Despite a distinctive appearance that reprises elements of the automaker's classic P1800 ES "wagonette" that debuted over four decades ago and an engagingly dynamic character, Volvo's smallest and sportiest offering has struggled to carve out its own its market niche since rolling on to the scene here as a 2008 model. For 2011, this Scandinavian alternative to three-door hatches like the iconic Mini Cooper S and Volkswagen GTI gains a number of visual and mechanical enhancements that add new dimension to its character. Are they enough to finally give the 2011 Volvo C30 T5 a wheel up on its primary rivals? To find out, we recently put the enthusiast-grade R-Design version through its paces.

Edgier appearance

Volvo gave both the base 2011 Volvo C30 T5 and the R-Design a comprehensive facelift that brings it more in line with new family cues found on the restyled C70 and all-new S60 models. Everything forward of the A-pillars -- hood, fenders, headlamps, fascia and grille -- has been redone in a way that yields a bolder and even better-proportioned visual statement while new Flame Red paint helps reinforce that presence.

The R-Design cranks things up an additional notch with its own dedicated body kit that brings even more aggressive front and rear spoilers, a unique grille with matte-silver surround, matte-silver exterior mirrors and exclusive 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in W-rated 215/45 performance tires. Out back, 3.5-inch polished dual exhaust finishers replace the standard C30 T5's 2.25-inch tips.

Inside, a Swedish-modern sense of understatement dominates, particularly in our car with its monochrome off-black leather and Flextech upholstery. Save for minor flashpoints, including metal sport pedals and a smattering of aluminum accents on the dash, doors and steering wheel, the only actual color comes from an instrument cluster that features dedicated R-Design gauges with blue faces and red indicator needles.

Like the standard C30 T5, passenger space in the R-Design is relatively more generous in its nicely contoured front buckets than in the 50/50 split folding rear seat. Contrary to rumor, two modestly sized adults actually can fit in those individual aft perches, but only if another pair of considerate sub-six footers is sitting ahead. A similar argument holds for its cargo toting capabilities. While the C30's all-glass hatch looks cool, its odd shape limits what can effectively be slipped through that portal. And with just 12.9 cu. ft. of basic capacity and a seat-down spec of just 20.0 cu. ft., it won't be scoring big points with dedicated DIY freaks or yard-sale devotees.

Sharper dynamics

Like the standard C30 T5, the R-Design comes with a 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five that makes 227 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, with all of that peak twist on a literal plateau from 1,500 to 5,000 rpm. Normally backed by a standard six-speed manual transmission, our car had the optional five-speed Geartronic autoshifter. Although Volvo admits that choice increases the 0-60 mph time from 6.2 seconds to 6.6 ticks, the car still feels decidedly quick if not blindingly fast. Leaving the Geartronic in Drive does result in some hesitation on full-throttle downshifts, but engaging its manual mode resolves the issue nicely while ensuring that you've got the right cog for any given moment.

Functionally, the biggest change to the 2011 R-Design comes in its chassis tuning. Volvo moved to differentiate it both from the baseline C30 T5 as well its 2010 counterpart by bumping spring rates a stout 30 percent, dialing a 20-percent increase into its low-speed damping qualities and making the steering 10 percent quicker. As a result, the 2011 iteration feels more precise and responsive to all driver inputs and now slices through even the most demanding twisties with even greater confidence. The tradeoff comes in the form of additional impact harshness on rough road surfaces, a palpable downside that definitely merits consideration in any buying decision.

The price of exclusivity

After a week of spirited driving in this premium pocket rocket we came away with mixed feelings about its future fate. There's no question the 2011 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design has emerged from its first major update even more attractive, capable and impressively turned out. However, it remains a decidedly idiosyncratic funrunner, and more important, carries a sticker that may well stop a good number of would-be converts in their tracks. While the C30 T5 opens at $25,450, the R-Design kicks off at $27,800. Our rather heavily optioned test car bottom-lined at $32,930 -- and that's without the $2,000 Multimedia Package that adds Navigation and premium audio.

By comparison, the Mini Cooper S starts at $23,000 and the John Cooper Works at $29,500 while the VW GTI, our choice for bang-for-the-buck honors, begins at $24,414. In fairness, the Volvo has the most powerful engine and boasts a number of upline standards that cost extra on its prime rivals. For instance, adding the sunroof/leather Autobahn Package and premium 18-inch alloy wheels to the GTI literally balloons its sticker up to John Cooper Works level. That said, price sensitivity is the real tripwire in the pocket rocket realm. And for all of its merits, we suspect the 2011 Volvo C30 T5, and particularly the enthusiast-grade R-Design variant, will continue to struggle mightily to make even modest sales gains in this competitive segment.

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