 150,000 kms on the clock. It was well maintained and I loved the interior. I bought it (hoping to squeeze 18 months out of it) and despite its age I haven’t regretted it.

Before they started this “T3” nonsense.

With a couple of small changes this could be the perfect compromise between a personal hatchback and the ideal work car. On the downside it is thirsty. I can live with an average consumption of exactly 10l/100km. What really annoys me is that they seemed to have installed a largish thimble instead of a fuel tank. A busy week requires three trips to a filling station. I reckon it should hold at least 65 litres instead of a disappointing 50.

There is no question but that it needs a sixth gear. At the legal limit of 120kph the engine spins at 3200 in 5th. Performance is never more than adequate but the power is always delivered smoothly, predictably and is very linear. Much was made of it being built on the same platform as the mark 2 Focus. Having a mark 2 Focus (our emergency spare) on our fleet I can assure you that they are completely different propositions.

The Volvo feels more planted and stable although this may partly be due to slightly wider (20mm) tyres all round. However the Swede’s handling feels a little inert compared to its cousin. It’s certainly no hot hatch. You don’t get the same road feel and confidence inspiring handling that even the basic 100hp Focus gives you. The final drawback is the tiny boot with its fiddly privacy cover.

The boot may be small but I suppose it doesn’t need to be much bigger in my line of work.

There is plenty of good stuff. I can spend over 12hrs in the cabin in one day. This is truly a nice place to spend time. Buttery soft leather on possibly the most comfortable and hugely adjustable seats I’ve ever sat on. I quite like that there are only 2 comfortable rear seats with a little extra width and an armrest.

Great HVAC and a nice sound system and that lovely central floating console. It also has the perfect amount of spec. Cruise control doesn’t often get used but auto wipers and lights are a boon in my line of work. No touchscreen thankfully and it’s a doddle to explain the intuitively laid out secondary controls. There’s a nicely weighted clutch (that results in very few stalls) and a well sprung gearstick with a short throw snick snack change. Brakes are reasonably communicative and allow for precise and smooth halts.

This is a nice place to be.

The icing on this rather nice cake is its looks. Students are constantly surprised sitting into the C30 instead of the Micra/Yaris/Fiesta they were expecting. The more I look at it the more I think that it’s quite a DTW type of car. It was thoroughly modern at launch (and still looks really fresh over a decade on) yet still reflected Volvo’s heritage, especially the beautiful rear opening. Not terribly practical maybe but I love how it looks.

There is no compromised 5 door version so you never see one head on only to be disappointed when a flawed profile view drives by. When seen from above it has a subtle taper towards the rear giving it almost a boat tail. Sharing everything from the B pillar forward with its 2 larger siblings is no bad thing as these are well styled, coherent cars. However I enjoy watching it most from the rear three quarter view where that unmistakable tail is a thing of beauty. It has been reliable, easy to drive and popular with my clients…

Its best angle?

…I might just get another year out of it.

17 thoughts on “Perfect Compromise”

  1. May I plead for the correct use of “its” as the possessive? The constant incorrect use of “it’s” everywhere on the offchance it might be correct is getting on my nerves, and this author purports to be a teacher. Seven incorrect usages including both lead and final photograph captions are a bit much. I can’t even read stuff like this, sorry.

    1. Apologies for inflicting this article on you Bill. Perhaps my grammar needs a little brush up. Just checked the meaning of purport there : “to pretend to be or to do something, especially in a way that is not easy to believe”. I’m not sure how you can deduce that I’m pretending to be a driving instructor from a misplaced apostrophe but I can assure you that I do teach people to drive.

    2. Dear Bill. In essence I sympathise with your call for grammatical rigour. Ultimate responsibility for proof reading rests with me but, since I am usually wrestling with spirit of another proof, things will slip through the net from time to time to time. However, the principals of this site have never been beyond the odd misspelling, grammatical eccentricity or greengrocer’s apostrophe, so we would never dream of chastising another member for their errors and are rather mortified to find you doing so.

    3. In light of today’s unfortunate lapse in our usually unimpeachable standards of erudition and grammatical exactitude, we will for a limited time offer a full refund of DTW’s annual subscription to any reader who has been unduly traumatised by today’s article, upon receipt of a 500-word essay, detailing the nature of the harm caused and the full extent of the impacts upon life, work and general wellbeing.

      Mr Kearne awaits your submissions, his red editorial pen at the ready…

  2. Hi Mick. Thanks for sharing your experience with one of my favourite left-field cars of recent years. I’ve always really liked the unusual “shooting break” appearance and commend Volvo for doing something different, even if it was underappreciated by the market. I hadn’t realised that it shared so much with its siblings. Its a testament to traditional Volvo strengths that you can spend so much time in it and remain very comfortable.

  3. Your article takes me back Mick.

    Three cars ago, I ran a C30 for a couple of years. It was the lower powered but staggeringly economical 1.6 diesel. As much as I tried, it was impossible to do worse than high 40s mpg. Mid 50s was easy, and high 60s was achievable.

    Still a diesel though, meaning it was rattly and smelly…

    And I concur…the seats were tremendous, even if they looked a bit small. No aches even if driving all day.

  4. They are aging well – and always nice to read a review from a professional driver with miles and time in the car.

    One thing I’d say – surely the V50 is essentially the ‘5 door’ version you say doesn’t exist. Same from the a-pillar forward, same wheelbase I think and really just the estate version of the same platform.

    Nitpicking aside, I love the floating centre console on these – especially the ones in the light oak effect. The first car to rehabilitate ‘wood’ as an interior material after so many years of gauche over-lacquered fake walnut as a cheap shortcut to an idea of luxury.

    Definitely considering a late-model V50 as our next car – one of the last smaller sensible wagons…

    1. I suppose I hadn’t thought of the V50 as being the 5 door. For me an estate looks “correct” with 5 doors whereas in my book a hatchback which the C30 most certainly is almost always looks better with 3 doors (mark 2 golf gti with big bumpers excepted).

  5. Thanks for this article, Mick. I was tempted from time to time to look for one of those, as I thought it a very charming proposition, reminding me of the 480 I was very fond of as a boy. I really like cars that are a little offbeat and that defy classification. Is it a coupé? Hatchback? Shooting brake? Who cares anyway…
    What I liked about the C30 was the idea of having a high quality car (I don’t want to mention the P-word) in a very small package, including nice colour options inside and out. I’d have gone for white with brown bumpers and wheelarches.

    In the end I always stayed with my usual Citroëns, opting for soft suspension, more room and a sensible number of doors 😉

  6. Out of curiosity, why would a diesel be unacceptable for a car used for pedagogical purposes? Apart from being rather easier on fuel than your thirsty C30 they’re rather less inclined to stall which would appear to be a benefit both to the nervous novice and to anybody behind him or her in traffic.

    1. DP, it certainly wouldn’t be unacceptable to teach in a diesel car and probably around 30% of my peers use diesel. The benefits are of course better fuel economy and the ability to reclaim the vat portion of the fuel cost (not permitted with petrol). However the low down torque which makes stalling difficult in a diesel is a double edged sword. It’s harder to teach that fine delicate clutch control in a diesel and often those who learn in an oil burner find it difficult to switch to petrol. It’s a doddle to switch the other way. The low down surge of power in a diesel is more likely to catch a learner out than the predictable linear acceleration in the petrol. The gearing in a petrol is also much nicer to teach in. You can approach a yield junction in 2nd at 9 or 10kph, have a lovely clear view and smoothly pull away if safe. Impossible in a diesel, a tricky drop to first is needed when concentration could be better used elsewhere. Also in a petrol you can use the old truck of selecting 2nd gear at 20kph, 3rd at 30 and 4th at 40. Also a petrol engine is more forgiving when you aren’t quite in the correct gear. I’d much prefer a labouring engine and plenty of warning a stall is coming rather than the vicious snap of a labouring diesel engine stalling. The final advantage to a petrol engine is of course a happy instructor.

    2. That´s a good set of answers, especially the one about it being easier to switch from petrol to deisel driving than vice versa. I´ve not driven a diesel I liked.

    3. That’s interesting. I only very rarely drive manual cars and have never owned one (and given the expected prevalence of EVs and hybrids in the future I won’t need to) but when I did borrow a DIY diesel I found it much more satisfactory than a petrol one, at least from the point of view of driving in traffic. The lack of anything like a decent rev range was rather less satisfactory. When I was learning to drive I was told that learning on a Mini, as I began doing, wasn’t a great idea as it was no preparation for driving larger cars. I guess that learning on a petrol is therefore something similar.
      Also interestingly, my baby brother has an automatic-only licence. He approached a driving school about doing lessons for a manual test and was advised not to bother as it would be all EVs and hybrids in the future.

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