SRT, AMG, M Sport and Alpina, Abarth, SVT, RS, Speed . . . these are the in-house nutters who hot-rod cars from, respectively, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Fiat, Ford, Audi and Mazda.
But Polestar? R-Design? If you know them as Volvo’s skunkworks, you’re a motorhead.
At least in America, the words “Volvo” and “racing” usually don’t appear together unless they’re connected by a negative. As when your mother or spouse hands you the keys and says, “Now don’t you race my Volvo!” As if you could.
They’re smooth, lovely cars that can be driven fast, but not hard, if you get my drift. Until now, that is. This C30 T5 Polestar R-Design is a speed sled worthy of any of the better-known performance shops.
Polestar is Volvo’s racing partner. Currently, the group specializes in heavily fortifying S60s to do battle on the madhouse World Touring Car circuits. (Everywhere but here in the US, or we’d know about Volvo race cars.) Polestar also can reprogram Volvo’s turbocharged passenger-car engines to deliver more power without trashing the factory warranties.
R-Design, on the other hand, goes through certain Volvos’ suspension and steering to amp up their response, and then applies subtle cosmetic clues to make sure we understand that some spice has been added to the Swedish meatballs.
Taken together, these steroidal upgrades transform “nice” cars into cars you might not loan your teenager. There’s no better example than this cheerfully wicked C30.
The 5-spoke alloy wheels shod with beefy Pirelli P Zero tires are the first indication that something is different. Then there are the Botoxed fender flares and rocker panels, the deep front-end valance, and a ground-effects panel at the rear that shows off the fat dual exhausts. And finally the blue “Polestar” badge on the deck lid. Aha! This handsome little wagon has been to the gym! And check out that cool interior!
With its glass liftgate, coupe doors, four bucket seats and semi-graceful styling, the C30 evokes one of the iconic Volvos of the Victorian Era, the 1972 P1800ES shooting brake. As interesting as that car was, it was bog slow. But not the C30. Although 227 horsepower and 236 torques don’t sound like much, they can motivate a small, agile and relatively light vehicle quite briskly.
The Polestar power comes on near-instantly and gets routed to the front wheels through a manual 6-speed gearbox that’s light but precise in operation.
Volvo has learned how to minimize torque steer, so full-throttle bursts don’t throw the car off into the puckerbrush. The R-Design suspension has stiffer springs and shock absorbers, and the steering has been quickened. The ride is taut but not bone-breaking, and the car can change direction like a jackrabbit.
On its debut, in 2006, the C30 became (along with the XC60 small ute) my favorite Volvo. I love hot hatches anyway, and this one is sleeker and more comfortable—more grown-up—than most. Back then it was also clear that the car easily could manage more power and attitude without overstraining the platform. Here’s the proof.
It’s tempting to think, OK, now add all-wheel drive and a direct-shift gearbox with steering-wheel paddles . . . but the extra weight would need Volvo’s 6-cylinder Polestar engine, which would add even more weight. The result would be an all-weather rocket, but maybe at the price of this car’s marvelous agility. The world has too many overweight, over-complicated cars. Leave it alone!
The most agile Volvo is also the least expensive Volvo. A plain-Jane (but hardly bare-bones) C30 can cost as little as $26,000. This one, with every box on the order form ticked, from Polestar to R-Design to the Platinum interior package, doesn’t even crack $36,000. Truly a high-value small car.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s lunchtime and there’s a new place I’ve been wanting to try. In Portland. It’s only 90 miles. I’ll be right back . . .