Volvo is hyping its new-to-our-shores C30 as appropriate transportation for the urban-hip. So why are we taking it and an obvious competitor, the Mini Cooper S, out beyond the limits of the vast Los Angeles sprawl?

Have you ever experienced a rush hour in the vast Los Angeles sprawl?

Enough said.

We recognize that these tidy 3-door hatchbacks are functional to drive, easy to park, moderately inexpensive to buy, insure and maintain, and reasonably fun to scoot around urban and suburban settings. In fact, they're entertaining enthusiast cars just about anywhere you choose to drive, especially when enthusiastically personalized with the right stuff.

Two of our own enthusiastic personalities (with the right stuff) traveled north on freeways and side roads through towns, villages and, alas, even some encroaching sprawl along the central California coast. Road Test Assistant Calvin Kim and Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis swapped cars and traded opinions. Initially there was to be a Volkswagen GTI in the mix. Alas, we found that only the 5-door version was available in our time frame, and this seemed a bit apples-and-oranges.

Later, in his Road Test Assistant role, Kim had opportunity to explore track limits of this pair, back to back.

Here are the two cars we took to Morro Bay, described by their respective champions (listed alphabetically, cars as well as authors).

Mini Cooper S

With pop music blaring, in the midst of a stoplight-to-stoplight duel with a Range Rover Sport through Santa Monica, windows down and sunroof open, it dawned on me -- this is why the Mini Cooper S was invented. Not to beat soccer moms in SUVs, but for driving fun in confined locales. You don't need the Autobahn or Road America to have fun in this car; just everyday driving will do.

There's no mistaking that the Cooper S is somewhat pigeon-holed. It can't seat four full-sized people, it can't carry anything larger than a couple of duffel bags, its radio layout is non-intuitive. And with a speedometer face that's more appropriate for use as a satellite dish than a gauge, it's enough to make "regular" auto enthusiasts squirm. But forget them, as neither the Mini nor the Volvo is meant for the regular enthusiast. These cars are meant for the owner who places style and design a tick higher than performance. But which car is better at implementation?

Driving the two back-to-back over highway and byway punctuated the differences. The Mini, with shorter gearing and lighter weight, was more responsive to the throttle than the Volvo. The Volvo did have the edge in highway manners, thanks to lower noise and more interior room. The taller gearing on the C30 is great on the highway as it keeps the half-a-Viper soundtrack from the droney inline-5 at bay. But when it comes time for spirited passing, double-downshifts were the maneuver du jour. Maybe that's why the Mini managed to trump the Volvo in gas mileage. Well, that and the fact that the Mini has a much smaller direct-injected, turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 engine.

Handling is one good reason to choose the Mini over the Volvo. The Cooper is nimble and grip is much easier to interpret, even with the Mini's variable electric power steering system. Part of this is also attributable to the Hyper Sport package, comprising stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars and a body kit. The standard "Sport" button changes the throttle characteristics as well as steering ratio. Optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is defeatable for wheel-spinning antics. Although our test car was not equipped with a limited-slip differential, leaving the DSC active did a decent job of simulating the option. Contrast that to the Volvo's composed, almost placid, demeanor, and the Mini feels downright frenetic.

The transmissions proved contrasting too. The light-effort, short-throw shifter on the C30 took a little getting used to, particularly the closely spaced gates. The Mini's 6-speed Getrag had a familiar weighted feel to it. All changes were positive, smooth and fast for both, but you had to pay a little extra attention to how far over you were moving the shifter in the Volvo.

Thanks to its weight, or lack thereof, the Mini has great braking performance. Good pedal feel and feedback make the Cooper a joy to late-brake. Even with corner brake control (applies a little extra stopping power to the outside wheels while cornering), the Mini will rotate happily with trail-brake application. When on an uphill, the vehicle will keep the brakes applied and the car stationary while you shift your right foot from the brake to the gas pedal. Once your left foot depresses the clutch, the brakes automatically disengage. Don't expect it to hold the car on a hill, though, as the feature is momentary.

All performance observations aside, both cars' reason for life is style. For that alone, I disagree with Engineering Editor Simanaitis. While the C30's clean look and execution are undeniable, the Mini has unique character. Viewed from the front, the C30 disappears into the crowd, while the Cooper S presents an unforgettable face. Even though the Cooper has been on sale for over six years, it still turns heads and gets favorable comments.

Both cars have extensive option lists. If you include the John Cooper Works packages and options, the Mini flat-out obliterates the C30 on factory customization. Everything can be customized on the Mini. Door handles, racing stripes, roof racks, wheels, interior trim, body kits, paint combinations and even two choices of navigation systems are just the tip of the iceberg on what can be changed. To get into Volvo's Custom Build program, however, you'll have to pay $300 on top of the cost of the options and accessories themselves!

The Mini makes no bones about being a small car. The C30, though, aims to be something bigger. No matter, though, as the Mini Cooper S is the choice for city-dwelling drivers and autocrossers alike. It's lightweight, frugal on gas, peppy and quick-steering. What it lacks in everyday utility, it makes up with performance and unmistakable style.

Volvo C30 Version 2.0

There's no disservice intended that the gray-haired guy gets to champion the Volvo. Actually, it's psychographics that count, and Simanaitis thinks he's as 28–38 urban-hip as Kim. Plus, he's ... that is, I am also an admirer of Scandinavian style, one of the C30's evident attractions. Nor, apparently, am I the only one. Several times along our route, interested folks would chat us up about the C30, typically with barely a glance at the other car.

To me, the Volvo is more honest in appearance, in both interior and exterior, than the working-to-be-cool Mini. The C30's exterior lines, especially its near-teardrop contours when viewed from a high angle, are heavily influenced by aerodynamics. I admire as well the openness of its greenhouse. Also, its Volvo-broad shoulders translate surprisingly well into this smallest of the company's lineup.

Yet, in truth, the Mini is well-named, what with its length, width and height of 146.2, 66.3 and 55.4 in., respectively, making it 21.2 in. shorter, 3.9 in. slimmer and 1.6 in. lower than its Swedish competitor. The Volvo is much closer in size to a VW GTI, just about all of the C30's dimensions being within 2 in. of this car's.

The C30's interior, criticized by some for being overly plain, is to me exemplary of Swedish design. The sweep of its center console is pure beauty. What's more, its controls are logically placed and comfortably large, evidently designed by people who occasionally must drive with winter-gloved hands.

By contrast, the Mini's scattered toggles are trendy, chic and not particularly functional. To my eye, its door panels and dash are overly goo-gaw.

Partly because of its teardrop aerodynamics, the C30 is a dedicated 4-seater. By eliminating any pretense of a middle position back there, Volvo designers are able to optimize shoulder room for the remaining pair. Being larger (and rather less agile) than the average bear, I tried sitting back there only once, purely as a test. Others of diminutive torso tell me it's acceptable for occasional habitation.

Our C30's Version 2.0 carries a base price of $25,700 and is commensurately better equipped than the $22,700 Version 1.0. Both come with standard niceties such as ABS, front, side and curtain airbags, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control and air conditioning.

Also shared by both is Volvo's most excellent T5 turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-5 producing 227 bhp at 5000 rpm and 236 lb.-ft. of torque on a plateau ranging from 1500 to 5000. (For those of you recalling that bhp always equals torque x rpm/5252, I'm told the apparent discrepancy here is explained by metric/English conversion, roundoff and generally accepted tolerances in such matters. No big deal.) A 6-speed manual is standard (and certainly my preference); a $1250 5-speed Geartronic with Autostick is available for shiftless sorts. Other stand-alone options available to any C30 include sunroof and leather interior.

Version 2.0's extra $3000 earns Dynamic Chassis upgrades, 18-in. tires on Atreus alloys, 10-speaker 5 x 130-watt surround sound, Sirius Satellite (with six months' service) and a body kit including valances, side skirts and the roof spoiler.

And then there's (to me, lamentably) Volvo Custom Build. In a wise attempt to Scion-ize the C30's personality, buyers are offered an added list of some 30 options. These range from substantive ones like bi-xenon headlamps, cruise control and navigation systems, to spiffy things like Volvo's BLIS (Blind Spot Information System), Euro-retractable side mirrors and an extended palette (with some truly "personalizing" combinations of body, cladding and interior colors), to stuff that might well have been standard in the first place, like a rear load cover or cargo net or an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass.

Here's the problem: Unlike Scion (and more fitting for upmarket Mercedes), the C30's Custom Build has a one-time access charge of $300. So, in particular, it discourages the Scion owner practice of buying the car at one level and enhancing it en passant as finances allow.

Our particular car has the Cosmic White/Java Pearl metallic scheme, foglights, cruise control -- and that $300 hit. Its total of $27,700 puts it at $1150 less than our fully decked-out Mini Cooper S.

And it would be even more competetive if Volvo ditched that pesky $300 Custom Build fee.

The two run neck-and-neck in acceleration. But in rather more mundane cruising, the C30 is a lot quieter (70 dBA at 70 mph versus the Mini's 75).

Alas, little piggy was considerably more thirsty as well. Our travels included freeways at 75 mph, mostly clean-and-green with only a few clogs, a good deal of exploring in and around the charming coastal town of Morro Bay (that's the base of Morro Rock in one of the photos) and a visit to the picturesque Laetitia Vineyard and Winery. (Its 2004 Barnwood Tempranillo "Untamed," enjoyed after we got back, was great!). The Volvo averaged 22.8 mpg through all this; the Mini, 29.8. We'd conjecture the primary reason for this difference is size -- and commensurately, weight.

And they both did it with style.



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