Pros: Cool styling; slick cabin; powerful, personality-filled turbocharged inline-5; comfy front seats

Cons: Old-school optional navigation system; one of the least practical hatchbacks you can buy

If you're concerned that cars all seem to look the same these days, you should take a gander at the 2012 Volvo C30. Sporting a rakish rear roofline with a unique all-glass liftgate, the C30 draws inspiration from the classic Volvo 1800ES of the early 1970s, not from the cookie-cutter cars that currently clutter our roads.

Well, all right, the C30's front half does look rather generic, even after its recent styling tweaks. But the overall effect is still quite stunning, especially given how rarely you see a C30 on the road.

So why hasn't Volvo sold more of these zesty little hatches? We can assure you that it's not because of a power shortage: the C30's turbocharged inline-5 serves up plenty of entertaining thrust. The fuel economy's not bad, either. A more likely culprit is the C30's premium price, which probably makes buyers less forgiving of shortcomings like the outdated navigation system and the surprisingly inconvenient cargo hold.

But we prefer to focus on the positives when it comes to the 2012 Volvo C30. It looks great inside and out, it's comfortable and it can go pretty fast when you feel like it. The C30's starting price of roughly $25,000 is reasonable for what you get. For our money, the C30 is one of the most underappreciated cars on the market.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volvo C30 is offered in base, Premier Plus and Premier Platinum versions. As with other Volvos, a sport-themed R-Design model is also offered in the same three trim levels. The R-Design's main features are 18-inch wheels, a stiffer suspension and quicker, firmer steering, but it also features numerous exclusive styling cues-check out some photos, and you'll see what we mean.

The base C30-the one you can get for around $25,000 with the six-speed manual transmission-comes nicely equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, a tilting and telescoping steering column, cruise control, a trip computer and an eight-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. It's all you really need, but the Premier Plus adds LED exterior lighting, a sunroof and power front seats. The Premier Platinum goes further with a 10-speaker, 650-watt Dolby Pro Logic II surround-sound audio system and a flip-up dashtop navigation system. Automatic climate control is also available, and leather upholstery is optional on the regular C30 and standard on R-Design.

The front seats will be a highlight of C30 ownership for years to come, delivering almost peerless comfort on long trips. They could use more lateral support for spirited driving, but the C30 has a relaxed character, so we don't really mind that the seats lack racing-style side bolstering. The three-spoke steering wheel likewise strikes a pleasant balance between sportiness and comfort. The back seat is certainly tight on legroom, but if the front occupants don't mind sliding their chairs up a bit, rear passenger space is otherwise adequate-it's certainly not out of the question to take a trip with three friends in this car, unlike in the teensy Mini Cooper S.

From a driver's-eye view, the C30's cockpit looks decidedly upscale and modern, with a chic minimalist style that recalls another renowned Swedish company: Ikea. The signature "floating" center control panel adds to the effect, and we continue to appreciate the unique font that Volvo has used for years on its gauges and buttons. Ergonomics are very good. The C30 puts most controls at or near your fingertips. There are some issues with the optional navigation system, but we'll get to that in a minute.

We don't usually say this about hatchbacks, but the C30 really isn't very practical for hauling stuff. Beneath that sexy glass liftgate, the cargo bay measures only 12.9 cubic feet, which is barely more than you get in a typical economy sedan's trunk. Flip down the 50/50 split folding rear seatbacks, and there's just 20.2 cubic feet. Even Mini claims a maximum of 24.0 cubic feet for its Cooper Hardtop.

Technology

The C30 comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, which is one reason why we're high on the entry-level model. There are some desirable technology add-ons-the 650-watt stereo and the automatic climate control system with its humanoid airflow buttons come to mind-but the one we want to focus on is the navigation system, which frankly isn't up to snuff by current standards. For one thing, it lives on top of the dash and flips up when in use, so it's already kind of like a portable navigation unit as opposed to being integrated into the center panel. Also, the controls consist of buttons behind the steering wheel spokes-you know, where you can't see them. Throw in the system's rudimentary graphics, and you've got all the ingredients for an option we'd recommend avoiding. Stick with your smartphone for directions, we say, and just enjoy the drive.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All C30 models come with front-wheel drive and a turbocharged inline-5 rated at 227 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but you can pay extra for a five-speed automatic. The automatic isn't the smoothest or most responsive unit on the market; it dates back a few years, and transmission technology has advanced quickly of late. The manual is quite pleasant, though, and it helps extract the most from the engine while keeping the price down. As for that engine, we love it, from its quirky five-cylinder thrum to its powerful punch of torque at low rpm. It reminds us of the old Volvo 850 Turbo-a fond memory. Fuel economy? Not great, but not bad, either, for a turbocharged engine that's getting on in years. The manual's rated at 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway, while the automatic ekes out an extra unit on the highway to finish at 21/30 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Volvo C30 comes with standard stability control and six airbags. Although the government has not crash-tested a C30 lately, the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the S60 its top rating of Good in every category.

Driving Impressions

The R-Design's aggressive looks might have you thinking that the C30 is a real "hot hatch," but there's something you need to understand about this Volvo: it's fancier than that. What we mean is that the C30 isn't some hard-core boy racer that's set up for track days you'll never attend. No, it's set up for daily life, so it actually takes most bumps in stride-even the stiffer-sprung R-Design-and filters out much of the road noise that plagues lesser rides. The C30 can carry decent speed through a corner, but it's just as much about navigating the urban commute or making sure you're refreshed at the end of a long trip. We think it's an excellent real-world package.

Other Cars to Consider

FIAT 500 Abarth - The little FIAT is cheaper than the C30, and it certainly feels the part inside. But we like its spunky look and turbocharged verve.

Mini Cooper S - The "MCS" remains one of the world's great all-around cars, combining scintillating performance with stellar fuel economy. The Volvo is much better on the highway, though, and we already discussed the back-seat situation.

Volkswagen GTI - Probably the C30's biggest problem, the GTI combines Volvo-like refinement with a touch more athleticism, and you can even get it with four doors if you want. However, you can't get anything like the C30's unique style.

AutoTrader Recommends

We're real fans of the base C30 with the five-speed manual. For the price of a Cooper S or a GTI, you get a satisfying, great-looking hatch with inimitable Swedish style.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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