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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Sexy, sporty . . . Swedish?

Volvo's C30, at $23,000 and up, is its best new model in years.

August 01, 2007|DAN NEIL

CARL LINNAEUS was born to a Lutheran pastor in the province of Smaland in southern Sweden in 1707, which is why you never hear anyone say, "I wish I were like Carl Linnaeus." Linnaeus was a brilliant man, a physician to Sweden's royal court and the preeminent naturalist of his time. Despite said brilliance, Linnaeus was astonished to discover you couldn't grow coffee and bananas in Sweden. His Lutheran minister father could only roll his eyes.

We know Linnaeus today as the inventor of the system of biological taxonomy, which categorizes living things into the groupings kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Here's a good mnemonic device to remember: Kobe Plays Canasta On Flabby Governor Schwarzenegger.

What made me think of dear, dead Linnaeus? The new-for-2008 Volvo C30. Like fellow-Swede Linnaeus, Volvo is attempting to cultivate a crop the Gothenburg-based company is not known for: a premium sport hatchback, the like of which has not been attempted since the 1800 ES Wagon in the early '70s. The C30 likewise confounds easy categorization. The company's products fall into a number of genera, including Safe, Family, European (Suburbanus heterosexuali). But it's hard for American consumers to square Volvo with Hip, Sporty, Nocturnal, Male (Metropolitus promiscuous).

And yet, biology isn't necessarily destiny. The C30 is a terrific little car, a hugely entertaining and deftly engineered piece of Scandinavian design entering a market that's just about panting for cooler, and greener, small cars. Arriving many months before the BMW 1-series and wading in against the likes of the Audi A3, the VW GTI and the Mini Cooper, the C30 feels like the emergence of a new species, Volvo rockinus.

Of course, no car is so good that Volvo Corporate can't tie an anchor round its neck and throw it into the Gulf of Bothnia. According to this week's Automotive News Europe, Volvo marketers plan only limited advertising around the C30 launch this fall, in keeping with their modest sales expectations (around 8,000 units annually in the U.S). Allow me to predict a diet of crow: When kidless urbanites start seeing this car on the streets, they will want it.

From the curb-skimming front spoiler to the tips of its bodacious dual exhausts (more rear breathing for a 2.5-liter turbo than is absolutely necessary), the C30 is one of the most successful modern hatchback designs since the Mini Cooper. Sleek and fluent and next-year contemporary, it wears its glass-and-steel exterior like a Size 0 dress.

Mechanically, the C30 is nearly identical to its S40 sedan and V50 wagon siblings -- the wheelbase (103.9 inches) is the same as the S40 -- but overall length (167.4) is 8.7 inches shorter. The short front and rear overhangs give the car a feisty aggressiveness more like an Asian sport import than anything from the land of universal healthcare.

From a formal perspective, the most notable design feature is the car's dramatic tumblehome, which is the inward cant of the canopy toward the roof. This is the sort of fancy concept-car styling that almost never makes it to production -- in this case, because the inward taper cuts down on interior room, which is one reason why the C30 has two bucket seats crammed in the back instead of a three-seat bench. But apparently Volvo's designers, led by then-head of design Peter Horbury, fended off compromise. The result is an upper fuselage that seems to stream back in a darkly glassed teardrop.

As a nod to its Generation D target audience, the C30's two trim levels are called Version 1.0 ($22,700 base price) and Version 2.0 ($25,700). The 2.0 comes with a lowered suspension, 18-inch wheels and a full-skirted aero kit in contrasting color. Fully decked out with all the performance pieces, including Pirelli 245/45 R18 PZero Rossos, the C30 looks like it's graduated from the most ornery outlaw tuner shop in Uppsala.

Both versions are powered by the same turbocharged 2.5-liter, five-cylinder, 227-horsepower engine hooked to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift gate ($1,250). I drove both versions last week and I have to say the manual is the better choice. Obviously, you have more opportunity to leverage the turbo's low-end torque (236 pound-feet at a mere 1,500 rpm) in hard driving; but, also, the clutch is so light, and the uptake so agreeable, that the manual is almost effortless in city driving.

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