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The big test: Volvo EX30 vs the rivals

Things are looking bright with the arrival of the latest electric Volvo – but the existing crop of electric crossovers has something to say too

Published: 13 May 2024

Let me introduce you to the Volvo EX30. I think you might get on. Swift, desirable, beautifully finished and it costs less than £34k. Initially I just couldn’t work out how Volvo had done it for the money. Later, I’d work it out.

But here’s where we’re going to start: value. Electric cars have received a kicking for not being affordable enough, but now we’re starting to see prices coming down. Not quite to MG4 levels, but far enough to make you sit up and pay attention. As you can see they all start from around £35,000. Put a six grand deposit down and you can have a Smart #1 for £280 a month over three years. That’s not bad at all. In fact it’s not a bad car all round, as I’ll come on to.

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This is the core of the electric market, this is where future growth will likely come from. Because crossover. Not necessarily these four cars alone, as they’re splashing around in a deep pool of talent that extends from lifted hatches such as the Renault Megane E-Tech to new incomers from China – think BYD Atto. Interested in how those all fit together? So were we, so in parallel to this test we actually shot a 10 car film. Dig it out on YouTube or down below.

These four overlap and compare with each other in interesting ways. The Volvo and the Smart are related, for instance: Volvo is owned by Chinese firm Geely, which also owns 50 per cent of Smart in a joint partnership with Mercedes. So the two cars use the same motor, battery pack and basic underpinnings. But they’re different sizes, the One (we refuse to use the hashtag. It won’t date well and is as irritating as VW’s insistence that the Up required an exclamation mark) lining up more directly with the Hyundai Kona. Meanwhile the Sun Yellow Avenger reflects – quite literally – well against the Moss Yellow EX30. Both of them line up similarly in terms of size, interior space, general demeanour and the emphasis each places on design. And we’ve come full circle around our group of four.

Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

A word on range. The Hyundai is the most expensive here and you don't have to look far to see why. It has a 65kWh battery pack when the others are all 15kWh smaller. Relax, you can have your Kona with a 48kWh pack and that'll bring the price down to within a hundred quid of the yellow pair. As it stands the Kona has a claimed WLTP range of 319 miles. With the smaller pack that falls to 234 miles which – you guessed it – is within a stone's throw of the others. 

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However, there’s still quite a bit of variation here between the most efficient (the Jeep Avenger with a claimed 249 mile range) and the least (the Smart One is capable of a mere 193 miles). You don’t have to look far for the difference. Say what you like about the compact size of the Jeep but it doesn’t weigh much. At 1,520kg it’s quarter of a tonne lighter than the Smart and not having to haul all that weight around makes a big difference. Not that any of them weigh what they claim. We put them all on a set of professional corner weight scales. Hat tip to the Volvo for only being 17kg heavier than claimed. The Smart and the Jeep were both over by 50kg, while the ‘promise I’m 1,698kg’ Hyundai was actually 1,791kg...

At least none was two tonnes, let alone the three that Volvo has already warned us that the EX90 is likely to weigh. However, no marque is incentivised to lose weight when all our focus around electric cars is on range rather than efficiency. They can just fit bigger batteries and no one cares. We need to care. Bigger batteries shouldn’t be seen as a good thing. It’s not just the weight of the batteries themselves, but that everything else needs to be beefed up to cope as well. Even in the cold the Avenger would happily tickle along at over 3.5mpkWh, where the Smart struggled to hit 3.0. Which also means it’s correspondingly cheaper to run as well, and with electricity prices remaining high, that matters.

The Volvo and Jeep are the most appealing. The Smart is the kind of car that would be driven by an ‘I’m wacky, me’ kids TV presenter. It’s jolly and blobby at the same time and, just like the real thing, fitted with a dodgy Toytown toupee. Apart from its slit of a light bar (where are the front lights? Oh, there they are right at the front corners, the most vulnerable point of any car. Cracked lenses from parking dings ahoy). The Hyundai meanwhile is an awkward thing. Look at the bulges down the flanks, the odd lines and pointless creases. What were the designers thinking? Faced with these four, no one’s going to gravitate to the Kona.

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The Avenger connects successfully with Jeep’s history, playacting the role of a big car, while being nothing of the sort. It’s only a whisker over four metres long. Meanwhile the Volvo switches retro riffs for cool sophistication. It’s clean and desirable, looks expensive, has that sort of classless classiness like the VW Golf used to, able to draw in a wide audience.

They won’t be coming for its practicality. Two of these cars will work well for young families. Neither of them is yellow. With the lower roof lines and hunched rear quarters, both the Jeep and Volvo have dark and cramped rear quarters and boots designed for little more than the weekly shop. The Smart and Hyundai would both have a stab at a weekend away for four. The One, despite the common underpinnings, has a 100mm longer wheelbase than the EX30, all of which seems to have gone into rear legroom. It’s the most generous car here, with a high roof and airy, light cabin, but the boot is barely bigger than the smaller two. Likely to be carrying luggage rather than passengers? Have the Kona and its 466-litre boot.

You sure as hell won’t have it for the interior design. It’s greyer than Slough in here. There’s no tone or texture, it’s like someone showed the designers a picture of a Seventies Open University lecturer and said “Design him a cabin”. Insipid and bland, there’s no texture or tone to this, the Nytol of car cabins. But it does have buttons. Loads of them actually. They’re a good size too and logically sited.

Now come and visit the Volvo, where a ruthless purge of all buttons has occurred. This at least partly accounts for the money saving. But it’s not the first thing you notice. The interior doorhandles are these gorgeous slivers of metal, the air vents are open and delicate, the trim and materials are to die for. Polestar the upmarket Volvo? Wrong way round. This sleek cleanliness, the neat storage, the way the cupholders glide out of the central armrest console, it’s all very calming.

Until you start moving in it. Want to adjust the wing mirrors? Open the glovebox? Disable the driver aids? Switch on the lights? You guessed it: off you trot to the touchscreen. Now, it is a good touchscreen, easily the best here, with well designed menus and (mostly) logical, readable layouts. But there are a lot of choices and options packed away in there, and as far as I could work out, none of them allows you to turn off the infernal driver alert system. It beeps all the time. But what’s it beeping about?

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The information pops up tiny on the screen, so you look across. Pay attention to the road, it says. But I was until you started bonging. Arrive at a roundabout, look right. It bongs. Glance at the speedo. It bongs.

This is not calming. The Smart is the same, so too – to a lesser extent – the Hyundai and Jeep. This is not progress. These are not safety systems, they add stress and worry and tiredness because they never let up – 1mph over, a brush of a white line, a car in front. They can startle, interfere, they have no finesse, no knowledge of extenuating factors. Software updates should – should – improve matters. They need to.

The Jeep’s cabin feels cheap after the Volvo, but both it and the Smart have a sense of fun to them that the EX30 doesn’t. They have bold colour panels, don’t take themselves too seriously. I could do without the One’s interfering animated fox, but apart from that the Smart is a likeable thing. The upright A-pillars improve visibility, there’s an extra info screen ahead of the driver that the Volvo doesn’t get, the seats are comfortable. It’s cheery. You don’t want to like being in it, but you do, and so will your family.

It’s also pretty swift. Sure it’s a bit of a pudding to drive, but the tall, airy cabin has the best forward visibility here and like all these cars it’s light, easy and quiet. It’s perfectly pleasant and utterly unexciting. I’m afraid you won’t get much reward from any of these. The most mechanical interaction you can have is with the Hyundai’s regen paddles.

The Jeep is arguably the most dynamic, which probably seems very strange if you’re thinking this is an American car. It’s not. Part of the Stellantis megacorp, it’s a copy of the Peugeot e-2008/DS3 e-Tense, and the handling does have a hint of French insouciance. The Volvo, weighing 200kg more, but shoved along by an extra 114bhp, is much swifter – the fastest car here in fact. And the least excited by its own prowess. No hint of joie de vivre here. The chassis can just about keep pace without heaving and bucking around, but don’t be tempted to have the twin motor version of this (or the Brabus-badged Smart). You’re buying a family car, not a rocket sled, and 268bhp is already enough to punt it to 62mph in 5.3secs according to our timing gear.

Both Smart and Volvo use Chinese underclothes and successfully dress them in European outfits

And besides, the EX30 has unnervingly light steering – at least until you delve back into the menus and firm it up. It’s rear drive, so there’s no torque steer when you gun it away from roundabouts, and for nipping around towns it’s the best here. It zips off the line, fits through gaps and takes it all in its stride. Nor does it fall flat on a motorway haul – none here do, although be warned the Jeep runs out of puff sooner than the others – 154bhp is only just enough.

And that sums the Jeep up really. It’s a desirable piece of design, looks the part and copes with stuff, but it feels cheap inside and the Volvo’s quality makes it look overpriced. The Smart comes close to doing the same to the Hyundai – it’s a happier, more tactile and upbeat car. If you’re the kind of person who’s not fussed about cars beyond practicality and reliability, and you need room for family business, have the Hyundai. It won’t let you down. Just remember you can have a petrol Kona and save yourself nearly £10k... electric is the more sophisticated choice, but it’s not for everyone.

So Geely scores a one-two in this test. Both Smart and Volvo use Chinese underclothes and successfully dress them in European outfits. The Smart, to damn it with faint praise, is better than you think it’s going to be, but the Volvo is our winner. It’s not spacious and its driver interference systems are infuriating, but the design, the quality and the execution are unbeatable. And it’s attractively priced. Well done Volvo, this one feels like a Polestar.

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