Volvo C30 DRIVe review

3 out of 5
£22,670

For

Cheap to run, better economy than some hybrids, relaxing drive, different design

Against

Cramped interior, doesn’t feel like the future, better rivals at the price

The age of austerity. Don’t you hate that phrase? But car companies aren’t stupid, and it’s no coincidence that, as fuel prices and the cost of driving in general has rocketed, brands like Volvo have introduced green sub-brands like “DRIVe” (pronounced “drive-ee”). Their marketing claim may be helping the planet, but in reality it’s all about saving the driver money.

And on the face of it, the C30 DRIVe we’re reviewing here ticks a lot of money-saving boxes. You’ll pay no road tax, or congestion charge in London. But the headline is fuel economy. According to official fuel economy figures, in the right circumstances, this car will do 80.7mpg.

That’s of interest to us because we’ve been keeping a close eye on the future of the car recently. Over the past few months we’ve sampled the Chevrolet Volt, Honda CR-Z and Lexus CT200h. All hybrid cars, we’ve largely been impressed at the way they fuse new technology into a package that helps them at times move silently, pollute less, and ultimately use less fuel. So can Volvo, with the humble old diesel engine, really get close to the fuel economy figures of an advanced hybrid?

In a word, yes. But don’t expect to get near that 80mpg headline figure (blame the EU’s standardised tests which don’t represent the real world). None the less, the 48mpg we average over 500 miles isn’t to be sniffed at, in fact it better than the hybrid Honda CR-Z from which we only got 43mpg. And what’s even more refreshing about the C30 is how relaxed it makes you feel. Whereas so many cars these days feature bone-crashingly hard rides, the Volvo makes no pretensions about cornering speed or race track ability, and the (positive trade off) is a very relaxed, refined ride on the average roads we drive on.

But while everyone’s looking to save a few quid, we doubt (and wouldn’t recommend) you’ll buy a car just on the virtue of some good fuel economy figures. So what’s the rest of the C30 like? It can be summed up in two words” polarising and confusing. Polarising because, this is a fairly unique, different piece of design. The C30 in its basic form has been around a while, but it’s had a fairly recent new front-end design, which brought its appearance into family line with the larger Volvo S and V60. But it spoils the car’s lines, and gives it an unfortunate drooping nose. From this point back, the C30 has a quite unique “compact GT” stance, with it’s raked fastback, gently sloping roof and fairly flat shoulder line, which broadens to the rear and bleeds into those oh-so-distinctive tail lights.

The unique appearance has forced some real compromises on the interior package, however, that you might struggle to live with. Those broad rear shoulders mean there’s only room for two - rather than three - people in the back. Meanwhile, the boot is tiny for this class of car and the single glass tailgate means Volvo have had to design the weirdest, most fiddly rear load cover ever seen, to make sure people can’t spy your MacBook Pro which you’ve “hidden” in the boot. 

Get inside, particularly in the front, and things improve. Few car companies do interior design better than Volvo, and there’s a real sense of quality in here. Everything you touch is soft, the seats are super-comfortable, but the best bit is that whereas a German manufacturer would simply render every surface grey, in the Volvo, the trim’s been done in a lovely Scandinavian style, with flashes of lighter grey and neoprene-like materials that look and feel great. 

Tech-wise it’s about par for the course these days. Parking sensors and iPod connectivity are options, while our car came with the £275 Bluetooth handsfree option, which worked seamlessly. It is controlled either by steering wheel buttons or ones on the floating centre stack, which features an actual T9 keypad (no, really!). This gives a slightly bizarre old school twist to everything, but we found ourselves enjoying the novelty of actually dialing numbers by punching real buttons while we were stopped at the lights.

A final note should go the stop-start system, which helps contribute to that super economy headline figure. Shutting down the engine then automatically restarting it as you move away from traffic lights, it’s the quietest, most well-judged version of such a system we’ve experienced yet.

Verdict

If you’re on the look out for something economical and different, the Volvo C30 DRIVe might just be it. It’s a really likeable car, and its relaxed driving style and calming interior design are refreshing in a world of frenetic, go-faster cars. But ultimately, it falls between two stools. Let’s not forget, this car is based on a Ford Focus and ultimately occupies the same space on the road. So why does it feel so small? If you’re looking for a practical, do-it-all Focus-sized car, the C30 will rule itself out for many buyers because of its lack of space and rear door option.

So rather than families, the C30 is aimed, we suspect, at the marketing man’s dream customer: young, professional, childless couples who want something a little bit different, more sporty and premium than the mainstream, but not something that’s too impractical. Yet here again it misses the target. The C30 doesn’t feel as special or stand out as a brilliant all-rounder and great drive in the same way VW’s Scirocco does. Yet nor does it have the arresting driver environment, tech appeal and mad space-trooper helmet styling of Honda’s CR-Z. Likeable though it might be, because it competes in the same market and at a similar price to these two great cars, we can’t really recommend the C30 over either of them.