Road Test – Pushing boundaries
Launched at last year’s Euro Bus Expo, Volvo’s new flagship 9900 – which supplants the 9700 – caused a stir. It’s a bold experiment in styling, both outside and in. But does it cut it as a premium touring coach?
If you’re in the market for a premium touring coach, Volvo’s 9900 tri-axle with 57 seats on 14 metres has to be in the mix.
Volvo’s new coach features innovative design, fuel-saving aerodynamics, and a novel passenger environment. It is the fruition of a €40m investment by Volvo Bus and includes features such as the new ‘Z’ shaped window line and theatre floor.
At launch, it found buyers snared by its bold looks. Steve Haydon at Hollinshead Coaches was an early adopter, with numerous other buyers found for a coach which clearly polarises opinion.
Though deliveries of the slightly revised UK specification are imminent, with the first coaches arriving later this month, we took up an invitation to take the pre-production prototype on the road. But for everyone, the first thing you do is stand back and take in what Volvo has done with the styling concept of a coach.
The Volvo 9900 has a striking exterior, partly influenced by the theatre floor inside, but mainly by a clear desire to stand out from the crowd.
The backswept front and bulging lower panels, coupled withvery smart headlamp units featuring their vee-shaped daylight running LED cluster, additional brightwork and the central bump in the roof, which leads back to the air-con pod, make it unique.
The styling extends to the sides. Two upswept brightwork inlays which disrupt the usually straight line along the waist hint at the ramped floor inside, while at the rear, additional brightwork inlays and false louvres on the engine bay cover make the 9900 unmistakeable – even to a layman – for any other coach.
Styling statements like these polarise opinion but what is beyond question is the quality of the fit and finish, with even shut-gaps and quality panels and mouldings. The 9900 says as much about the competence of Volvo’s Polish factory as the vision of its designers.
Throughout, I bore in mind the fact that this coach is the pre-production prototype with 28,000km on the clock, having toured much of Europe. A couple of the nearside locker doors had damage on them, and are to be replaced before the vehicle tours as a demonstrator.
Some criticism has been levelled at the glass, with each pane unique. To be fair, at this premium end of the market, kerb appeal trumps ‘service bus’ practicality and, in any case, Volvo will ensure glazing stock for every pane is available for operators, so this should not be a practical issue.
Locker space is within the usual capacity for a coach of this type, at over 13m3 and locker access is excellent, including to the ski lockers behind the main lockers. I’m told the locker doors will be modified with an additional handle in production vehicles. Other minor revisions will be based on Volvo’s feedback for the 9900, both from its show launch and from operators who’ve now seen it.
The test coach has a crew bunk but this will be luggage space unless ordered with a crew bunk. If ordered, the coach has an intercom between the bunk and driver. Fuel fillers are on both sides, and AdBlue filler on the nearside.
The main passenger door is amply wide, with four steps to the driver level and a further step on to the sunken aisle.
The doorway has a very stylish, multi-angle handrail on the left. The courier seat is on the right, and has next to it a lockable roll-front storage locker which is actually very capacious. The step is perfectly set for the courier to use it as a footrest.
Just above the handrail is a dash-mounted fridge – not a simple ‘cool box’ fed by the air conditioning but an independent fridge with 54 litres of storage for perhaps 50 or more drinks cans or bottled water. The curved profile of the entrance mouldings projects into the aisle a little, with a triangular storage locker above the Bosch media units and tachograph.Facing down the coach, the theatre floor is immediately obvious. In a 3.5m high coach, this arrangement would tend to make the rear a little claustrophobic but this super-high has plenty of headroom right to the rear. In front of the last two rows of seats, there’s a step. The raised area created would make an ideal, level-floor space for a servery or rear lounge. My suspicion is that this coach may emerge from the factory in many different seating styles, given the premium sector it occupies. The only restriction is the sunken aisle.
In the test vehicle, the Volvo Comfort Level 4 seats are, to my mind, superb. They feature airline-style seatback tables on a cantilever, so the reclining passenger in front doesn’t tilt the table. I’m told the UK 9900 deletes this as a standard option, with more conventional tables, and there’s a good reason for this; though the seat pitches are generous, the cantilever tables intrude on the passenger’s space a little too much, especially for a generously-proportioned passenger. They can be ordered as an option.
Hidden behind the seat tables when stowed (neatly, using a ‘lock’ through the cupholder aperture) are USB sockets; this is clearly the perfect position. Operator experience of USBs is that worries about vandalism are unfounded, as kids use them all the time. Seats side-shift and are recliners, which simultaneously move the seat squab upwards and forwards when operated.
The windows of the test vehicle have draw curtains. The coach is clearly equipped to take pull-down blinds and these will be in production vehicles. Over the seats are very deep luggage racks with doors. A minor criticism is that the doors are not as deep as the space inside, but as coats and handbags are the usual items stowed, it’s a moot point.
There’s a large, lockable locker at the front nearside of the luggage rack. The underside of the luggage racks is finished with a nice, flat-weave fabric. The passenger service units are of a smart, touch-control design.
The test coach is fully carpeted but can be specified with wipe-clean wood-effect vinyls and other flooring. Running the length of the coach are convection heating units, suspended above the floor which is, itself, curved up to the wall for easy cleaning.
The centre door and stairwell lead to the toilet. Step height is, as usual with this type of coach, a little severe but the stairwell has two handrails. On top of the toilet, AD Systems has created a very nice drinks servery in a granite finish.
Above the loo is one of two drop-down media screens, the other being at the front. In common with most modern coaches, the test coach does not have a DVD player; at some point, we will all have to get used to video being carried on USB memory sticks. There’s a part of me that thinks passengers would actually rather see the road map displayed so they know where they are. Or a camera view of the road ahead. And without headphone feeds to every seat, the playing of videos other than information about the journey is a bit intrusive anyway.
It’s a lovely travelling environment, and I must give a shout out to the 57-seat layout for having no seats next to window pillars, so everyone has a proper view of the passing countryside. Does the theatre seating create a theatre experience? Well, although passengers theoretically have a better view through the windscreen, anyone tall in the seat in front would obscure it; much like some theatre seats. It’s still worthwhile though; it adds some drama to the interior.
Firstly, it’s important to say how much thought Volvo has given to the driver. The cockpit of the 9900 has three important passive safety systems; one to protect the driver from major front impact; another to place the driver’s legs in a safety cage; and a third to prevent vehicles diving under the coach in a frontal collision.
Top marks from all of us for that, and for the raft of electronics preventing the driver dozing or, at least, taking control if a driver dozes. This includes collision warnings and an emergency braking system, plus the now familiar Lane Departure Warning which, on the 9900, worked perfectly.
The first thing the driver sees is the dashboard. There’s something very conventional about it, and it’s none the worse for that.
The centre binnacle – perfectly visible through the steering wheel – has analogue tachometer and speedometer with fluorescent swing needles. Below them, there’s a small LCD information screen flanked with fuel, temperature and other gauges, plus warning lights. Our test driver loved that simplicity.
The switchgear is very logically arranged, with lighting and door controls to the left, coach controls to the right. A small cluster next to the climate control deals with the fridge, toilet door lock and servery, and another to the right, set behind the cup holder, has switches for the sunblind, door window and driver/courier fans.
Steering wheel adjustment is via a foot pedal on the left. As with all i-Shift coaches, the transmission selector is joined to the seat. The driver has a nice A4 document locker to his right, coat hook behind the seat, and the seat itself has plenty of rearward movement for taller drivers than ours.
He may be of small stature, but he said all the instruments were clear and visible and all driving controls easy to reach. Though not used on the test, the cruise control is on the left indicator control stalk; the retarder and wipers are to the right.
From leaving the sales site at Coventry, our driver – a local man – was comfortable with the 9900. The 460hp engine and 12-speed automated I-Shift gearbox is a great combination, with plenty of torque and, once past third gear, seamless shifts which you barely notice. At 62mph, the tachometer hovers over 1,350rpm.
One Volvo feature which was immediately obvious to him was the Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS), which offers speed-dependent power assistance. This translates to finger-tip parking manoeuvres but better feedback through the wheel as you gather pace. The system prevents uneven road surfaces feeding back into steering input, too, but it also tends to rather vigorously centre the steering. Our driver was accustomed to that within a few minutes, but new drivers need tipping the wink about this.
“This Volvo drives like it’s on tiptoes,” our test driver said. “The steering is very precise and I feel very confident driving this at speed.”
The 9900 test vehicle is fitted with the optional I-See, which uses topographical mapping through GPS to anticipate hill climbs needing a down-shift in gear. Our test route took in the notorious Fish Hill near Broadway in the North Cotswolds. The 9900 took the steep sections and switchbacks in its stride.
Additionally, the 9900 self-adjusts ride height at speed, dropping the coach closer to the ground to achieve an aerodynamic advantage which Volvo claims will improve fuel economy.
The driver’s view from the forward-set seat is excellent in every aspect. The main mirrors offer a good view, though we noted that they don’t sit fully within the swept area of the wipers. The waist-level driving mirror is manually adjusted – given its importance, an electrically-operated mirror was our driver’s preference.
Manoeuvring the 9900 was a cinch, the active rear-steer giving the driver some assistance and the view, both in the mirrors and via the rear-view camera excellent.
For the passenger, the ride is very smooth indeed, with a slight but pleasant floatiness. Noise intrusion into the passenger saloon is minimal, including in the hotspots around the centre door and at the rear. The only noises were a few minor squeaks and rattles which are noted and are down to the pre-production nature of the demonstrator we were aboard. None were intrusive.
It’s difficult to fault the 9900 in all important areas; the interior is great, the ride sublime, it’s practical and the driving experience is stress-free.
The 9900 is, of course, an integral, and the D11K 10.9-litre engine combined with I-Shift 12-speed automated gearbox are perfectly matched, as perhaps you should expect from a coach wholly built by one marque with its own componentry. In the premium sector, and at the £295,000 retail tag, the 9900 is a competitive touring coach.
There’s a 53-seat, 13.1-metre version coming, too, at £10,000 less but Volvo is fully expecting this variant to be the one operators will like best; by the way, it’s only coming here as a tri-axle. Delete the loo in the 13.9-metre and you can add two more seats, taking it to 59.
But neither operators nor the passengers will be concerned about a respected driveline from a respected manufacturer; operators will be standing on the kerb, rubbing their chins, wondering if the 9900’s styling is right for them. Passengers will have no such qualms; the 9900 arrives with a bit of drama and, once inside, the passengers will enjoy their journey.
A super-high premium coach like this is not a spontaneous purchase, but operators should judge this book by what’s inside, and put to one side any personal taste issues; this coach is built for the driver and for passengers to have a pleasant, relaxing journey, however long. A footnote is that it’s got a stainless steel frame for structural integrity over a long life.
We were impressed with the 9900. Richard Mann, National Account Manager – Coach, says the production slots this year are close to being filled already, with the first production examples of the 9900 expected late March. We’re keenly anticipating that, because it’s clear Volvo has some revisions in the pipeline which will see the 9900 improved.
Later in summer, there will be a stock production 9900 at Coventry, and I’d urge you to drop by and see it. The test vehicle is excellent but showing its pre-production roots having had a 28,000km shakedown. Next, we’ll get to see what it looks like in a colour other than this odd metallic plum.