What have the following cars got in common? The Audi A3 Quattro Sport and RS3, Alfa Romeo 147 GTA, Volkswagen Golf V5, VR6 and R32, Clio V6, Fiat Stilo Abarth and Bravo HGT, BMW 130i, Ford Focus ST and RS, and the Volvo C30 T5. The first common feature is that they all have an engine blessed with five or six cylinders.
Now look at that list again. The second thing in common, with just two exceptions, is that they are no longer with us. Their replacements have downsized to smaller 4-cylinder turbo engines or worse, disappeared completely.
Why? What’s causing this cull of big-engined hot hatchbacks? It’s a two-pronged attack, with EU emissions regulations on one side and the need for more economical engines to counter the soaring cost of fuel. Even if manufacturers can get a big engine to pass the Euro 5 regulations, there’s less demand in showrooms for a car with a thirsty engine. Disappointing, isn’t it?
The only two hot hatches in that list that are still on sale are the Audi RS3 and the Volvo C30 T5. The Audi uses a 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo to produce 335bhp but at £40k it’s out of the reach of most mortals. The Volvo shares the same capacity and cylinder count, has less power but is close to half the price of the RS3. Keen to close the performance gap, the Swedish manufacturer has a trick up its sleeve in the form of the Volvo C30 T5 Polestar.
T5 Polestar? What’s that?
There was a one-off 400bhp, all-wheel drive C30 Polestar concept that made a few public appearances in 2010 but this is not that car. Despite the bright blue bodywork this is almost a regular C30 T5 with one notable extra – the Polestar badge on the back hints at something extra.
If you’ve never heard of the name before, you might be disappointed to hear that Polestar is not a TV reality show for gymnastic ladies. No, instead Polestar are a tuning company who work very closely with Volvo, having raced with them in various competitions and now apply their motorsport experience to tuning their road cars. On the C30 options list you may see a box for a ‘Polestar Upgrade’. Tick the box (and pay £645) and your new C30 will arrive more generously endowed and with absolutely no effect on its warranty.
The Polestar upgrade adds 20bhp and 36lb/ft to the T5’s vital statistics, raising output to 250bhp and 272 lb/ft. While there is more power at the top end it’s the mid-range that benefits most where the extra torque has most effect. Officially there is no impact on fuel economy but the temptation to put your foot down and make use of the extra power is bound to make trips to the fuel station more frequent.
It’s not just the Polestar badge that makes the C30 T5 feel special. This is a ‘premium’ hot hatch and one that isn’t German, something of a rarity these days. Volvo hope to tempt A3 and 1-series buyers with a combination of smart looks and classy interior.
I love the look of the C30. Its side-profile is superb with nicely sloping roofline and an assured stance as it hunches down on its lowered suspension, wheelarches filled by the optional 18-inch alloys. The T5 comes with the R-Design bodykit as standard, adding a roof spoiler, side skirts and a front bumper with larger intakes. The T5 badge at the back tells you of the bigger engine but it’s the pair of chrome exhausts jutting out from the rear that really give the game away.
The rear of the C30 sports another distinctive feature, a large glass frameless tailgate that harks back to Volvo’s last 3-door coupe, the 480. The rear seems quite narrow at first glance, a visual trick where the rear windows sweep in to meet the tailgate, giving the C30 a nice set of hips that are accentuated by the rear lights.
The Polestar Blue bodywork of this particular car is hard to miss and certainly attracts attention. While it might not be to everyone’s taste I grew to love the shouty BLUE brightening up the grey-scale tones of the office car park. Sadly it’s not a standard colour and is actually a special vinyl wrap covering Ice White paintwork. Personally I think Volvo should get this colour onto the options list straight away.
Open the driver’s door, step inside and you can start to appreciate the beautifully crafted interior. Black leather upholstery is standard, embossed with the R-Design logo, and adorns the front and rear seats, doors, steering wheel and arm rest. The seats are soft, supportive, adjustable and incredibly comfortable, making the C30 a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the ride.
Tip the front seats forward and you will find that the rear bench is designed for two and only two. It’s a bold decision by Volvo to go for a four-seater layout and I think it works, allowing the rear passengers to sit in nicely sculpted seats and with enough headroom for all but the tallest. Those rear seats also fit full-sized child seats with ease, allowing you to keep the C30 on your shortlist if you find yourself with two little ones to drive around. If you really need to carry more than two passengers in the back the C30 is not the car for you and I suggest you look elsewhere, perhaps at a nice big people carrier?
It may have a nicely appointed cabin yet that doesn’t mean that the C30 T5 is hugely expensive to buy. A basic T5 without the Polestar upgrade will set you back £22,125, much cheaper than the Germans and offering much more performance than lower-priced rivals. This test car was specced up with a lot of options including those larger alloys, keyless entry and start, pop-up sat-nav with stereo upgrade, winter pack with heated seats and light washers, sunroof, auto-dimming mirror and folding wing mirrors with LED lighting. The downside of all of those luxuries is is that the asking price exceeds £27,000, a lot of money, but so long as you don’t get carried away on the options list you can have a nicely specced C30 T5 Polestar with 250bhp for about the same price as a basic 210bhp Golf GTI.
On The Move
From the off you can tell that the T5’s engine has a bigger capacity than most hot hatches, with a deep exhaust note that’s missing in a lot of its rivals. At low revs the C30 is quiet, refined and strong, allowing you to roll along in a high gear with the engine at little more than tickover. The light action of the six-speed manual makes it a delight to use and, thanks to the engine’s grunt, it is possible to block-shift without feeling like you’re straining the engine.
If you do drive like that you’ll be missing out on the T5’s trump card and the big advantage of that odd-numbered cylinder count. Push the rev counter around to the mid-range and the delightful and distrinctive five-cylinder warble starts to build. At this point the acceleration is already pinning you back in the seat and yet there’s more to come. Keep your foot down and the noise grows in intensity to an aggressive wail, with far more richness and character than any four-cylinder engine can muster. It’s an addictive experience and you’ll quickly find yourself using any excuse to squeeze that throttle.
While you’re busy enjoying the music from the engine room it is easy to miss just how fast you’re going. The C30 T5 is quick, properly quick, and if you regularly use the first three gears to their full extent you could land yourself in a lot of trouble with the law. There’s very little lag from the turbo and the mid-range acceleration is impressive, with a gentle brush of the accelerator all that is needed to dispatch dawdling drivers and lorries.
Stamp on the throttle in the lower gears and you’ll find some torque-steer, particularly on damp tarmac, although that is understandable considering that there’s 272 lb/ft being channeled through the front wheels. I’ve felt worse in other cars, some with noticeably less torque, so the C30 does a reasonable job of keeping things neat and tidy.
You might expect a big, heavy engine to have a significant impact on handling and yet the C30 is surprisingly resistant to understeer. Provided you are steady with the throttle inputs the C30 tucks itself into a corner and hangs on, remaining composed even over the bumpy stuff. Snap the power on too quickly and the Michelin Pilot Exaltos struggle to cope, the nose starts to run wide and the ESP steps in and cuts power. That’s to be expected from any powerful front-wheel drive car.
While the C30 is composed through the bends it’s not eager to go sniffing out apexes in a series of sharp curves. The steering is slightly over-assisted and doesn’t pass much information and with a weight of 1,426kg the C30 isn’t keen on rapid direction changes. Instead the C30 makes a better case for itself on fast and medium speed corners where it can settle, make the most of its grip and then power out of the other side.
The C30 is a fast cross-country cruiser rather than an all-out B-road blaster. The softer chassis makes it great for cruising at speed, as is the quiet cabin and the fact that the exhaust note doesn’t intrude with a steady throttle. The ride quality is just on the right side of firm, sometimes feeling a bit harsh over very bad surfaces but it’s a price worth paying for the stability in corners.
There’s always a downside to having a big engine capacity and its one of the reasons that the C30 T5’s rivals have died out. You’ll become a regular visitor at your local petrol station thanks to the T5’s thirst and the limited range, even with a 62 litre tank.
Attempting an economy run on my usual drive into work I managed 31mpg over 32 miles, but that was showing a lot of restraint and denying myself the pleasure of stretching that lovely engine. During the week I covered 362 miles at an average of 28.5mpg, much better than I expected but that still works out as an expensive way to get about.
Then there’s the car tax to consider. With CO2 emissions of 203 g/km the Volvo C30 T5 falls into VED band K and that comes with a hefty £580 car tax bill in the first year and £245 for each year after that. When the car tax reminder arrives in the post you could always tell yourself that you’re helping the country pay off its debts. So yes, there is a financial penalty for driving a car with such an engine but for some of us it’s a price worth paying.
Some of the C30’s options are a tad expensive, particularly the sat-nav at over £1,500 … and it’s not even got a touch-screen! I’d definitely recommend skipping that option and get yourself a cheap portable sat-nav with the money you’ll be saving.
Anything else? Well, I could say that the optional hard cover for the boot has got a silly flap on it that’s easy to forget and leave open. Oh alright, that’s just being really picky.
The Final Reckoning
My time with the Volvo C30 T5 Polestar left me feeling a mixture of emotions. I very quickly grew to love the way it drives, with a strong engine and composed ride that makes it a fast and capable commuting tool. It’s distinctive looks ooze charisma and class and beat most if its rivals (in my eyes) while its interior is filled with quality materials, is quiet and extremely comfortable.
The performance on offer is addictive and exciting with a soundtrack that makes it hard to resist making the most of the T5 engine. The chassis offers a decent compromise between comfort and handling and, while it won’t win any awards for razor-sharp precision, it does impress with its ability to cover ground extremely quickly.
Then there are the little things that I remember. I love the way it settles into a high tickover when starting from cold, burbling loudly for a few seconds until settling down. I love the way the seats support you in all the right places and the fact that their heating isn’t just in the base, it also warms your back (rivals take note). I also love the stereo, which is loud, clear and easy to operate.
The fact that the C30 isn’t the obvious choice was another plus for me. Most people looking for an expensive hatchback flock to the Golf, A3 and 1-Series and that helps to make the C30 feel more exclusive. If only people would look a bit further than the usual choices they would realise they’re missing out an a little gem.
With so many positive feelings it seems strange that my lasting impression of the Volvo is one of sadness. The Volvo C30 T5 is one of the last of its kind and their days are numbered. Euro 6 regulations come into effect in 2014, making it even more difficult for larger engined vehicles to get through the tests. I’m sure Volvo’s clever boffins would be able to get the T5 to meet the new regs but will Volvo be able to justify the development cost?
The Volvo C30 T5 Polestar is a great hot hatch. Enjoy it while you can.
Volvo C30 T5 Polestar Specifications
|Engine:||2,521cc 5-cyl Turbo|
|Kerb Weight||1,426 kg|
|Top Speed:||149 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||203 g/km (Band K)|
|Official MPG:||32.5 mpg|
|Actual MPG:||28.5 mpg|
|Price (as tested):||£27,830*|
|PERFORMANCE||Engine is very strong with delightful soundtrack||9|
|HANDLING||Composed and grippy, a little on the soft side||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Good price for big performance overshadowed by high running costs||6|
|DESIRABILITY||Stylish, classy, a rare site. I’d love one.||10|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||Fast, refined, sounds glorious, but could be more playful||8|
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*Prices taken from Volvo website, January 2012