Posted by: Jo Duxbury | 6 September 2013

And the winner is… or why I bought a Volvo

I wrote this in early October 2011 but never published it. Nearly two years and 50,000 kms later I am still very happy with my decision. I’ve included a short update at the end. I should mention this review is entirely my own opinion and not prompted or endorsed by Volvo in any way.

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October 2011:

So the car hunting saga has finally come to an end and I am quite smitten with the black Volvo C30 that’s currently in my garage. A couple of friends have commented on the thoroughness of my research and asked if I’d share it – so for anyone else who’s in the market for a new set of wheels, here’s some food for thought:

Everyone’s got their own list, but this is what I was looking for, with a budget of R250K:

  • Fuel economy. Early on, I realised a diesel engine was probably going to be most cost-effective. I live miles out of town, and need to reduce my fuel bill (and carbon footprint). Only problem was that I associate diesels with those chugging London black cabs… fortunately I was to be pleasantly surprised.
  • Green credentials. With a degree in Environmental Science (umm, very useful in my marketing consulting business), it is important to me that the car I drive is as enviro-friendly as possible. That seriously limits your options in South Africa. I was also not keen to fork out for carbon tax as who knows where that revenue actually ends up. I discovered this list of carbon-tax-free vehicles which helped hugely in narrowing my options.
  • Safety and comfort. With the amount of driving I do, I want to enjoy the ride. That means comfy seats, a nice sound system, good cabin design and – shallow, but a must-have – cupholders. (Actually, my old Golf 4 had the best cupholders ever – they pop out of the dash and fold back in when you don’t need them. And you don’t bump your cappuccino with your elbow. Yes, I know – first world problems.) My commute involves isolated and winding roads so safety, good handling and road holding were also crucial.
  • Something a little different, with class. I’ve always driven Golfs and loved them, but these days I’m tending towards the quirky and slightly off-mainstream. Something a little bit grown up (I’m not a student anymore). And a car with a bit of personality or uniqueness would also be less likely to be stolen (fingers crossed).
  • Value. My (perhaps unfair – or not) perception is that cars are ridiculously overpriced in SA. I wanted something that was good value for money – to me that’s much more important than a label. A solid warranty and maintenance plan was also important. Considering I’d almost have to sell a kidney to buy the thing, I’d not want to part with more internal organs to fund its maintenance.
  • Compact, but not too small. Most of the time it’s just me in the car, and I don’t have kids, so things like boot space and five doors were not important. I don’t need a Constantia tractor (read: SUV) but I wanted something that felt substantial and solid.

So, what were the contenders?

I tried to be open minded. Really. But I realised quite quickly that while I consider myself to be an anti-snob, I just wasn’t interested in a Toyota, Honda or Hyundai. I wanted something a bit more upmarket, but the premium badges were out of my price range, and cars like the Mini were appealing but too heavy on fuel.

I took these for test drives initially:

  • Fiat 500. I loved the retro styling, and the tiny 1.2l engine was surprisingly zippy and very economical. I just didn’t fancy midnight trips over Ou Kaapse Weg in what felt like Noddy’s car. But if I lived in the centre of Rome, or Paris, I’d get me one of these. In red, with white go-faster stripes – and a peel-back roof so my fresh baguettes could poke out. Gorgeous and fun.
  • Citroen DS3. This one came up in all the overseas reviews and I was quite keen on it – until I saw it in the metal. Very overstyled and the banana yellow colour of the car at the dealership did not help. It was also over budget. Instead I took a C3 out for a spin – it was fine but eminently forgettable and a bit cheap-looking on the inside.
  • Peugeot 1.6l HDi. Quite impressed with this one – very spacious, nice engine, good economy and a diesel too. Then I read the customer complaints on HelloPeter and ran away screaming. Sadly similar reviews put me off all the Peugeot, Renault and Citroen models – a big failing of the French brands in SA seems to be the after-sales. (Yes, I know, I ended up with a Swedish car…)
  • Ford Focus. This is the hero of all the reviews in the UK. Amazing engine apparently. I found the car pretty bland and some of the cabin plastics were pretty cheap-feeling and the styling very ordinary. (I hear the new model is amazing though.)

After discarding those, I shortlisted the main contenders:

  • Golf Bluemotion. Did I mention I love Golfs? Until now, they’re all I’ve ever driven, which means when I test drive one, it already feels very familiar. The Bluemotion has great green creds, and also comes in a very pretty, exclusive, light blue metallic colour (yes, how girly of me). I was very, very tempted by a demo model which was on for R245K. Its downfall though was its limited extras – only fabric seats, not very impressive sound kit, no fold-in mirrors (a must for me after several horrible altercations with car park pillars – Wembley Square, I’m looking at you), etc. And to keep the weight down – and economy up – it doesn’t even have a spare wheel. A big no-no for my commute. It’s also a GOLF – lovely but I’d be one of thousands and thousands on the road (although a pretty light blue one). I didn’t feel it was particularly good value for money, and that VW is pretty overpriced for what you get (check out the cost of the Polo Bluemotion and you’ll see what I mean). In the UK, the Volvo C30 is compared with the Golf GTi – over there it’s the same price point, while in SA you’re looking at easily R70K more for the GTi; here the C30 is in the same price bracket as the Bluemotion, and the C30 wins hands down.
  • Alfa Giulietta. Oh my, now this is a car with personality. And it’s so beautiful – inside and out. I was on the verge of buying a used one but a very dodgy dealership in Pietermaritzburg pulled a fast one on me. Probably a good thing in the end, because according to owners’ forums online, the 1.4MA variant apparently doesn’t come close to Alfa’s quoted MPG figures. My green conscience would have had trouble reconciling my lust for the car with gouging a hole in the ozone layer each time I drove to work. Alfa’s rep for unreliability also had me a little worried. But speak to any Alfa owner and they’re like mothers who’ve forgotten how excruciating childbirth was – they get all starry-eyed. There’s something about an Alfa that intoxicates even the most sensible of purchasers. Besides the sharky dealers, the reason I’m not driving one right now is because the Giulietta is pretty rare in SA – a new or demo model was at least R30K over my budget, and second-hand models are super-rare, because who’d sell theirs after just a year or two? I was also pretty worried about how many speeding fines I’d rack up in this baby – it just wants to GO.
  • Volvo C30 D2. The C30 first caught my eye in a Constantia car park about two years ago, wedged in amongst those huge SUVs. Despite its hideous orange colour and pre-facelift front end styling, it was something different. But when I looked up its specs online, it was a gas guzzler, like many Volvos. I learnt of the greener DRIVe variant that’s available in other markets, and contacted Volvo SA to see if there were any plans to bring that line to this country. Sadly not in the C30, they said, but they would be introducing the D2 – an economical and carbon-tax-free model – in mid 2011. So I waited and reasearched alternatives in the meantime (impulse buyer, me?). And here’s why I ended up with the Volvo C30 in the end:
  • It’s unique. With its Marmite rear (you either love or hate it) you can’t dispute that it stands out in a crowd. I think the facelifted front is pretty cool too. Oh and I love the ‘smiley’ tail lights at night, not that I can see them from the driver’s seat.
  • It’s green and economical. After 1,500kms I’m getting 5.7l/100km and that’s expected to drop as the engine runs in. That’s almost half of what I was getting on my Golf.
  • It’s very comfortable and safe. I discovered that Volvos are known for having the most comfortable car seats. And Volvo is pretty much synonymous with safety.
  • It surprises people. I love telling people I drive a Volvo and then seeing their faces when they see that it’s not a Dadmobile.
  • Volvo is a great value, underrated brand in SA. The build quality is excellent and I’m hoping it’s going to be as reliable as the dealer promised it would be. With the equivalent specs I’d be looking at R50-100K more for a BMW, Merc or Audi. I’m quite happy with my nice, solid, classy little Volvo, thank you. It is excellent value. I placed a custom order which cost no more than buying a new car off the floor, but mine is specced with the colours and finishes I wanted. Lovely.

Little things I am really enjoying about the car:

  • The audio volume adjusts with the speed I’m travelling at automatically. A little touch, but it’s great.
  • I never have to switch the lights on. I just have them set on auto and the sensors do the rest.
  • Online reviewers complain about the high load height of the boot, but I like it – no more bending to retrieve parcels and bags.
  • An amazing sound system. The reviews said it was good – they weren’t wrong. Mine includes CD, USB, iPod and aux input as well as the first radio I’ve encountered that can pick up a signal for my entire commute.
  • Gear change indicator. It tells me to change up sooner than I would normally, but the D2 engine handles it well, and usually runs at between 1,200-2,000 rpm.

What’s not so great:

  • First gear is pretty feeble. I just change up as soon as I can – sometimes a little jerkily, but I’m getting used to it.
  • I have a bit of a love-hate thing going with the seat headrests. They tilt forward-ish to prevent whiplash, which means if you’re sitting up straight, your head rests against them – which I like. But if I’ve tied my hair up, my head is pushed forward and it’s not very comfortable. I saw something online about a ponytail space in a Volvo concept car’s headrests, which I scoffed at, but actually…
  • The sun visor nearly takes me out every time I move it from the front to the side, or back again. I have to duck into the middle of the car to avoid it. Bit annoying.

I’ve been told horror stories of Volvo after-sales lack-of-service but am optimistically hoping that my dealer will make good on his assurances that there will be no problems. So for now at least, I’m very happy with my C30 and would definitely recommend it to anyone with similar requirements.

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UPDATE:  September 2013 and 50,000km on the clock

I am still smitten with my C30 D2, which I fondly refer to as my Batmobile. Its fuel consumption is a consistent 5.6l/100km and I haven’t had a moment’s trouble with it.

What I’d change about the car:

Not much really. That decapitating sun visor is a PITA but I’ve got good at ducking below it. I have lost count of the bruises those heavy doors have given my shins… but when I drove a V40 earlier this year I couldn’t stop giggling at its small, light, toy-like doors. I like a good clunky door, evidently. The only other thing that bugs me is the very low ground clearance… it would be good if it was just a little big higher. This is not a car for dirt roads. And every now and then I could really do with a bigger boot, but I’ve made do.

What I love about it:

Everything I mentioned above! It’s a fantastic car and it’s really ticked all the boxes for me. Two years on and it still looks as good as new and I feel I made a really, really good decision. I was heartbroken to hear that the C30 has now been discontinued but apparently Volvo may yet hane another awesome little car up its sleeve.

It’s been interesting to see what people’s perceptions are of Volvo. Several friends have been super impressed that I can afford a Volvo… that surprised me, as Volvo certainly doesn’t have the status factor of badges like Audi, BMW and Mercedes (and even VW). People are mostly surprised to learn I drive a Volvo, mostly because I don’t have kids. Then they see my little Batmobile and understand 🙂

After-sales service:

After-sales services was something I’d been warned about but I can say nothing bad about Volvo Cape Town (down on the foreshore) – they’ve been great. Ryan Chapman (sales) deserved a medal for putting up with my thousands of questions and multiple test drives while I was making up my mind… and it’s a pleasure to see him whenever I’m there for a service. The service team are friendly and accommodating – and I’ve not paid a cent on the car in the last two years thanks to the awesome service and maintenance plan.

Oh a little note to Volvo SA if you’re reading this – please don’t change my lights setting when you do a service! It’s always changed to OFF when I get my car back and I’ve had one or two hairy moments when I’ve realised I actually have to turn the lights on MYSELF (more first world problems).

So there you have it. The C30 is still availalble for a limited time I believe, while stocks last. And there’ll be a fantastic little black one available second-hand in a couple of years’ time 😉

 

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