Citroen C2 1.6 VTR SensoDrive review
by David Finlay (18 November 2003)
This car may be pivotal in Citroen's UK success. The company got an awful lot of mileage out of the Saxo (not a hugely expensive car to develop thanks to its close relationship with the older AX and the Peugeot 106) by making it pretty much the default choice for young drivers in this country. Cashbacks and free insurance played a major part in this, but so did the clever marketing which established the Saxo as a sexy machine just waiting to have weird body kits and extravagant paint jobs applied to it.
The Saxo's replacement, the C2, does not yet come in VTS form, but there is a VTR. Quite how any aftermarket manufacturer is going to make it look weirder than it already is in standard form is a bit of a mystery - there are so many savagely interrupted lines in the design that it's going to be tricky to make the shape still more aggressive, though I'm sure someone will have a go. At least the youth market will be unable to deny that the C2 is eye-catching.
As for sportiness, it's as well to bear in mind that the VTR is a warm hatch rather than a hot one. The 1.6-litre engine produces 108bhp (about the same as the equivalent Saxo did), so don't expect to melt the tarmac. Do expect, however, that the VTR will be a perky little performer. After all, 108bhp can go a long way if the chassis is well set-up.
And indeed it is. The Saxo VTR was a fantastically responsive car, if a little twitchy at the back. The C2 VTR is just about as responsive, perhaps with the sharp edges of the handling smoothed out a little, and certainly with the rear-end nervousness removed. The steering is superb, the front reacts very smartly and the back follows without a hint of complaint. Not only that, but the ride quality is remarkable considering the effort that clearly went into making the car whisk through corners. An impressive package.
You can't buy the C2 VTR with a normal manual gearbox.
Really you can't. The only option is the clutchless SensoDrive, in which you decide what gear to use next by flicking the gearlever (forward for up changes, back for down) or the paddles behind the steering wheel (right for up, left for down). Sometimes this works well, sometimes it doesn't. It does if you're whisking along country roads and you need to drop a couple of ratios in a hurry under braking. You can only tell this is happening by the fact that the digital display tells you it is, and by listening to the revs rise as the throttle is automatically blipped.
Changing up is another matter. Whether you're going very quickly or very slowly, the process seems to take an age, and the car feels as if it has plunged into a large puddle of treacle every time. The only way of smoothing out the process, and thereby stave off seasickness, is to back off the throttle just as you are pressing the gearlever or paddle. And when you do this, the general feeling is that you are working on the car's behalf rather than the other way round.
You can leave SensoDrive to choose the gears itself by pressing a button marked "Auto", but I hardly ever did this. In this mode it's almost impossible to predict exactly when the change is going to happen and lift off the throttle accordingly, so the button might as well be marked "Upset Stomach, Please" instead.
It's the same problem we've encountered before with the smart/Mercedes equivalent (to which it is suspiciously similar) and Fiat/Alfa's Selespeed system. Perhaps one day the manufacturers will get this sorted out and make their systems change up as well as a half-decent automatic. Until that day comes, I reckon that Citroen can either call the C2 VTR a sporty car or fit it with SensoDrive, but not both. I do hope a regular manual transmission comes along soon.
A lesser gripe is that the C2 is not ideal for drivers over six feet tall. There is enormously more room in the footwell than there was in the Saxo, but it's still not great. The problem for me was that I kept pressing the brake pedal too hard (my right knee being bent at more than 90 degrees). Citroen brakes being what they are, this resulted in several unintentional emergency stops which caused further digestive chaos.
The test car had another fault, in that locking the doors often caused the alarm to start screaming after a delay of about five seconds. Over the course of a week this happened increasingly often (about two times out of three by the end of the test), and I was happy to see the back of the thing for this reason alone. To be fair, the problem may have been specific to this car, but who knows?
Assuming that most C2s do not do this, my impression of the VTR was that it's basically a fine little car, spoiled by being slightly too clever for its own good. The true successor to the sporty Saxos is not yet with us.
Second opinion: Visually, this is such a spiky little machine that a lot of people will go for it just for that reason. Towards the end of its production life the Saxo was so ordinary-looking that it hardly stood out at 50 yards range in a line of parked vehicles. There'll be none of that with the C2 VTR, even if it sometimes seems like a car in which neighbouring body panels were designed by individuals who weren't allowed to see the next-door drawing board. Wacky interior too, given the very unusual but effective upholstery, the screaming colours if that's what you fancy, and the semi-fluorescent treatment of the inside door pulls. I’d go an extra £150, incidentally, for the slide-fold rear seat package. Citroen says SensoDrive is a rally-style transmission, but for speed of upward changes that may mean the 1925 Monte Carlo. And if SensoDrive is supposed to help the economy, how come if you're doing 30mph in town, in manually selected fifth, and decide to switch to automatic, the box instantly goes down to fourth? I'd like to try a fully manual VTR, in which specification I'm sure this cheeky little machine would be more fun. Ross Finlay.