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Volvo moves one market niche smaller to bring in younger, climate-conscious buyers

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Volvo is aiming for a change of gear on its path towards electrification with this week’s road test subject. The Volvo EX30 is a small car that, it’s hoped, can have a big impact on Gothenburg’s sales mix. Its maker is already aiming for half of its global sales to be of all-electric models by 2025, and to be selling BEVs exclusively by 2030. In order to hit those marks, however, Volvo needs affordable electric models like this – but, moreover, it needs people to buy them in greater numbers than they are currently. 

You wonder, in fact, if and when brands like Volvo might start rolling back on – or, at least, tempering slightly – ambitious electrification claims like these. The penetration of EVs, in many western markets including the UK, is stuck at between 15% and 25%, and not for the want of an increasing number of more affordable all-electric options. 

So the commercial challenge facing this car looks significant. For the next couple of thousand words, however, we will concern ourselves with whether the Volvo EX30 is the kind of electric car that deserves to drive adoption, and ultimately to succeed, in the first place. 

It is the first of a new breed of Volvos for more reasons than one: not just because it is the smallest in decades (since the Volvo-DAF 300 series of the 1970s, in fact), nor because it is the first Volvo designed exclusively for electric power (not counting the XC40-derived C40 crossover-coupé), but also because it’s based on an all-new platform developed fully in the firm’s current, Geely-controlled corporate era.

Buyers of this car will be Volvo’s very youngest, claims the company, and three out of four will never have considered a Volvo before.

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Range at a glance

VERSION POWER
SINGLE MOTOR PLUS 268bhp
SINGLE MOTOR EXTENDED RANGE PLUS 268bhp
TWIN MOTOR PERFORMANCE PLUS 423bhp 

The EX30 model range runs from a little under £34k to a little over £44k, before options. The car can be had with a 51kWh or 69kWh drive battery, and either one primary rearmounted drive motor or one per axle. Volvo offers two de facto model trim levels, Plus and Ultra. On a mid-level single-motor car, the former comes with 11kW AC charging, 19in alloy wheels and manual seat adjustment. Stumping up for the latter gets you 22kW three-phase charging potential, 20in wheels,  a panoramic glass roof and electric seat adjustment.

DESIGN & STYLING

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volvo ex30 review 2024 02 panning

Volvo has certainly gone small with this car by its own standards, without defying compact EV class norms. The EX30, as its model nomenclature suggests, is an all-electric compact SUV. It’s more than 200mm shorter than Gothenburg’s next-smallest model, and shorter at the kerb also than either the Ford Focus-based Volvo C30 (of 2006) or the Volvo 480 (of 1986) hatchbacks were, although it has a five-door hatchback body. Relative to its modern rivals, however, it’s not all that small (a Jeep Avenger is almost 200mm shorter).

For now, it is offered in what we might call a moderately high-riding bodystyle only, although a Cross Country version is slated to bring extra ground clearance later in 2024. 

The EX30 has quite a lot less of the Tonka-toy chunkiness which has played so well on the XC40; and that tells you much about the outlook of the buyers it's intended for.

It is the first Volvo to be built on the Sustainable Experience Architecture (SEA) developed by Geely for new-generation electric cars, and which – in slightly differing technical guises, at least – has already been deployed on cars as different as the Lotus Eletre, the Polestar 4 and the Smart #1 and #3

SEA is more like a family of platforms than one skateboard-style chassis, insists Geely. On the EX30, it confers a steel chassis, over which is laid a body made of a mix of aluminium, steel and plastic, of which nearly 60% (by volume) is recycled. Around the interior, about one-fifth of the car’s mouldings are likewise recycled, and much of its upholstery is made of recycled polyester or denim. As a result of all of the above, claims Volvo, the EX30 has the lowest ‘life-cycle carbon emissions’ (the combined total of what is associated with its manufacture and its use) of any car the company has ever made – and half that of a petrol-powered XC40.

Volvo is hoping that those kinds of sustainability qualifications will attract younger, climate-conscious buyers – but the ethical argument isn’t all that it’s offering. Like plenty of its competitors, the EX30 has a primary drive motor carried over the rear wheels, which provides up to 268bhp and 253lb ft. That fulsome power output is enough to put our 1779kg-as-tested Single Motor Extended Range Plus model (Volkswagen ID 3 58kWh – 1757kg, Peugeot e-2008 GT – 1638kg) on close terms with a BMW i5 eDrive40 for power-to-weight ratio. 

For those who want even more, there’s also a twin-motor Performance Plus version with a supplementary 154bhp drive motor of the same type on the front axle, for a combined 423bhp and 0-62mph in just 3.6sec (making it the quickest-accelerating Volvo production model yet made). Power storage comes from a choice of drive batteries: a lithium-iron-phosphate unit of 49kWh of usable capacity, or a nickel-manganese-cobalt one of 64kWh in Extended Range or Twin Motor cars (as fitted). The latter is good for up to 296 miles of WLTP range – a figure in the upper reaches of the affordable electric car class.

INTERIOR

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volvo ex30 review 2024 09 interior

It’s a tribute to the skill of Volvo’s interior designers to have made the cabin of the EX30 such a neat, tactile and appealing place to be. It 145mm 15mm Centre uses plenty of recycled materials, yet its mouldings and trims feel inviting, solid to the touch, and both interesting and alternative.

And then you start to notice what’s missing. In front of you is neither a driver’s instrument binnacle nor a head-up display. The car’s electric window switches are on the centre console to your left, and so, immediately to your right, the door console contains neither audio speakers nor any switchgear. Clever, centrally mounted, drawerstyle cupholders (which slide out from under the centre armrest) and a small, centrally mounted glovebox ahead of them make so much of the fascia and surrounding cabin layout symmetrical, so as not to add manufacturing complexity for right- or left-hand drive.

Volvo’s software engineers claim there’s an infotainment update due this autumn that will significantly improve usability, and which they wanted customer data to feed into, but it should be right before any customer gets their hands on it.

There is little in the way of a lower dashboard, with extra storage available instead in a shallow covered floor bin ahead of the centre console. Above that, the car’s 12.3in, portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system sits, carrying a simplified digital instrumentation panel at its uppermost edge, and everything else – from trip computer data to navigation mapping, audio, telephony and climate controls, and so many secondary controls for things like foglights, wiper control and ADAS systems – accessible below. 

Suffice to say, this is a pretty bold ergonomic rethink – and, in our book, a problematic one. Although the steering column does have physical stalks for transmission control (right) and main beam/turn indicators/windscreen washers (left), and there are also a few physical switches on the steering wheel spokes, that’s still a lot for one ‘centralised’ touchscreen console to manage. It falls down for top-level accessibility of key functions – and seriously enough to constitute a significant drivability problem. It takes too many individual interactions to deactivate the driver monitoring or speed limit alarm systems, for example – and, without a tactile physical cursor controller, diverts too much of your attention from the road in the process. 

Volvo claims that an over-the-air software update for the infotainment home screen, due later this year, can address the problem, and well it may. Still, in the main, you might expect a safety-centred Volvo to be quite a lot simpler and easier to operate, and much more reassuring than distracting to drive, than this – not to say more practical (neither second row nor boot space deserves credit in a class of significantly more practical options).

Multimedia

Volvo’s 12.3in infotainment system for the EX30 is powered by Google Automotive software, but the company has promised wireless mirroring with Apple and Android handsets since the car’s debut. It was disappointing to find on our test car that Apple compatibility has so far been omitted (the same thing happened with the Polestar 2 when new), although Volvo  claims it will be added via an over-the-air software update. 

Top-level navigability for the system lacks the user configurability of rival systems, and so your most accessed functions can remain hidden behind layers of menus. Volvo allows some adaptation of the home screen but not of shortcut toolbars, which would make a big difference. As it is, controls for functions that directly affect the car’s drivability (and that reset to ‘on’ automatically) simply aren’t accessible enough. 

A benefit of the nav system being Google-based is anyone with a Google account will have their saved addresses and recent destinations waiting for them. Our car’s Harman Kardon premium audio sounded a little thin for its lack of door speakers.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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volvo ex30 review 2024 24 charging port

Even the single-motor EX30 has a fairly mature and sophisticated but brisk and assertive-feeling drive. It takes off from rest without abruptness and with plenty of traction and composure but with quickly gathering potency, and needed just 5.7sec to hit 60mph from rest on a chilly but dry test day, and 5.1sec to cover 30-70mph (Kia Niro EV – 6.9sec and 5.6sec respectively). 

But before you can really enjoy that linear, quiet, amply responsive performance, you must first learn to temper the car’s propensity to distract and annoy. The driver monitoring system, in cahoots with its centralised instrumentation and infotainment screen, is the chief culprit here. Leave the former activated and it will castigate you for glancing at the instrument display (which should, in our view, be positioned closer to your natural line of sight anyway) for more than two or three seconds – or, for that matter, in the rear-view mirror, or out of the driver’s side window. And so, for our testers, disabling the driver monitoring (to be done every time you ‘cycle the ignition’, but best before you set off) was a must in order to avoid being distracted interminably while at the wheel (see ‘Assisted driving' below). 

The standard regen setting is very mild, but doesn’t turn it off entirely, and the EX30 suffers from the same problem as its Smart #1 platform-mate, in that there’s a delay in the response. This can set the car gently rocking when you try to maintain a steady 30mph.

Once you have done that, the EX30 is entirely pleasant, and has all of the performance it needs, and then some. It is quick enough, by some margin, to make the dual-motor car seem an expensive irrelevance; has torque spread widely enough as to feel authoritative even at motorway speeds; and – at least here – is uncomplicated to drive. 

There are no manual energy regeneration controls, no drive modes and no ‘B’ or one-pedal powertrain settings. The car tends to conserve momentum rather than regenerating on a trailing throttle, then, although the initial ‘tip in’ brake pedal travel works well enough to blend in motor scavenging effectively. EV regulars might prefer more manual control over the powertrain’s energy management, but most should approve of the simplicity afforded here.

Assisted driving

An unholy alliance of problems conspire to create the EX30’s ability to distract and frustrate you while driving. If you do nothing to disable it, the driver monitoring system will alert you continually once your gaze has been diverted from the road for five seconds or more. Glancing at the central speedo doesn’t take that long, although dialling up and consulting trip computer information on the infotainment system can, and other processes are even more involved. 

The lane departure warning system isn’t too intrusive, though it’s best deactivated on winding roads. Pilot Assist lane keeping is activated separately, and works well on motorways, without putting in so much input as to encourage the driver to disengage entirely. The speed limit alert warning is more insistent, less progressive and therefore more irritating than other manufacturers’ systems, but you can configure a multifunction button on the steering wheel to deactivate it directly.

RIDE & HANDLING

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volvo ex30 review 2024 26 rear cornering

Volvo is so far from the company it was 25 years ago as to be almost beyond recognition, and even if it weren’t, you would expect any small, youthfully targeted model from the firm to be flavoured with a little bit of agility and fun factor – just as the EX30 is, at least in part.

All that said, this isn’t a car that forces the point. It has fairly light, filtered-feeling, only moderately pacy steering, doesn’t feign the kind of darting directional energy that some small cars have, and is always intuitive to handle.

But even so, it does show some clear signs of keenness to get down the road. Lateral grip level and cornering body control are both quite good for a crossover vehicle. The car turns in in settled fashion but is then ready to resist roll, work all four contact patches and hold a tight line with decent determination. It doesn’t make its front axle feel at all lightly loaded when doing so (note the 48:52 front-to-rear weight distribution); it doesn’t take on precautionary steady-state understeer; and it isn’t saddled with intrusive stability control interventions as a gesture towards safety-first stability.

The car isn’t quite fun. There’s a lack of liveliness, and a surfeit of calmness and measure, about the EX30’s steering and chassis response that leaves it some way off from fully engaging and entertaining its driver like, say, a Cupra Born can. But it has a certain pleasing tenacity to it.

Comfort and isolation

The EX30’s driver’s seat presents at a fairly hatchback-typical height and, while it isn’t large or enveloping, it is certainly comfortable, with plenty of surrounding space in the front row. Adjustability of the cushion and squab is a little limited in scope, but most testers found a good, comfortable driving position anyway. Visibility is good to the front and sides, and good enough rearwards and over-shoulder.

Our decibel meter recorded 63dBA and 66dBA during 50mph and 70mph cruising respectively: better outright isolation, in one case or other, than some direct electric rivals have demonstrated of late, but not outstanding. You can certainly hear some road noise from the 19in alloy wheels when driving at speed.

The car’s slightly reactive, oddly pitchy A- and B-road ride is a bigger dynamic obstacle to its ‘premium’ credentials, however. Here, the weight of it does seem to be a factor, as does its longer-travel suspension. It feels a little as if the chassis is tuned to use its driven, motor-laden rear axle as some kind of motion damper for the rest of the chassis, which rises and falls over the rear wheels gently but consistently over bumpier roads. It’s never permitted to get out of control but seldom seems fully controlled either, and certainly isn’t a positive influence on wider comfort levels.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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volvo ex30 review 2024 01 front cornering 1

Volvo claims to have done much to drive down total cost of ownership for EX30 customers – and in offering this car from less than £34,000 in its simplest, shortest-range specification, it may catch plenty of interested glances. Although it has recently bolstered personal finance offers a little, however, it isn’t yet competing with the 0% deals or bigger manufacturer contributions that rivals are now resorting to in order to motivate EV buyers, and so you will be likely to find the EX30 a good deal pricier on monthly rates than many of its competitors.

It is, however, quite well equipped. Our mid-spec Single Motor Extended Range Plus test car came with piloted cruise control and a full suite of Volvo safety systems, as standard, as well as wireless device charging, premium audio, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Ultra spec is the only route to more equipment; Volvo doesn’t offer options packages.

The car disappointed in our efficiency and range tests, averaging less than three miles per kWh over the full course of our test and only 2.6mpkWh during 70mph cruising. While it was tested in fairly chilly temperatures, our test car did feature a heat pump as standard.

In lower-speed motoring it got much closer to Volvo’s efficiency claims, but in mixed use it was a car that might do only 180 miles on a charge, when key rivals will manage 25-40% better.

VERDICT

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volvo ex30 review 2024 28 front static

Volvo, like every car maker, should reserve the right to do things differently when it enters new market segments, but it doesn’t have the right to do things badly. Not, at least, without censure.

Although it’s described as a small SUV, what the EX30 amounts to is more like a slightly high-riding but only averagely well-packaged hatchback. Apparently defined rather too much in opposition to the rest of the Volvo range – ‘the small one, so what does it matter if it’s not practical?’ – rather than with close reference to compact EV rivals, it is only averagely well packaged and versatile.

The car’s unusually irrational positioning extends from there to include stronger performance than it really needs (especially in the case of the twin-motor version) but underwhelming efficiency and range, and a slightly poorly resolved ride. However, it also takes in a cabin layout and digital control concept that feel a little sanctimonious in their devotion to certain sustainability and safety ideals – but which, in practice, admit much greater compromises on ease of operation and driver distraction than a Volvo really should.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.