The EX16H arrives from Macedonia
It’s not a TX but it’s still a Van Hool
Over the past decade or so the Van Hool range has been moving steadily towards the upper end of the market with the result that most of the coach products it has built for the UK have been to executive, super executive or long distance express specifications, with little or nothing in the standard coach sector in which the brand was once well represented.
Though the trend has been accelerated in the UK by the withdrawal of some other players in the highest sector, it is a wider European phenomenon influenced considerably by Belgian labour rates and employment practices which have made producing standard coaches at a price acceptable to the market increasingly difficult.
Keen to return to those areas of the market from which it had effectively become excluded, as well as to maintain its export objectives for the North American market, Van Hool built and commissioned a plant near Skopje in Macedonia that was officially opened in May 2014. This initially built standard and commuter coaches for the USA and alongside these it is now also producing for Europe. The product is not the well known and respected TX range but an entirely new integral family called the EX which was first shown at the IAA Show in Hanover in 2014. Last year the model had a strong presence at the Busworld event in Kortrijk where one of the coaches exhibited was the first right hand drive example; a 13.38m long EX16 model.
It was announced at the Hanover launch, where the two-axle 12.48m long EX15H and 13.26m EX16M were unveiled, that there would be four different models built, the three-axle 13.38m EX16H and 14.22m EX17H following in due course. All H models are 3.805m high while the EX16M is 3.675m high and all variants have flat floors. In all cases, power comes from DAF/Paccar with the 11-litre MX11 unit used rather than the MX13 13-litre usually specified in the TX range. Apart from the engine, the underframe of the EX is exactly the same as that used for the TX.
Offered exclusively through Arriva Bus & Coach for the UK market, where only the tri-axle EX16H and EX17H models will be offered, the EX range complements the existing TX, all versions of which continue to be available, both through Arriva and the associated Moseley companies.
Last week we linked up with Arriva Bus & Coach for an evaluation trip in the EX16H first seen at Kortrijk to learn what operators think of the latest Van Hool model. Arriva Bus & Coach Marketing Manager, Laura Finnigan, Commercial Director, Alan Dale and Sales Development Manager, David Gregory brought the coach over from the Wellingborough depot where it has been based during a recent and ongoing demonstration tour. The regular B&CB test team of Andrew Fowler of Fowler’s Coaches of Holbeach Drove and Simon Dew of Dew’s of Somersham, were at the wheel for a test route centred on South Lincolnshire taking in country lanes, A roads, and a lengthy section of the A1, though given the nature of the Fens, hilly terrain took some finding. Both of their businesses have bought new Van Hools in the past, but neither have done so recently. On a windy day that saw early overcast conditions make way for clear blue skies, we also visited Fosdyke to hear what John and Chris Cropley made of it and Osbournby near Grantham for the views of Paul Cartwright of A&P Travel, who operate an all Van Hool fleet.
It should be remembered that this was the first one built, which would normally mean some elements would be hand built rather than fully productionised, though I saw little or no evidence of this.
In appearance, the EX has some similarities with the TX but you are unlikely to confuse the two. Like the TX and the T9 before it is a very angular design with minimal rounding, though there is a slight rake to the deep one-piece front windscreen. The side window line is straight with all double glazed side glasses of the same depth and only the driver’s window dropping below this level. Not only is there a full back window, it is a very large one. Beneath the window the main stretched panel is of the same depth throughout on the offside but on the nearside it is shallower beyond the rear axle to accommodate the height of the radiator/intercooler package.
Structurally the lower sections of the monocoque frame within the wheelbase and rear overhang are in stainless steel with the rest of the structure in carbon steel. The front, rear and front wheelarches are GRP and the double glazing is dark grey tinted Venus 10 bonded in place.
The main locker doors are manual cantilevered units that are easily reached and operated and other panels, including the engine cover, are top hinged. Inside the hold, which makes up the main part of the 9.9cubic metre luggage capacity, the electrical control centre is hung from the roof on the offside and there is LED illumination. A fuse bank is located in a panel immediately to the rear of the offside rear wheels with a prominent sign on the locker flap warning drivers not to place tool kits and other equipment in it. There are additional lockers over the rear wheels, though they do not go back very far and would not carry a great deal, however, I was surprised to see that between the front wheels and the driver’s compartment/entrance there is a useful locker than goes across the full width of the coach.
On the demonstration coach, white wheel trims matching the livery were fitted though Euroliners are an option and alloy wheels can be supplied as an extra.
Four entrance steps lead to the platform with a further three beyond, the first of them angled, to the completely flat saloon floor that, on the test coach, was fitted with wooden plank effect vinyl flooring. To the right, the courier seat is mounted on the third step with plenty of foot room, a roller shutter type door between it and the plug entrance door allowing clear access to the full width locker. The courier microphone is mounted on the B-pillar. Ribbed carpet covered the aisle, the platform and every step. A top loading dash fridge will be standard though only a storage space was fitted on this coach. Access was through a two tone grey moulding with two cupholder cut-outs that lifted as one although it looked as if the lighter grey upper section lifted separately. This was rather fussy and as Andrew observed, looked to be a dust trap.
Looking down the coach, the impression is one of clean straight lines and plenty of light. There isn’t the soft trim you get in the TX, but despite the harder surfaces it still gives a good impression, with uninterrupted dimmable LED light strips running the length of each side of the roof centre, full length racks with lockers at the front as well as one over the toilet, discreet interior vents for the front roof mounted Sutrak A136 III air conditioning system, front and mid emergency hatches, curtains, and uncomplicated passenger service units. The 19 inch front and centre Bosch Profiline 3 LCD monitors are not visually integrated in any way, which probably makes removing or upgrading them less difficult. Also provided are a seven inch dash multi media display, a CCU 02 radio/CD with MP3, USB and Bluetooth facilities and a CVX 02 CD/DVD. Apart from the front monitor there is a digital clock in the front headlining above the driver and a rear view mirror mounted centrally high on the windscreen.
The maximum capacity mentioned in the brochure is 59 recliners plus toilet in the EX16H and ours had 57, the standard build specification will also be 57. In comparison, the longer EX17H offers the possibility of 61 seats and a toilet (65 without), though the standard specification will be 59. There are only two seat options, both recliners from Kiel. These are the Avance 2010 or the completely fabric trimmed Avance 1020. On the 2010 there are options regarding the amount of leather trim (only the headrest is standard) and whether to have piping or not. Only five moquette choices are offered. On the coach we tried the side panels were optionally grey leather along with the headrest and they were piped in red, contrasting with the charcoal patterned moquette which is also applied to the seat rear. Two point belts are standard with three point belts an option. Other features were a folding aisle armrest, magazine net, adjustable footrests and a horizontal grab handle. Some kind of holder would be required if the coach was equipped with a drinks machine on the toilet top, as listed in the specification but not fitted on our coach.
Although having 57 seats, I found the seat spacing comfortable and there were no seats in which a passenger’s personal space was compromised, not even in the rear corner seats where this can be an issue. Neither was the view out of the side windows impeded.
At the centre door, the handrail provision is as good as anything I’ve seen with one on the toilet compartment to the right immediately as you enter and another diagonally beyond the toilet door, a rail all the way up on the left and an additional rail integrated within the decency screen. Also to the left is access to the locker. The staircase itself has five yellow-edged steps from the ground, each with a light in the riser, with the top step slightly inset within the aisle.
A typical Van Hool feature retained on the EX is mounting the toilet facing the offside rather than the rear which creates a more spacious feel, while retaining compact dimensions. The unit itself is up to Van Hool standards with clean mouldings, an oval mirror on the door and soap and paper towel dispensers. On the aisle side of the unit casing is a cupboard with a push button lock and on top is a flat tray where a drinks machine could be mounted.
Mechanically, the driveline, like the underframe, is exactly the same as that of the TX family, save that the engine used is the MX11 rather than the MX13. The only engine option Arriva is offering is the 10.8-litre Paccar/DAF MX11.320 developing 435hp/320kW at 1,450-1,700rpm and peak torque of 2,100Nm at 1,000-1,450rpm. At this rating, the highest available with the MX11, it is producing greater power and torque than the lowest rating of the 12.9-litre MX13 which gives you 412hp/303kW and 2,000Nm. It is a six-cylinder in-line unit with common rail fuel injection and double overhead camshafts that utilises SCR (selective catalytic reduction) and a DPF (diesel particulate filter) together with cooled EGR (exhaust gas recirculation).
There are a number of gearbox options for Europe but in the UK only the push button control ZF Ecolife six-speed fully automatic transmission is being offered. This incorporates the ZF Intarder 3 retardation system.
Both the front and tag axles are Van Hool’s own independently suspended design and the tag wheels are electronic-hydraulically steered. There is a dash button that allows the tag axle airbags to be deflated, which can be of assistance when pulling away in slippery conditions and this axle also has FSD (frequency selective damping) shock absorbers. The drive axle is the Dana G171 single reduction unit with a differential ratio of 3.07:1. Full air suspension is fitted with two air bags on the front and tag axles, four air bags on the drive axle and a suspension raise and lower device.
Electrical elements includes 220Ah batteries, with a battery guard system, three 150A Bosch alternators, a heated fuel filter, the Kienzle Board electronic system (KIBES) and heat detectors and an emergency switch in the engine compartment. The demonstration coach was optionally fitted with a Fogmaker fire suppression system at a cost of £1,900. Braking systems include EBS3/ESC, AEBS (advanced emergency braking system), a halt brake linked to the door opening system and a mechanical handbrake on the drive axle.
Wheels are steel 9.0 x 22.5 inch discs with ventilated disc brakes as standard shod with Continental HA3 315/80R22.5 tyres all round. A spare is also supplied.
The diesel tank has a capacity of 500-litres and is filled from either side immediately to the rear of the front axle while the AdBlue tank holds 63-litres with the filler located on the offside between the lockers over the rear axles.
On the road
For the driver, an Isri air suspended unit with lumbar support and armrests is provided, complete with integrated microphone and three point belt. As the coach was unregistered and had still to be fully PDI’d, the lane guard facility and cruise control were not functioning which was slightly disappointing.
Andrew Fowler found no problems with vision and praised the ‘old fashioned’ full height side window with no horizontal bar to impair the view. ‘It’s an engine with torque low down, so it doesn’t need a lot of revs on. It was well boss of the job. It was smooth and it changed gear well and appropriately. It was a little bouncy at the front on some of the rougher roads but it rode well overall and I suspect it would ride even better when laden,’ said Andrew. ‘It looked easy to clean and hard wearing too. I’m sure passengers would like it because it is modern, fresh and airy. There’s nothing to dislike about it. Even at the back there’s a good view. It’s one of the nicest we’ve been in.’
Chris Cropley also commented on the good view, but criticised the arrangement of the fuel and AdBlue gauges next to each other on the dash display because he felt it would be too easy to confuse the one with the other. He would also have liked the Siemens VDO digital tachograph mounted higher so that you could see what it says while driving, and also noted that, ‘the indicators sound like something out of the 1980s but they do the job.’
He liked the handling saying, ‘It feels like it’s on the ground as most Van Hools do. It’s steady when it’s empty, so that’s good.’ All of the side windows being the same was another plus point he mentioned as was the quietness at the rear of the coach. Accustomed to carrying children, he questioned whether the driver call button shouldn’t just sound and leave a light on rather than buzzing continuously while a finger is on it.
‘It’s smooth isn’t it’, said John Cropley. ‘The stability feels all right to me and it doesn’t feel over long. It’s as stable in the wind as anything I run, you wouldn’t feel anything if it was loaded.’ He couldn’t understand why it did not come with three point belts as standard, because so many schools insist on them.
Simon Dew found it drove similarly to others with the same running gear, mentioning the i6. He praised the lack of wind noise despite the ‘brick like’ shape. Of the driving experience he said, ‘It’s pretty nice actually, I’m quite impressed.’
Taking the wheel, Paul Cartwright noted the dash layout was different to the TX, praising the driving position and vision. ‘I didn’t originally like the mirrors but the view in them is very good, probably better than the TX,’ he said. He was immediately impressed with the quick pick-up of the automatic compared with the AS-Tronic box, and thought the retarder worked well. ‘Apart from the gearbox, it drives the same as a TX, it drives like a Van Hool. You can’t over-rev it, it sounds nice.’ He concluded, ‘I’m pleased I’ve had a go but it’s horses for courses. I’m happy I’ve chosen the TX for my company and I’ll stick with that but for a different business model it’s good.’
It was Grantham before we found a real hill and when we did it sailed up it without hesitation. On the A1 it was showing around 1,300rpm at 100kph in sixth. Slowing to 80kph it stayed in sixth at 1,000rpm.
One negative element that everyone commented upon was the sunblind which was next to useless as it did not go far enough down to offer any protection to the driver on what gradually became an extremely sunny day. Not only that, but where it sat meant that passengers could see little out of the front screen when it was deployed. Another problem noted was that the screen for the reversing camera confusingly showed everything in mirror image, encouraging you to steer in the wrong direction, an issue that I believe should be easily rectified by a technician.
From the passenger point of view, it was a commendably quiet coach throughout. As I walked down the aisle toward the rear I was expecting the noise level to rise over the rear engine but it barely did so, it is impressively quiet. There was a hint of vibration through the seats to the rear of the toilet compartment but this may have disappeared with a full complement of passengers.
Andrew has bought several new T8 and T9 Scanias over the years but none for more than a decade. He commented,
‘It’s up there with others in its sector. It’s well built, it rode and drove well, it seemed fairly solid and it’s got kerb appeal. I quite like it. It will make people look. The appearance is quite stark so it makes a statement. Although it is essentially a box it still has quite a classic look, so I don’t think it will date quickly. The Belgians always manage to put a bit of panache in, even though it’s quite a classic look. It’s when you put a lot of shape in them that they start to look old more quickly.’
‘For a fleet with a mixed workload it would meet the need. From my point of view it would take kids to London, old folks to Hunstanton and if I still sent coaches abroad you could use it on that. I didn’t see any problem with it being from Macedonia, it looked well finished to me. There was nothing that put me off, so it has to be a contender. It’s no different to building Tourismos in Turkey. There’s no quality difference, it’s just cheaper labour.’
‘It’s more than capable of doing anything anybody wants of it so I could see me buying a secondhand one at some stage, I’d have no worries about them. If I was buying a Van Hool I’d probably have the EX over the TX and pocket the difference. Nobody will pay me 20% more to ride in the posh one. On a ten year cycle you can make one of these make sense, and it would still have a value at the end.’
‘Will it do the job? It’s a more economic product from an established manufacturer. It’s well on top of the job. Is it good enough for my passengers? I think so. I don’t know how much a similar capacity two axle coach is, but then you’d have weight concerns. If we were looking for higher capacity we’d definitely take it into consideration.’
‘I see it as a coach for taking kids to Paris or Spain, not so much a tourist specification, more a workhorse. For our market it’s ideal; basic and straightforward with seats and televisions. I think the market is moving away from Setra class.’
With a TX16 Acron, a T916 Astron and T9s on Scania and DAF chassis as well as another TX16 49 seater on order, Paul Cartwright of A&P Travel knows his Van Hools. Though he liked the coach he didn’t think it was the right tool for him. ‘It’s not as good as a TX’, he said. ‘For our traditional tour market the TX has that additional finesse. These are people movers which is not what Van Hool has been about. The proof’s going to be in the pudding. If you pulled up alongside a TX in it some customers wouldn’t notice but you would yourself.’
Going into more detail he didn’t like the armrests on the Kiel seat, though he thought the seat itself was comfortable. ‘It’s nice and light, clean and simple.’ He also liked the flat floor, saying, ‘It’s a good thing. The steep front steps put us off having another Astron, the Acron is better.’
‘I think the TX is too good for kids. This wouldn’t be. It’s a good product and it’s got presence on the road. I think it is aimed at new Van Hool customers. If you specified it up to the level of a TX (which you can’t do, Ed.) you may as well have a TX.’
As you would expect, there is a significant price differential between the EX and TX ranges. The retail price of the standard specification EX16H is £255,000 plus VAT while the longer EX17H retails at £265,000 plus VAT. In comparison, the nearest equivalent models in the TX range are the three-axle 57-seat TX16 Acron at £300,000 plus VAT and the 14.2m TX17 Acron at £307,000 plus VAT. Also available are the two axle TX15 Alicron and TX16 Alicron at £268,000 and £274,000 plus VAT respectively, the TX16 having recently been reintroduced with lighter Kiel seats and a chemical rather than a water toilet.
Availability of stock EX models of both lengths will be from April onwards, though taking one to you own specification could entail a wait of up to six months.
Standard warranty is two years comprehensive cover. This can be extended using an insurance policy through WMS. For those wondering about the cost of that large one-piece front windscreen the replacement cost is £1,000 plus fitting.
The first four right hand drive examples have already been sold to Reays in Cumbria. In Europe, the EX has taken off well with France the biggest market to date. The French market is very different to most others in Europe with a strong ‘Car de Ligne’ sector in which the lower height two-axle EX16M, is the best seller. Elsewhere, it is the EX16H and EX17H that operators are keenest on. A Van Hool spokesman told me that already around 150 EXs have been sold of which close to 120 have already been delivered.
Current axle weight limitations mean that the two axle EX models cannot currently be offered in the UK, though Van Hool are known to be working on this.
The opinion among all our operators was quite positive; this is a coach capable of undertaking a wide variety of duties.
I suppose the key questions that potential customers will have in their minds are whether the build quality of the Macedonian built models matches that of the Koningshooikt built ones and the expectations that come with the Van Hool brand; in that regard the answer is an emphatic yes. Save for the front sunblind I saw nothing that looked less well thought out or finished than you would expect on a Van Hool and nothing that would lead a passenger to criticise, indeed the feel and finish of the coach was one of quality, if not quite the same degree of luxury found on a more highly specified TX. The same is true of the driving and ride experience; indeed I thought it particularly quiet and the completely unobstructed view out for passengers arguably best in class.
Inevitably there has to be a compromise in a coach that costs significantly less than the existing range and that comes in the limited choice of options. Traditionally, operators have been accustomed to specifying the equipment and fittings on a Van Hool down to the last detail and you are not going to be able to do that on an EX, with only two seat options, albeit with some additional trim options, and just five different moquette colour choices. I’ve only seen one of the options and it looked fine, but if you want a particular corporate moquette you are going to be disappointed. Will this matter to most operators for most work, probably not, because none of the operators who gave us their opinions seemed in any doubt that this is a coach that is capable of doing what is expected of it. It’s a head buy rather than a heart buy, but shouldn’t every coach be? Importantly for Van Hool, it puts them back in the market for affordable workhorses that is increasingly where the market is focused.
Wheelbases: 6,160mm + 1,300mm
Front overhang: 2,890mm
Rear overhang: 3,035mm
Max GVW: 24,500kg