Van drivers should shift towards automatics

The automatic Peugeot Expert van can be a joy to drive
The automatic Peugeot Expert van can be a joy to drive
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YOU may think that vans equipped with automatic transmission is a bit rich and going a step too far for most operators, but there again, who would have thought that alloy wheels, electric windows, central locking, heated screens, powered door mirrors, reversing sensors and so on would become essential fitments for such basic working vehicles? But they have.

If you can stomach the extra cost (typically £1,000), the modern self-shifter has more benefits than many the above, not least the fact that it can be more economical than its manual counterpart, and cut out expensive clutch replacements. Thanks to the fitment of high-tech but failure-prone dual mass flywheels needed to handle today’s engines, this can lead to a repair bill of similar proportions after a couple of years’ use.

Apart from Mercedes, take-up of automatic transmissions on light commercials remains low, the exception being pick-ups where they are used as dual-role vehicles equally suited for work, rest and play. But, as this Peugeot twin test shows, you need to decide what type of automatic suits you best.

Let’s start with the Expert, a mid-sized panel van that – thanks to it once doubling up as Peugeot’s MPV range before the 5008 was introduced – feels just like a car to drive. The six-speed transmission also comes with steering wheel mounted override paddles for manual control – not too dissimilar to the systems you see in Formula One.

When coupled to the hearty two-litre (128-163bhp depending upon tune) HDi diesel unit, it gives sparkling performance that would shame many passenger cars. Such is the swiftness and smoothness of the gearbox that you’d be hard-pressed to do better changing gear yourself and it certainly makes urban driving and deliveries much less tedious. Overall, despite the cost, automatic transmission is worth opting for if you have the chance on this Peugeot (a similar option is also available on the mechanically-identical Citroen Dispatch, by the way).

Sadly, the unit found in the smaller Partner is a complete contrast. To be fair to Citroen and Peugeot, it’s not strictly an automatic but an Electronic Gearbox Control (EGC) box – a semi-auto manual box that’s automated. The EGC is fitted in this rather odd configuration to assist in dropping the CO2 figures, it is claimed. It’s not a happy union, however, being slow and slack to change gear, the delay making driving uncomfortably jerky. Changing gear manually with the paddle shifts provided doesn’t improve matters greatly either and only by anticipating a gear change and lifting off the throttle accordingly does it become tolerable, which is not really the point of an automatic, is it?

We found it difficult to warm to this gearbox, the quirky rotary dash-mounted selector hardly helping matters. We also rued the loss of the traditional Park position with this gearbox, which locks the transmission when parked up. We kept switching off the engine while leaving still it in Drive due the knob’s obscured positioning…

That said, perhaps familiarisation over time will answer some of these criticisms although it’s not a transmission we’d recommend, despite its price being almost half that of the conventional automatic unit fitted to the Expert. We can’t stress strongly enough that you really need to test drive one or you could be disappointed – in our minds the EGC spoils one of the best small vans around.

Don’t be surprised to see more 
automatic vans on our roads following in the tyre tracks of heavy-duty 
lorries which have switched over to self-shifting on a large scale. Vauxhall, for example, offers Techshift, which after being introduced on the Transit-sized Vivaro, is now available on the larger Movano. Costing £875 it is said to improve economy by more than 2 mpg and typically would pay for itself after 80,000 miles plus significantly reduce emissions. Fuel for thought?