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Sexy, sporty . . . Swedish?

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Carl Linnaeus was born to a Lutheran pastor in the province of Smaland in southern Sweden in 1707, which is why you never hear anyone say, "I wish I were like Carl Linnaeus." Linnaeus was a brilliant man, a physician to Sweden's royal court and the preeminent naturalist of his time. Despite said brilliance, Linnaeus was astonished to discover you couldn't grow coffee and bananas in Sweden. His Lutheran minister father could only roll his eyes.

We know Linnaeus today as the inventor of the system of biological taxonomy, which categorizes living things into the groupings kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Here's a good mnemonic device to remember: Kobe Plays Canasta On Flabby Governor Schwarzenegger.

What made me think of dear, dead Linnaeus? The new-for-2008 Volvo C30. Like fellow-Swede Linnaeus, Volvo is attempting to cultivate a crop the Gothenburg-based company is not known for: a premium sport hatchback, the like of which has not been attempted since the 1800 ES Wagon in the early '70s. The C30 likewise confounds easy categorization. The company's products fall into a number of genera, including Safe, Family, European (Suburbanus heterosexuali). But it's hard for American consumers to square Volvo with Hip, Sporty, Nocturnal, Male (Metropolitus promiscuous).

And yet, biology isn't necessarily destiny. The C30 is a terrific little car, a hugely entertaining and deftly engineered piece of Scandinavian design entering a market that's just about panting for cooler, and greener, small cars. Arriving many months before the BMW 1-series and wading in against the likes of the Audi A3, the VW GTI and the Mini Cooper, the C30 feels like the emergence of a new species, Volvo rockinus.

Of course, no car is so good that Volvo Corporate can't tie an anchor round its neck and throw it into the Gulf of Bothnia. According to this week's Automotive News Europe, Volvo marketers plan only limited advertising around the C30 launch this fall, in keeping with their modest sales expectations (around 8,000 units annually in the U.S). Allow me to predict a diet of crow: When kidless urbanites start seeing this car on the streets, they will want it.

From the curb-skimming front spoiler to the tips of its bodacious dual exhausts (more rear breathing for a 2.5-liter turbo than is absolutely necessary), the C30 is one of the most successful modern hatchback designs since the Mini Cooper. Sleek and fluent and next-year contemporary, it wears its glass-and-steel exterior like a Size 0 dress.

Mechanically, the C30 is nearly identical to its S40 sedan and V50 wagon siblings -- the wheelbase (103.9 inches) is the same as the S40 -- but overall length (167.4) is 8.7 inches shorter. The short front and rear overhangs give the car a feisty aggressiveness more like an Asian sport import than anything from the land of universal healthcare.

From a formal perspective, the most notable design feature is the car's dramatic tumblehome, which is the inward cant of the canopy toward the roof. This is the sort of fancy concept-car styling that almost never makes it to production -- in this case, because the inward taper cuts down on interior room, which is one reason why the C30 has two bucket seats crammed in the back instead of a three-seat bench. But apparently Volvo's designers, led by then-head of design Peter Horbury, fended off compromise. The result is an upper fuselage that seems to stream back in a darkly glassed teardrop.

As a nod to its Generation D target audience, the C30's two trim levels are called Version 1.0 ($22,700 base price) and Version 2.0 ($25,700). The 2.0 comes with a lowered suspension, 18-inch wheels and a full-skirted aero kit in contrasting color. Fully decked out with all the performance pieces, including Pirelli 245/45 R18 PZero Rossos, the C30 looks like it's graduated from the most ornery outlaw tuner shop in Uppsala.

Both versions are powered by the same turbocharged 2.5-liter, five-cylinder, 227-horsepower engine hooked to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift gate ($1,250). I drove both versions last week and I have to say the manual is the better choice. Obviously, you have more opportunity to leverage the turbo's low-end torque (236 pound-feet at a mere 1,500 rpm) in hard driving; but, also, the clutch is so light, and the uptake so agreeable, that the manual is almost effortless in city driving.

With a dry weight of 2,970 pounds (curb weight is around 3,120 pounds), the C30 -- U.S. models all get the T5 designation -- hasn't got a lot of mass to push around. Zero-to-60 mph acceleration with the manual comes in at about 6.7 seconds, which makes it notably quicker than the Audi A3 with the 2.0-liter motor. I was surprised at how much the C30 loves to run and rev. The turbo engagement is smooth and linear, so that, for all your right foot knows, this might as well by a naturally aspirated engine with one more cylinder. Fully set the spinnaker and this car will sail along at 100 mph without a whiff of complaint.

With the Version 2.0's sport-tuned suspension, the C30 feels well planted and predictable, with unusual amounts of sideways grip from its Pirellis. Even with the car bent into a corner and the power rolled on, there isn't much front-wheel-drive kickback coming through the leather-and-alloy steering wheel. Steering is light and accurate, but not particularly reactive, so you really need to commit to a corner to get the car to turn. The car's balance is inclined toward a confidence-inspiring understeer, but you can get the tail to rotate if you jump out of the throttle. The chassis (front struts, rear multi-links with separate coils and shocks) doesn't seem to mind, but eventually the standard stability control will object and begin to chatter the front brakes.

Volvo's current problem, it seems to me, is its portfolio-wide commitment to the spare, plastic-intensive interior with the floating dash. The rational center of my brain -- assuming there is one -- says that everything is just as it should be, with four rotary dials (the most used functions) arranged around the tightly packed bunch of buttons in the console that looks like a TV remote. But nothing about the current interior look or feel arouses much pleasure. The audio readout is on a rather primitive-looking LCD display. The Audi and VW interiors are visually and tactiley more satisfying.

On the other hand, the Volvo's high-tech cloth seats feel great. The taut leather on the steering wheel and gearshift feels like it's been peeled from King Olaf's marshal baton. Here's a curiosity: One of our test models had floor mats with highly reflective piping, so that in an accident you can take them out and signal for help. I'm just guessing here.

Safety? Got it covered. In addition to standard traction and stability control, the C30 is replete with air bags (dual front, side and side curtain), body reinforcement (the Side Impact Protection System, or SIPS), smart seat belts, Isofix connections for child safety seats. Gadgeteers can opt for the new Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) and the rear parking assist system.

A sugary demitasse of Volvo's usual strong black coffee, the C30 is a charismatic automobile, to be sure. Fun to drive, fun to look at.

I wish the interior had more high-tech veneer. I also wish the thing didn't drink 91 octane, which puts a definitive premium on one's desire for this sporty Euro hatch. I wish the fully kitted version were a better value proposition. Even so, the C30 will open minds and wallets. Here's to the origin of a new species.

dan.neil@latimes.com

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