REVIEW DATE: 09 Nov 2007
Citroen's marketing department pulled off a bit of a coup in getting SmartNav satellite navigation included as standard on their Dispatch van but how good is it? Steve Walker reports.
There was a time when any review of the technological features contained within a panel van would have run out of subject matter soon after examining the electric motor that drove the windscreen wipers and the hinge that stopped the sun visor from falling off. Today, it's a different story with top commercial vehicles sporting all manner of gadgetry as a matter of course. Citroen's Dispatch is one of the most tech-laden vans on the market and our long term test of one provided a golden opportunity for us to get a bit nerdy with its two, count 'em, satellite navigation systems.
Satellite navigation is the automotive gadget of the moment. The technology that has promised to consign the nation's tatty road atlases to history and eliminate the in-car inter-spouse argument is proliferating at a dramatic rate but of all the vehicles we've tested, from tiny citycars to luxury saloons, the Citroen Dispatch was the first to arrive with two satellite navigation systems installed. Yes, that's right, it's got two sat nav setups and it's a van.
The reason for this slightly odd specification can be traced to the link-up between Citroen commercial vehicles and TrafficMaster. The deal is that all Citroen Dispatch Vans have TrafficMaster's SmartNav as standard but Citroen also offer an integrated map screen sat nav system as an option. Our Dispatch had the optional arrangement installed but as the SmartNav system comes free, it had been chucked in anyway.
"SmartNav is more than a standard satellite navigation package."
This quirk of fate presented the perfect opportunity to assess both arrangements side by side. It isn't just the cost that separates them but as ever, it is a crucial factor. Where SmartNav comes as standard with the Dispatch in a package that includes a three-year subscription to the navigation service and to the stolen vehicle tracking service, the optional system comes at a premium of just over £1,000. This is the point where fleet managers nationwide form a distinct bias towards SmartNav.
The reason why the Dispatch is able to bring us the SmartNav system as standard is that SmartNav isn't your average satellite navigation system. In the small blue touch screen mounted on the top righthand corner of the Dispatch fascia what you have is a real time interface with the TrafficMaster control centre. You programme in your destination as you would with an integrated system then SmartNav connects to the remote TrafficMaster computer which supplies the route. This enables the TrafficMaster to incorporate real time traffic updates using information gleaned from the average speeds of SmartNav users as they traverse different sections of the road network. The dispatch package includes a 3-month subscription to this service which advises you of delays and gives you the option of re-routing to avoid them.
SmartNav is more future proof than most of its rival products as the software can be upgraded remotely by TrafficMaster. The screen is the only on-board component acting as a link to the mapping and processing computers back at TrafficMaster HQ. The lack of any expensive on-board computers or mapping CDs also helps to keep the costs down and means that fleet operators are not forced to invest in expensive on-board technology that isn't valued highly by the used market. The question is, how well does it work?
Citroen's NaviDrive on-board system provides the competition in our Dispatch and there's no doubt that its large full-colour map screen is easier to follow than the SmartNav's small monotone display. It offers individual graphics to indicate the direction to turn or the correct exit take off roundabouts but you're largely reliant on the voiced instructions. One drawback to NaviDrive is that the mapping CD has to be inserted in the CD player in the Dispatch for the system to work. Navigating with NaviDrive and listening to your favourite music is not an option.
Where SmartNav excels, it in its use of live traffic updates. TrafficMaster monitors average speeds across the entire UK road network and can detect delays feeding the information back to its customers. When a delay is detected on your route and there's a faster alternative, the SmartNav system offers to recalculate to avoid it. This has the potential to save businesses significant amounts of time but we found that it's also handy when you're stuck in traffic. SmartNav constantly adjusts your ETA based on the road conditions ahead so you always know roughly how much longer the journey is going to take. This can be brutally depressing when your arrival time spirals out of control as you sit motionless staring at the rows of brake lights snaking off into the distance but at least you know.
SmartNav is less effective when it comes to dealing with human error. Take a wrong turn and the system can become flummoxed, clamming up completely while it connects to headquarters to re-programme the route. It usually sorts itself out again in time but without a map screen showing you how to get back on track, you're forced to wait while it gets its act together which isn't always convenient.
In the final toss-up between SmartNav and the integrated NaviDrive system a number of factors must be considered. If it comes down to the basic act of route guidance, that is getting drivers to destinations in the simplest way possible. The NaviDrive system with its large map screen and button operated control interface, just about shades it. The SmartNav option takes a bit too long to react when you foul up its route with a wrong turning and it lacks a map of any kind, although the touch screen controls are reasonably intuitive.
This isn't the whole story though. SmartNav offers a whole extra dimension with its real time traffic updates and its ability to steer you around the worst hold ups. It also warns you when you're approaching a fixed position speed camera at a speed in-excess of the limit and it has the integrated Trackstar stolen vehicle tracking system. SmartNav is more than a standard satellite navigation package and it's free with the Dispatch. Although we can see the logic in some operators paying the £1,000 premium of the NaviDrive system that covers the basics better, SmartNav does a decent job for a lot less.
You get three years' use of the navigation and tracking services with SmartNav but the standard package on the Dispatch only includes three months of live traffic updates and one month of speed camera alerts. Having tried them, we think most owners will want to continue the subscription once the initial period has expired. They're what set SmartNav apart.
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