COAL: 2012 Volvo C30 – “I’ve Always Wanted A Volvo”

It’s my wife Maggie who always wanted a Volvo, so strictly speaking, this is another one of my COALs that’s not actually my COAL.

By 2012, my wife Maggie was starting to grow weary of her 2006 PT Cruiser. It’s not that there was anything terribly wrong with the car, but after owning a string of mom cars, she felt her image needed an upgrade. She wanted her next car to be a personal statement, possibly a two door, maybe something European. My immediate thought was a Mini and we arranged to get a test drive at the local Mini store. I think if there had been the right color with an automatic transmission, we might have done the deal that day. But there wasn’t and that gave her time to think about what she called the ‘pie plate” in the middle of the dash. The more she thought about it, the less she liked it and by the next day, the Mini was off the list.

She wanted something that would make a statement, so big sellers like the Golf weren’t up for consideration. The Fiat 500’s size made it maybe a little too personal; she still needed to carry the occasional back seat passenger. I started to run through all the cars I knew and came up with the Volvo V50 wagon. Not a two door, maybe even a bit of a mom car, but definitely not a common sight in the US with sales of just 1,720 in 2010. When I suggested the V50 to her, her eyes lit up, “I’ve always wanted a Volvo”. So it was off to the local Volvo dealer to have a look. Unbeknownst to us, Volvo had discontinued US sales of the V50 after the 2011 model year and by the time we went shopping, they were all gone.

But what’s this on the showroom floor, a C30? Haven’t seen many of these around. Compared to the V50 though, these were selling like hot cakes, averaging almost 300 a month in 2011. Volvo had introduced the C30 to the US market in late 2006 as a 2007 model. The C30 was offered in two levels of trim; the T5 and R-Design both utilized an inline 5 cylinder turbo making 227 hp, although later Volvo would offer a Polestar version with power boosted to 250 hp. The C30 was said to be a tribute to the classic P1800ES two door wagon, built in very limited numbers from 1972 to 1974. Our test drive was a T5 with 5 speed Geartronic auto transmission in Chameleon Blue with T-Tec fabric seats in black with blond insets. Maggie was quite thrilled with the power, maybe the fastest car she had ever driven. The ride might have even had a bit of familiarity to it, seeing as the small S40/V50/C30/C70 series were all based on the same Ford C1 platform as my Mazda 3.

The C30 was certainly unique, nothing really looked like it then or even now. The interior featured Volvo’s somewhat austere design language including their floating center console. Very elegant, although the information display was quite dated by 2012; it featured a very limited, old school message screen. Seating was strictly two plus two, with the rear buckets folding flat, but leaving a void in the middle for small objects to fall through to the floor. Outside, the C30 had received a mid-cycle refresh in 2010 replacing black bumpers with body colored pieces and styled to somewhat resemble the S60.

While this car was decently equipped, she was interested in the leather seats and maybe a different color. A good friend had taken repeated advantage of the Volvo Overseas Delivery program and convinced us that this was the way to buy a Volvo. We asked about the Overseas program and we were given a price sheet listing all models available for late 2012 pickup in Gothenburg, Sweden. We studied and spec’d out our dream car over the weekend and returned to the dealer prepared to place an order. We should have known it wouldn’t have been that easy. Our Volvo friend had encouraged us to go to the OTHER Volvo dealer in town, clear on the other side of the Twin Cities. Did we listen? No we did not. We went to the dealer on our side of town and had the car buying experience of a life time and not in a good way.

We stopped by the dealer just after 6:00 PM on a weekday evening, plenty of time to sort through the paperwork and get the deal signed off. We were there until almost 10:30 that night, having threatened to walk several times, we final hammered out a deal. They really wanted us to buy the Chameleon Blue T5 on the lot. We said we want the leather interior and the trip to Sweden. And we needed a $9,000 trade in allowance on the Mazda 3. Back and forth we went. They said they could recover the seats in leather for us. What? But only $7,800 for the Mazda. What about the trip to Sweden, how do we get that? Don’t worry they said, we can make that happen. In they came with the leather aftermarket seat book, what color did we want? Well, the Cornsilk Beige would work, but we need $9,000 for the Mazda. And what about the trip to Sweden? Don’t worry about the trip to Sweden, we’ll have you pick up one of our cars. But what about the trade in?

By 10:00 we had a deal including $9,000 for the Mazda. We would fly to Gothenburg and pick up “our” XC90. Yes, the dealer was going to order a car for their inventory that we would pick up for them. If we wanted to, we could even drive it around Sweden for a couple of weeks, then return it to the factory and they would arrange shipping to the east coast.

But wait, there’s more: “Since the XC90 would be your second Volvo…”

Wait, our second Volvo?

“Sure, the C30 is your first. Since the XC90 is your second, you qualify for an additional two days in Sweden, giving you 4 nights and 5 days total including a side trip to Stockholm.”

We’ll finally gave in and bought the damn car, just to escape their clutches. We did indeed pick up an XC90 at the Volvo factory. The trip itself was great, highly recommended if you are buying a new Volvo. We flew business class via SAS and were met at the airport by a Volvo driver who chauffeured us around Gothenburg during our stay there. We were put up at a nice enough hotel in town, we got a factory tour and a visit to the Volvo museum, both worth the price of admission. We picked up the XC90 and were presented with two sets of keys and paperwork. We took it for a brief test drive around the plant grounds and then promptly returned it for safekeeping. I’m pretty sure the factory knew this wasn’t really our car, but everyone went along with the hoax.

After that it was off to Stockholm for two more nights. Our visit was in mid-December so we didn’t see a lot of either Gothenburg or Stockholm in the daylight, but we had a terrific time. I was surprised that upon our return to St Paul, no one from the dealer called to inquire about the keys and paperwork for the XC90. I let it go a couple of months before my curiosity final got the best of me and I called them. They told me to drop them off, whenever it was convenient, as if it didn’t really matter.

My impressions about driving the C30 are a bit vague, my use of it was limited to those times when Maggie was out of town or when we were riding together. She will tell you that I am not the best passenger and pretty quickly in our marriage she got in the habit of handing me the keys whenever we were headed out. I loved the look of the car. The Chameleon Blue was one of those shades that changes with the available lighting so that in some conditions it almost looked like it had a greenish cast to it. Because it was a relatively rare sight, especially in this color, it always drew comments. The car was at it’s best as a long distance cruiser. Around town, those long doors were a pain in parking lots and garages. Comfort-wise, the seats were okay, but I kept waiting for that famed Volvo comfort that never came. It might have been the aftermarket leather or it might have been the result of owning the cheapest Volvo you could by in the US in 2012. We were told that once you climbed into the rear seats, things were quite comfortable back there. Although this reporting mostly came from our children who, even as adults, are all 5’8″ or less.

We had the usual dings and bruises you might expect living in the city. The drivers side mirror was ripped off backing out of our tight little garage, a replacement mirror in the correct shade of blue was sourced on eBay for not a lot of money. We lost one wheel to a winter pothole and learned about the on-line used wheel market, sourcing a perfect OEM replacement for less than half what Volvo wanted. We also learned that there is a certain point in time when aftermarket accessories for poor selling models can be had at deep discounts, but you have to move quickly because when those items are sold out, they become like unobtanium. We found a 2″ Curt trailer hitch on Amazon for less than $30 and a Volvo-Thule roof mount bike rack from a dealer for under $300.

We also found another benefit to buying a European car, caravanning! Unlike US RV camping, it seems that the Europeans are not afraid to tow there smaller trailers on narrow, winding and steep roads with ordinary cars. The C30 was rated to tow 2,000 lbs and so in 2014 we acquired a teardrop camper weighing in at around 1,000 lbs. Fully loaded and freshwater tank full, we were still under 1,400. The C30 really came into its own after we acquired the camper. With the rear seats down we could easily fit and access duffels, coolers and the other accoutrements of teardrop camping.

One memorable drive had us descending Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park, SD during some sort of senior division bicycle road race. Strangely, the road wasn’t closed to traffic and we had bikes passing us on the decent, but the Volvo handled itself with aplomb even with the teardrop in tow.

Along about the 4th year of ownership we started to experience electrical gremlins. Maggie would call me on her way to work telling me all of the warning lights had flashed and then the car had shut itself down. It would mysteriously clear whatever fault it was sensing and things would be fine for a month or so, but not confidence inspiring. I wish I could recall what the problem was, but it escapes me now. We also started to learn about the expense of owning a car like a modern Volvo, even for routine maintenance items. We held onto the C30 for a couple more years but we were starting to move on, at least mentally.

As we began to camp more, we started thinking a slightly bigger camper would be just the ticket. My brother happened to have a 2011 Highlander he was going to trade and we offered to buy it. This would boost our towing capacity to 5,000 lbs and let us move all the way up to a Scamp 16 fiberglass trailer. That effectively killed the only reason we were hanging onto the Volvo it it would soon be traded.