Hot hatchbacks are like the trump cards of the motor industry. All the major brands have a contender in that segment, and while it’s not nearly the biggest in volume terms, it’s all about trumping the competition – be it with the most power, the quickest acceleration, the most advanced tech, or the highest top speed. Volvo’s contender in the hot hatch card game is the C30 T5 R-Design. By DEON SCHOEMAN
On paper, this swift little Swede should be among the front-runners in the performance hatchback segment. With 169kW of power and 320Nm of torque, it’s got more urge than benchmark mini missiles like the Golf GTI, while the power-to-weight ratio of 119kW/ton trumps the GTI, too.
But it’s by no means the most powerful player in this hotly contested category. That honour belongs to the Renault Mégane RS, which has 184kW on tap, and boasts a power to weight ratio of137kW/ton. Yes, it’s R18k more expensive, but it’s still well below super hatches like the all-wheel drive Golf R and Audi S3, or the Scirocco R, for that matter.
But the Swedes have an ace up their sleeve, and it’s called Polestar. Polestar is a Swedish company that tunes and races Volvos, and enjoys the blessing of the Volvo factory – a bit like the relationship between AMG and Mercedes, or Alpina and BMW.
So, while this C30 T5 R-Design looks exactly like any normal C30 T5 R-Design, it’s actually significantly more powerful, thanks to some clever tweaking of the car’s engine management system by the Polestar boffins.
Not that you’d know by looking at the car: the Polestar action all happens, discreetly, under the bonnet. The 2,5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine remains as is – the same block, the same cylinder head, the same turbo.
The Polestar kit entails nothing more invasive than remapping the engine management system to optimise power and torque. As a result, power increases by 8,9% to 184kW, while torque is up 15,8% to 350Nm.
The extra urge really ups the Polestar-tweaked Volvo’s stakes in the trump card game, propelling it well ahead of the GTI, and equalling the Mégane RS in power output terms. It’s also right up there with the Golf R and Audi S3, albeit without the benefit of all-wheel drive.
Interestingly, Polestar claims that the extra muscle is achieved without affecting the C30 T5’s factory-rated fuel consumption or CO2 emissions levels. We’re not sure how they manage that, but Volvo’s claimed 8,7 litres/100 km on the combined cycle, was quite a bit less than the 11,8 litres/100 km we saw during testing.
Externally, there is nothing to alert one to this Volvo’s special status. There’s not a badge, a stripe or a logo to distinguish it from a standard T5, adding an element of stealth appeal. Not that the T5 R-Design is all that subtle to start out with.
The standard body kit includes a deeper front air dam, large air intakes, sill extensions, a racy rear apron and a rather large rear wing. These elements embellish a shape that is controversial at best, and certainly polarises opinion.
The front is angular and quite aggressive, with big headlights framing a chunky grille. In profile, the strong shoulder line dominates proceedings, accentuating the Volvo’s muscular haunches, and emphasising the unusual, slanted rear hatch.
In a world of generic design, nothing else looks quite like this – and if anything, it endows the C30 T5 with a distinctive and instantly recognisable personality. But its design cues can be just too unconventional for some.
That theme continues into the cabin, which is very Volvo, and initially striking, thanks to the two-tone treatment of the upholstery, and the unusual rear seating arrangement: it comprises two, individual seats, instead the more usual split bench seat. But in reality, there’s more to disappoint than to please here.
The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive enough, but despite being height adjustable, the seating position still feels too high. The ergonomics are efficient enough, and the controls and instruments are intuitive to operate, but aside from Volvo’s much-vaunted floating centre console, there’s not much to save it from blandness.
The boot remains the cabin’s Achilles’ heel. Access is awkward, restricted by a complex boot cover that does a good job as a security cover, but gets in the way when loading larger objects.
In fact, the cover needs to be unclipped to make the most of the space on offer. It’s not exactly user friendly, and the surrounding plastic trim is easily scratched when trying to replace it.
But let’s face it, practicality won’t be too high on the list of your typical C30 T5 Polestar buyer. What matters here is performance.
The standard C30 T5 is no slouch, and the Polestar builds on that reputation. It feels strong from the word go, and sustains that urge all the way through the rev range. The biggest problem here is getting the power down – despite standard traction control, spinning the wheels off the mark is easy unless you’re really careful with the loud pedal.
Without Polestar’s assistance, the normal C30 T5 gets from zero to 100 in 6,7 sec, and is credited with a 240km/h top speed. The Polestar kit clips about 0,2 sec off the sprint time, while top speed improves by 5km/h or so. Perhaps most importantly, the midrange urge is even more incisive, benefiting in-gear acceleration and sharpening overall response.
Talking of which, the T5’s sport suspension is 10mm lower and 30% stiffer than that of a normal C30, while the steering is 10% quicker. That contributes considerably to the Volvo’s sporty driving experience.
It gets a bit jittery on bumpy roads, and there’s too much power-induced understeer, compared to new-generation hot hatches like the Renault Mégane. But the Volvo generally feels swift, competent and entertaining.
The Volvo C30 T5 Polestar is not your conventional hot hatch. You’ll either love or hate those designer looks, and the same goes for the two-tone cabin. The Polestar kit turns it into one of the most powerful performance hatchbacks on the market, but the chassis can’t quite make the most of the extra urge on offer.
Still, for less than R350,000, all in, the C30 T5 Polestar also adds strong value to its list of attributes – and that might be its ultimate trump card. DM
Volvo C30 T5 Polestar
In-line five-cylinder, 2 521 cc, DOHC
184kW @ 5,000rpm
350Nm @ 1,500rpm
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