An automatic gearbox in a small urban van makes sense on paper but how about in the real world? Steve Walker looks at the Citroen Nemo SensoDrive.
Ten Second Review
The Citroen Nemo with the SensoDrive gearbox is more economical than the manual model, it's easier to use around town and it doesn't cost too much more. Automatic vans aren't commonplace on our roads but models like this could well change all that.
If there was ever a van ideally suited to an automatic gearbox, the Citroen Nemo is it. The little Citroen is a highly specialised sort designed to operate in busy urban areas where picking a path through the traffic can be hell in anything even remotely large or unwieldy. It's the kind of environment where the van driver can be on and off the clutch like he's trying to inflate a bouncy castle with a foot pump but a good automatic gearbox has the potential to eliminate all that effort at a stroke. But can it do more? Citroen reckons that if you specific your Nemo with its clever SensoDrive transmission, then the answer is yes. The Nemo is yet another Citroen van built in partnership with Peugeot and Fiat. Peugeot's version is called the Bipper which, for us, instantly puts it at a competitive disadvantage and the Fiat model is rather more elegantly dubbed the Fiorino. Along with its cousins, the Nemo is a highly significant vehicle in that it plugs a gap between the established compact van sector (think Citroen Berlingo van) and smaller supermini-derived vans (think Vauxhall Corsavan), an area where few other products dare to tread. We could call it a sub-compact van if you like, but the point is that it's small, mobile and nimble enough to excel in congested urban areas when carrying a big load isn't necessary but it remains large enough to be of day to day use. In this kind of role, the SensoDrive automatic gearbox would appear to make very good sense.
The SensoDrive 'box is mated to the Nemo's 1.4-litre HDi diesel engine. It's an automated manual gearbox with a mechanical clutch taking care of the shifting on command and negating the need for a clutch pedal. The idea behind it is that operators get the two-pedal driving benefits of a proper automatic with the economy of a conventional manual. The system works well too. It can be operated in fully automatic mode or prompted to change gear manually with the stubby dash-mounted lever. If you adopt a relaxed driving style and are relatively gentle with the throttle, progress is smooth. The 1.4-litre engine develops 70bhp which doesn't sound a whole lot but 160Nm from 1,750rpm means it has the low-end muscle that drivers like for getting their payload smartly off the line. The Nemo isn't earth-shatteringly quick but the chance to approach the speed limit has become a rare luxury in the areas where it's designed to work, so that shouldn't unduly matter. The Nemo has independent front suspension braced with an anti-roll bar, while at the rear is the old commercial vehicle standard transverse beam. The set-up works well helping to give the Nemo the lively and energetic feel on the road that the latest supersized Berlingo has partially lost. The downside is that the Nemo is less comfortable a proposition on the open road, but around town its short overhangs and teeny dimensions make it highly manoeuvrable. The turning circle is super-tight at under 10 metres kerb to kerb.
Design and Build
The Nemo measures just 3,860mm in length but uses its interior space to full effect in offering a 2.5m3 load volume and a 610kg maximum payload. The space itself is usefully square and a ladder frame bulkhead protects the rear of the driver's seat. Choose the optional Extenso folding passenger seat and that load volume can be increased to 2.8m3 with the load length upped from 1,520mm to 2.5m, ideal for pipes, planks of wood or other long items. Its styling should win the Nemo many admirers. The bumpers, the wheelarches and even the windscreen dome outwards and along with the wide track, this creates a squat, planted stance. The inherent chunkiness also suggests the Nemo is a tough customer and there's not much to dissuade you from that opinion on the inside. Fiat's influence on the project is evident in the cab. The air-vents, the stereo and other components have been seen before in Fiat products but all feel solid and look the part. The design is simple and the materials robust but storage could be more generous. Space is adequate for driver and passenger but larger occupants might find it a little confined during a long day at the wheel.
Market and Model
The Citroen Nemo SensoDrive is available only in LX trim. That means it gets standard equipment such as an MP3-compatible CD stereo, a trip computer, ABS brakes, a driver's airbag and pre-tensioner seatbelts but also benefits from the LX extras. These run to a sliding side door on the nearside, electric front windows, remote central locking, the folding passenger seat and heated electric mirrors. Air-conditioning is an option, as are a Bluetooth hands-free kit and rear parking sensors.
Practicalities and Costs
There's little doubt that the Citroen Nemo SensoDrive does what it sets out to do in making the lot of drivers in urban areas that little bit easier. Whether enough van drivers get the chance to have their lives made a bit easier, however, will depend on whether the Nemo SensoDrive can persuade the people who hold the company purse strings. It gets off to a promising start by actually consuming less fuel than a 1.4 HDi Nemo with the five-speed manual gearbox. On the combined cycle, the SensoDrive model returns 64.2mpg compared to 62.8mpg in the manual and around town, it's 51.4mpg plays 49.6mpg. Emissions are a similar story with 116g/km of CO2 coming out of the SensoDrive model and 119g/km emerging from the manual. With the SensoDrive Nemo costing £400 more than the manual, fleet managers will be doing their sums and one suspects that many buying decisions will come out in the SensoDrive's favour.
Automatic gearboxes don't always make much sense in commercial vehicles. The sometimes sizable price premium and fuel economy penalties make the extra convenience of self shifters a tough thing to justify. Citroen's Nemo SensoDrive is an altogether different proposition as not only is the van designed for use in urban areas where the benefits of an auto are magnified, but the gearbox is actually more fuel efficient than the equivalent manual. With only a modest price premium required to get one, the SensoDrive gearbox looks a great fit in the Nemo. This vehicle's carrying capacity isn't great but the advantages of its compact size will be felt more keenly by urban operators than any lack of space in the rear. The van offers good visibility and a tight turning circle, while the SensoDrive 'box only adds to its suitability for the urban role.