Euro Bus Expo 2014 – Life after Vario
Rob Orchard focusses on the many new vehicles in the mini/midi category at this year’s Show
The hot topic at last year’s Coach and Bus Live was how would the industry react to the loss of the Mercedes-Benz Vario –the lifeblood of the 24-35 seat market for so many years? Eurobus Expo 2014 provided the answer – or did it?
Unquestionably it presented lots of possibilities – by my reckoning at least 12. Some were clearly testing the water, as the high number of left hand drive models showed but others were serious contenders. Whether all 12 will go on to fruition only time will tell and don’t forget that was all without arguably one of the main players traditionally in this market, Plaxton who will not present their planned replacement for the Cheetah until next year.
Not only were there a host of different body styles to choose from, there was also a range of different base chassis from the Mercedes-Benz Atego range, the MAN TG series, EN Drive and Iveco. Of these the Atego was easily the most popular but here again a wide range of chassis were being used from the 8.0tonne version right up to the 12.0 tonne model.
Lest I give the impression that it was all about Vario replacements, let me point out that there were also a number of other new vehicles in the mini and accessible categories.
Noones/Minis to Midis
Since they launched their Portuguese built Turas 800 and 500 models onto the market a couple of years ago Irish vehicle importers Noones along with their UK distributor, Alan White’s Minis to Midis, have become a serious player in the market. They used the Show to launch not one but two Vario replacements: the Turas 900 and the 700.
Noones approach with the Turas 900 took everyone by surprise. They turned to a new partner, Erdaman, a long established builder of mini coaches in Turkey to develop it. The biggest surprise was that they had taken the forward control Mercedes-Benz Atego chassis, in this case the nine tonne version, and turned it into a normal control chassis. This enabled them to produce a vehicle that looked very much like an enlarged Sprinter even down to using a Sprinteresque style front grille. They have achieved this by moving the steering position back on the chassis by inserting an additional shaft between the Atego’s steering mechanism and the steering column. They told me that they had done this for three reasons, one to get as much of the Atego’s bulky engine out of the saloon, two to enable the passenger entrance to be viewable by the driver and three to allow cross cab access for the driver to the driving seat thus avoiding the need for a separate driver’s door.
Noones claimed that the modifications to the steering system had full Mercedes-Benz approval but many in the industry were sceptical about just what that level of approval meant. This was hardly surprising scepticism because Mercedes-Benz are known to be cautious about changes to their products.
The 900 is undoubtedly stylish but it is a big vehicle and it has a massive boot. Overall it is 9107mm long, 2445mm wide and 3180mm high. I for one was surprised that they had gone for the nine tonnes chassis and not the 10 tonnes version which would have given them more weight leeway for marginal extra cost. Noones do not believe they will have any weight issues despite the large body and the massive luggage capacity, but no weight information was available.
The specification of the vehicle is high. The two Euro6 engine ratings available are the 918 which produces 177bhp (130kW) and the 921 which produces 211bhp (155kW). Both have massive torque back-up; 750Nm for the 918 and 850Nm for the 921.There is a transmission choice with the six-speed manual (G71 in the case of the 918 and the G90 in the case of the 921) or the new Powershift 3 automatic. Disc brakes are used all round and additionally there is a magnetic retarder. Suspension uses parabolic springs at the front and air at the rear.
Within the saloon there is space for 33 seats and a courier. Other features included bonded double glazing, air conditioning, side lockers and the large boot. Luggage capacity is six cu.m. The standard of finish was very high.
Catering for those requiring less seating capacity, Noones have introduced the Turas 700. This provides a seating capacity of up to 27 and has a luggage capacity of five cu. m. It uses as a base the Iveco Daily 70C17 chassis with the four-cylinder Iveco engine rated at 170bhp (125kW) matched to six-speed manual transmission. Braking uses discs all round plus a retarder. Suspension is independent at the front and air at the rear.
The overall size of the vehicle is 8345mm long, 2410mm wide and 3055mm high. It does have quite a long rear overhang at 2573mm.
Once again internal specification was high with air conditioning and tinted bonded double glazing.
Noones/Minis to Midis didn’t neglect the mini market showing three different versions of their Portuguese built Turas 500 coachbuilt units mounted on the five tonnes Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. In the outside area they also showed one of their Sprinter van conversions called the Turas 500C.
Another major player in the ‘Vario’ sector is Unvi and they used the show to introduce their new contender the Voyager GT. The Voyager GT is a radically different looking vehicle to Unvi’s previous Vario based Riada GT designs with very sleek styling bringing it into line with the new Touring models introduced last year. The body sides are curved and this helps to give the vehicle a feeling of spaciousness. The front end is also curved and has the characteristically large Unvi screen.
Unvi chose to locate the passenger entrance behind the front axle rather than ahead of it thus avoiding the need for curving the entrance steps around the bulk of the forward mounted engine. Instead this area is used for an additional seat giving the vehicle a maximum seating capacity of 34. This also means that there is a sizeable engine cover in the front of the vehicle and no access to the driving seat from inside the vehicle. Driver access is via a separate driver’s door. The vehicles on show were very much prototypes and David McKinless, who heads up Unvi UK, told me that they were planning to tweak the design before production begins. These tweaks will centre mainly on the engine cover and some aspects of the front end styling. David believes that they can reduce the bulk of the engine cover and may even be able to achieve cross cab access for the driver though they will still retain the separate driver’s door. He is currently not entirely happy with the styling of the front bumper and grille area and this will also be changed ahead of production.
The Voyager GT is built on the 10-tonne Atego chassis available with a range of power outputs to Euro6 from 177bhp (130kW) up to 231bhp (170kW). There is a choice of transmission with a six-speed manual and the new Powershift 3 automatic.
The two vehicles on show were a 210bhp manual fitted with 34 seats and a 230bhp automatic with a more luxurious layout and 30 seats. Bonded double glazing and air conditioning are part of the standard package and the vehicle has a large boot. As ever with Unvi products the standard of the internal finish was extremely high.
Alongside it were two examples of the new Touring midicoaches. The new Tourings have proved to be very popular since they were introduced last year with sales running well above predicted levels.
The two vehicles were a Touring GT mounted on the forward engined Atego 15 tonnes chassis and the rear engined Touring GTR which uses an MAN chassis. The GT was fitted with a 238bhp Euro6 engine matched to six-speed manual transmission although the model is now additionally available with the new Powershift 3 automatic transmission. The GTR has a 290bhp Euro6 engine and is only available with a fully automatic ZF EcoLife transmission.
The GT was built to a high specification with 31 luxury seats (the model can seat up to 41) with some seats set at tables and a very nicely designed centre servery. The 10.26m long GTR was to maximum capacity with 43 Brusa Create120 seats and courier.
Internal specification of the Tourings is high including air conditioning and bonded, tinted, double glazing. Both vehicles have very good luggage accommodation with over seven cu.m.
Rounding off Unvi’s display was an example of their minicoach range in the shape of a Vega GT which uses the five-tonne Mercedes-Benz Sprinter as a base. Some of the 16 seats were set at tables. The Unvi Vega range provides models with up to 22 seats.
The Vega GT specification included air conditioning, tinted bonded double glazing and a large drop well boot.
EVM are not concerned with the ‘Vario’ sector, they deal only in minibuses and coaches built using the five-tonne Mercedes-Benz Sprinter as a base. They chose the Show to announce two significant developments.
The first was a completely new coachbuilt Sprinter called the Grand Tourer. This marked a significant change for EVM in that it is the first vehicle they have introduced which is not built by them at their Kilbeggan factory, it is built by Spanish builders Car-Bus. Danny McGee from EVM explained that the Kilbeggan factory is running at a high level and that slotting an entirely new model and building techniques into the established systems would be difficult. Since the coachbuilt sector of the minicoach market is relatively small they felt it was better to source it elsewhere.
The design has been made to fit with the rest of the range and thus retain the family feel. It certainly does that because if you didn’t know it was built by Car-Bus you would think it had come from Kilbeggan. Seating up to 20 passengers in comfort, it has a very high internal specification including air conditioning, bonded tinted double glazing and a large drop well boot. The vehicle on show had in fact already been delivered to the customer Rainham Coaches of Kent who had let EVM borrow it back.
EVM’s other major announcement was a comprehensive five-year Mercedes-Benz supported warranty package on all their vehicles. The warranty, which covers the complete vehicle, has unlimited mileage and unlimited claims. In addition it comes with roadside breakdown and assistance, replacement vehicle contribution and operates throughout Europe. The warranty is also transferable when the vehicle is sold on.
Besides the Grand Tourer EVM also showed a very nice X’Clusive 2 luxuriously appointed 16 seater, a 22-seat Elegance for KB Coaches and a 19-seat Avantgarde for AirLynx of Southampton.
Danny McGee told me they were having considerable success with their convertible 22 seaters. These have the rear seats track mounted for easy removal and are supplied with an easily installed rear bulkhead to create a luggage space. He said operators really appreciated the flexibility this gives them to cover a range of work with the same vehicle.
Steve Peach of Connaught PSV has revitalised the Ferqui product in the UK following his decision to take it over from Optare. He used the show to introduce his replacement for the previous Vario based Toro model. The new vehicle is the F5 which is built on the 12-tonne Atego chassis and is available with both manual or automatic transmission. The entrance is located behind the front axle and fitted with a power door.
Connaught are offering two versions; a 34 seater with six cu.m. of luggage space or a 38 seater with five cu.m. of luggage space. The specification includes air conditioning, bonded tinted double glazing and a host of other features. As usual the standard of finish of the vehicle was very high as one would expect from Ferqui.
Also on show were two examples of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter based Soroco minicoach range. Both vehicles were to Euro6. One seated 16 and the other 19.
The associated Moseley companies have been significant players in the sector for many years with the Vario based Sitcar Beluga. Whilst retaining faith with Sitcar they have also recently become distributors for Beulas products and additionally have taken on the Indcar franchise. All three showed new designs, those of Indcar and Sitcar replacing their former Vario based models. Speaking to Karl Moseley of Moseley PCV he admitted that to a certain extent they were testing the water to see if there was a place in the market for all three vehicles.
All three were shown in left hand drive form. They are the Sitcar Voyager, the Beulas Gianino and the Indcar Next.
The Sitcar Voyager is a 25 seat minicoach built utilising the seven-tonne Iveco Daily 70C17 chassis. It has styling very reminiscent of the final Belugas, though I’m not sure I like the aggressive front grille treatment. With the entrance set behind the front axle, the specification includes double glazing and air conditioning as well as a useful amount of luggage space.
The Beulas midicoach shown was the 7.5m Gianino, a nicely styled and well finished 27-seat midicoach fictionally painted in the colours of G.H.Watts. It was mounted on the 10-tonne MAN chassis with a 220bhp engine rating. The package included air conditioning, tinted bond double glazing and 4.2cu.m. luggage capacity. Beulas also produce the Gianino in 8.3m and 9m versions seating 31 and 35 respectively and it can be supplied with the six cylinder 250bhp MAN engine. Whether Moseley will choose to offer all the variants remains to be seen.
The Indcar Next was to my eyes one of the nicest styled of all the new Vario replacements. The example on show was built on the Atego 12-tonne chassis and had a seating capacity of up to 38 passengers with a convertible boot extension based on a sliding rear seat arrangement. It is also being built on the 10-tonne Atego chassis which gives a seating capacity of 33. The 12-tonne version can also be supplied wheelchair accessible and with removable rear seats and bulk head allowing the luggage space to be increased from 6cu.m to 7.2cu.m.
In coach specification was to a high standard including air conditioning and tinted bonded double glazing. The level of finish on the Next was outstanding.
Altas vehicles are built in Lithuania and are imported into the UK by Haydn Skinner’s Minibus Sales at Pontypool. The vehicle on show was an Altas Tourline built using a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 519 base. It was fitted with 17 seats and trimmed to a very high standard.
BASE have traditionally covered the midicoach market with Beulas products but with that franchise having moved to Moseley they needed to find alternatives. At the Show they launched a completely new product, the MOBIpeople Midi Explorer built in Portugal.
The MOBIPeople Midi Explorer is built on the 10-tonne MAN TGL chassis. The vehicle on show was a right hand drive, 9.1m long example with seating for 27 plus two tables destined for Wheelers of Southampton, who will operate it as a 33 seater. It was powered by the 180bhp MAN engine matched to ZF (TipMatic) automated transmission. Vehicle specification included air conditioning and bonded, tinted double glazing. BASE will also introduce a larger 39-seat version during 2015. This will have a 12-tonne chassis and a 250bhp engine, the first two having been ordered by Centurion of Jersey with an overall width of 2.3m.
Higer is a major player in the Chinese market, but their involvement in Europe to date has been restricted to building vehicles for Scania, with Scania GB launching the first right hand drive Touring at the show, albeit in the demonstration park. Now the Harris Group from Ireland has taken on the franchise and intends to sell a range of Higer semi integral products in the UK and Ireland. Their launch model was the Storm 1 a 9.225m rear engined midicoach with a 6.7-litre Cummins ISBE 250bhp engine matched to Allison automatic transmission and a 13.6-tonne GVW.
It had 35 Chinese Vega seats plus courier and had a high standard specification including air conditioning, tinted, bonded double glazing, an in-coach entertainment package including Wi-Fi, CCTV both inside and out and a fridge. PSV Glass have been appointed to provide glazing support.
Harris have a proven track record of bringing new vehicles to the market. They are responsible for the importation of the Hino truck range from Japan, and have a major assembly operation. Dismissed by many at the outset they have since gone on to make the product a major factor in the truck market, especially the construction sector. Perhaps they will do the same for Higer. There are also plans to bring a smaller 24-seat product to the market, as well as full sized coaches.
Yutong is another new Chinese offering for the British market. Sales are being handled in the UK by Pelican Engineering. They showed the TC9 in 9.35m form able to seat up to 35 passengers. The TC9 is fitted with a 280bhp Cummins ISB engine matched to ZF EcoLife fully automatic transmission with a Meritor differential within a Yutong axle. The internal specification and finish was to a high standard with bonded double glazing and air conditioning. Extras included Sky TV and USB sockets. It had been retrimmed using e-Leather by Eastgate in the UK and is one of a fleet of Yutongs destined for the fleet of AirLynx of Southampton who are having a rear saloon toilet fitted by AD after the show. The retail price to a standard specification with 35 moquette trimmed recliners and power sockets is £139,000. Yutong have been very pleased with the response to the TC9 and have sold the first two batches of five ordered, with names already taken against some of a further batch of nine coaches.
Evobus UK gave considerable prominence to their in-house minibuses and coaches. The two minicoaches shown were a Travel 45 and a Transfer 45. Both were built using the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter five-tonne chassis as a base. The Travel 45 was fitted with 19 luxury seats whilst the Transfer 45 had 11 seats and a large rear luggage area. The in-coach specifications were to Mercedes-Benz usual high standard including bonded double glazing and air conditioning.
Four years ago Otokar exhibited at the NEC with two right hand drive buses. This year it was back though, as of yet, the company still does not have a UK distribution and support network in place. Ali Murat, General Manager, Otokar Europe, said ‘We have some candidates. I think we need a relatively established partner that knows the operators’ real needs.’ He also claimed that he had said no to several potential customers because the support was not yet in place. ‘You can’t hurt customers for the sake of selling five more vehicles,’ he said.
Ali told me that the company was dedicated to entering the market and as a manufacturer will be behind its partner. It hoped to participate with the top ten operators and try and improve. He saw a lot of things in the UK market that could be influential in Europe, ‘weight, when to have a small engine, ease of getting on and off – I like all of these things.’
Although both coach and bus products are offered, it is the bus market that is the main interest. Ali said, ‘We have brought two tried and tested products we know are reliable.’ Both were right hand drive products. One was the 9.68m Vectio C single door low entry midibus featuring a Cummins ISB4.5 250hp Euro6 engine, Allison T280R automatic transmission and independent front suspension. Expected to retail at £125,000, it accommodates 29 fixed and three folding seats and up to 33 standees. There are two steps ahead of the rear axle and beyond this all seats are podium mounted. A larger version of the Vectio measuring 10.3m-10.5m is also planned.
The second exhibit was the 8.4m Navigo T coach, also powered by an Allison (2200)/Cummins ISB4.5 Euro6 combination, though rated at 180hp. Providing three cubic metres of luggage capacity, it had a wood effect floor and a rear offside emergency door with an odd single seat set on its own alongside. Slight repositioning of the door may enable an extra seat to be added to the 36 seat capacity. A retail price of £109,000 is envisaged.
There were quite a few accessible vehicles on Show this year, many of them on the special stand created for this class of vehicle by Rescroft. This is another sector of the market affected by the loss of the Vario. Nu-Track showed two solutions to the problem whilst Mellor announced its plans, but did not show a vehicle.
Nu-Track from Northern Ireland are closely associated with the Wright Group. On the MAN stand they showed the new Pulse, announced earlier this year, which takes a conventional approach to replacing the Vario using a forward engine chassis, in this case the 10-tonne MAN TGL. Measuring 8.630m long and seating up to 33 passengers, it can alternatively carry up to ten wheelchair passengers. It uses an MAN four-cylinder engine matched to a ZF (TipMatic) automated transmission. A larger version is also offered using the 12-tonne MAN chassis.
So far, the only Pulses built have been fully seated units destined for Northern Ireland’s Health and Education Boards for whom Nu-Track has been a principal supplier for many years. The vehicle on show was the first to be equipped to take wheelchairs having doors at the rear and a rear underfloor, cassette type tail lift.
Nu-Track’s other Vario replacement was radically different. Called the Nu-Vibe it has been developed from the Wrightbus StreetLite service bus design but is a completely separate product. It is 9.0m long and has an EN Drive chassis fitted with a Euro6 Cummins ISB4 160bhp engine matched to an Allison fully automatic transmission. Front and rear axles are produced by Daimler and the vehicle has full air suspension.
The vehicle is much narrower than a StreetLite at just 2.218m. This followed demonstrations with the earlier prototype which was shown at last year’s Coach and Bus Live where operators repeatedly asked for a narrower vehicle for operating in rural and indeed some urban areas. It has a flat floored entrance accessed by a ramp and then a large flat floored area before stepping up into the rear saloon. Fully seated it accommodates 33 but all seats in the flow floor area can be removed or stowed allowing up to four wheelchairs to be carried.
The body structure like the StreetLite is manufactured from aluminium alloy and meets all the current regulations including R66 rollover. Bonded glazing and an advanced heating and ventilation system are features.
Nice to see Thom Bateman, formerly with Bluebird, has joined the Nu-Track team. Few people know as much about accessibles, especially flat floored ones.
Mellor has been a main supplier of Vario based vehicles to this sector over many years. They announced that they had decided to collaborate with another manufacturer to solve the Vario problem. That manufacturer is Unvi. They will take the new Mercedes-Benz Atego based Voyager GT (though Mellor may decide to use a different name) as a complete body shell for finishing at their Rochdale factory. Speaking to Geoff Hudson of Mellor he told me that they decided to go with Unvi because they liked the company’s approach and quality and felt it was a logical choice because Unvi UK does not bring in accessible Unvi vehicles to the UK and Ireland. ‘That means no conflict of interest,’ said Geoff, ‘They will carry on selling their mini and midicoaches and we will sell the accessibles.’ I understand the first shells are in production.
Mellor also used the Show to launch, or should that be re-launch, the former Bluebird Orion and Tucana directly wheelchair accessible minibuses following their acquisition of the designs earlier this year. It seemed strange to see Rob Miller, the former boss of Bluebird Vehicles, wearing a Mellor badge but these days Rob wears two hats. For Mellor he handles sales of the service bus derivatives and is also heavily involved in maximising the export potential of the products, whilst with his other hat on he continues to run Bluebird Engineering Services which (as well as body parts for Plaxton) produces Orion and Tucana body shells that go to Mellor’s Rochdale factory for trimming and finishing.
Mellor also introduced a new model to the range in the shape of the Orion Lite, a specially lightened version of the Orion with a GVW of 4250kg which allows the vehicle to be driven without a D1 licence. It features 16 Rescroft CT-Lite Space seats and has the adaptability to carry up to four wheelchairs.
Another exhibit was an example of their own coachbuilt accessible minibuses built on the five-tonne Euro6 Sprinter chassis. It had a low step entrance with fold out additional step and a completely flat floor and was fitted with 16 Rescroft light weight seats on tracking. At the rear it had a PLS AccessLite underfloor cassette tail lift and could carry up to six wheelchairs.
London Hire/Stanford Coachworks/Trekabus
London Hire showed two new vehicles from its extensive rental fleet. On the Rescroft stand it featured one of the new sensory vehicles it has purchased from Stanford Coachworks. This was equipped with the new cyclist awareness system which uses flashing lights and announcements to warn cyclists that the vehicle is turning left. Internally, the vehicle was fitted with 16 Rescroft CT-Lite Space seats that pack together to form wheelchair space without the need to remove seats. Up to four wheelchairs can be carried. These are loaded using a rear mounted PLS AccessLite tail lift. It also featured a PLS Door safe to prevent people stepping off the bus when the lift is lowered.
Outside the hall, London Hire had a Treka16 from Trekabus. London Hire have been using the Treka design for years and the example on show was the 250th that Trekabus have supplied since they bought the bus business from UV Modular some years ago. The vehicle was officially handed over to Peter Moxon from London Hire by Trekabus MD, Mark Clissett, during the show. It had 16 Rescroft seats, bonded double glazing, Trekabus’s fold out entrance step arrangement, air conditioning and a PLS rear mounted cassette type tail lift.
TBC from Northern Ireland showed a VW Crafter CR50 accessible minibus. It featured 16 Rescroft Lite seats and a rear mounted in-board Braun Vista tail lift. Other features were bonded glazing, Webasto heating and ventilation and a fold out entrance step with handrails.
Now on the TBC team is Joanne Campbell who worked for many years as Nu-Track’s lady on the ground in the UK.
GM Coachworks from Newton Abbot specialise in lightweight vehicles which use the Peugeot Boxer range but emphasising that they build on a wide range of vehicles this time they chose to show a Euro6 five-tonne Sprinter. This was fitted with seven seats including three tip and folds in the rear to create wheelchair space. A rear Ratcliff Palfinger underfloor cassette tail lift is fitted for wheelchair loading. Other features included bonded glazing, a 3.5kW heating system and GM’s own extra entrance step arrangement. It was destined for the NHS in Lothian, Scotland.
Plastisol showed their all composite bodied Mission directly wheelchair accessible vehicle which uses a Fiat Ducato Maxi front end. They announced that they had reached an agreement with O&H, on whose stand they were officially appearing, for them to supply accessible versions of the Mission. Plastisol will provide complete body shells which O&H will complete and sell.
The vehicle on show was equipped with 16 Rescroft seats or can carry up to six wheelchairs which are loaded through the flat, wide, entrance via a fold out ramp. Because of its unique composite construction Plastisol claims it is 100% corrosion proof and 40% lighter than conventional accessible minibuses.
Plastisol also announced that they are working closely with London Hire on the development of an all electric version. The first example is due to arrive in the UK from Holland, where it is built, before the end of the year.
EvoBus UK showed two of its accessible vehicles which are based on the five tonnes Mercedes-Sprinter. These were a City 45 which has a flat step free entrance and wheelchair space at the front of the saloon and a Mobility 45 which has a step entrance, flat floor and wheelchair loading via the rear using a PLS tail lift. Internal specification of both vehicles is high including, extra entrance step in the case of the Mobility, bonded glazing and air conditioning. The Mobility 45 was fitted with 16 Blenheim seats on tracking and also featured a PLS Door safe. The City 45 also had 16 seats with tip and folds in the wheelchair bay.
This was one of the busiest shows from a mini and midibus/coach perspective for many years with a plethora of new vehicles in both the mini and midi classes. Inevitably potential Vario replacements dominated the scene. As I said earlier whether all the offerings will eventually find their way on to the market only time will tell but 2015 is certainly going to be an interesting year.