Volvo B8R Plaxton Leopard
In Volvo’s rationalised model range for Euro6, the B8R chassis replaces both the B7R and in many applications the B9R. Unveiled in right hand drive form at last year’s Coach & Bus Live show, the first example carries Plaxton’s new Leopard coach body, developed specifically for the B8R, and Bus & Coach Buyer has just carried out the first full road test of it.
I met up with regular test driver, Andrew Fowler of Fowler’s Coaches, at the Coventry premises of Volvo Coach Sales where we were joined by Volvo’s Product Engineering Manager, Norman Thomas, for a road run that took in the A45, the M6 motorway and a variety of cross country roads in the Cotswolds, enabling us to join up with Andrew Pulham of Pulhams Coaches at his new depot in Bourton on the Water for another opinion on the coach.
Some readers may have experienced the coach on brief road runs at the NEC during the show. At that time it had a pre-production engine which has just been replaced with a production unit and there have also been a number of other modifications and refinements made in the interim.
The Leopard body marks a return to the entry level market for Plaxton which has been absent from it for several years since the mandatory application of Whole Vehicle Type Approval forced it to cease production of the Profile, a model with clear links via the Prima back to the Premiere 320 and in concept back much further to a time when most of what the company built was low height. The Leopard is 3.44m high, but that figure is over the air conditioning pod, making the basic height similar to the nominally 3.2m of its predecessors. There aren’t the thousands of small operators buying new coaches on a regular basis that there once were – you’d struggle to do so on the basis of a school contract and a bit of local private hire these days – but there are still quite a number who want a coach that will carry a good load comfortably without the need for a lot of frills. The fact that that Plaxton have already sold over 50, admittedly most of them mounted on the Euro5 B9R, shows that there is still demand for a coach of this type.
In Volvo’s new Euro6 chassis line up, the B8R and the B11R replace the B7R, B9R, Euro5 B11R and the B13R. Initially at least, the B8R is only being offered in conjunction with Plaxton bodywork, Jonckheere and Sunsundegui having switched from B9R to B11R with the latter not currently offering a replacement for the B7R based Sideral. Plaxton will also offer various versions of the Panther and Elite on two and three axle B11Rs.
Mechanically similar, apart from the engine, to the B9R that preceded it, the B8R is powered by the new generation D8K engine. This is a six-cylinder, in-line unit with common rail injection. It has a capacity of 7.7-litres and is offered with outputs of 280hp (206kW), 320hp (235kW) and 350hp (258kW) although all UK B8R coaches including our test coach will have the 350hp unit. The 280hp engine, developing torque of 1,050Nm at 950-1,700rpm, will be standard in the B8RLE bus which replaces the current B7RLE. The 350hp is produced at 2,100-2,200rpm while peak torque of 1,400Nm is developed in the 1,200-1,600rpm band.
It has a hydraulic fan drive and to cut down on noise and vibration it has hydraulic vibration dampers on the crankshaft and camshaft. New heavy duty alternators are capable of withstanding higher temperatures thereby extending service life. The timing mechanism drives the power steering pump, oil pump, air compressor and fuel supply pump. Oil renewal intervals of up to every 100,000km are possible using VDS4 oil, the total oil capacity being 26.5-litres including that in the full flow filter. There is also a closed crankcase ventilation version offered optionally.
To meet Euro6 engine emission levels, Volvo has equipped the D8K with SCR (selective catalytic reduction), EGR (exhaust gas recirculation), a DPF (diesel particulate filter) and a DOC (diesel oxidisation catalyst). All of these aftertreatment systems are integrated within a single muffler/silencer unit located at the offside rear.
Norman explained that, as on the B11R with the D11K engine that we tested recently, the DPF which collects the soot needs to regenerate from time to time to prevent it becoming clogged. To achieve this it has an additional injector within the exhaust system and when a sensor detects that it becoming full it injects fuel into the exhaust which then burns causing the exhaust temperature to rise and in turn turns the contaminates to ash. This happens automatically while the coach is on the road. Should the system fail to regenerate on ten successive occasions, the coach will need to visit the operator’s workshops where a workshop regeneration process will have to be undertaken.
Norman continued, ‘At some stage you will also need to clean the filter, involving removing it from the exhaust and getting an exchange unit to replace it. Volvo is now offering an exchange service for them.’ He also pointed out that unlike the 11-litre engine which is a so-called ‘hot EGR’ system, the D8K unit uses a higher proportion of EGR and therefore requires a cooling system to reduce the temperature of the exhaust gases. This means that when the exhaust gas leaves the exhaust system it is fed through a heat exchanger to cool it. He confirmed that with cooled EGR operators would probably need more regular filter cleaning than with hot EGR, but that it would depend very much on an individual vehicle’s operation cycle. Generally speaking, the hotter the exhaust was operated at, the less cleaning it would require.
Common with the rest of the Volvo coach range is the I-Shift AT2412E 12-speed automated manual transmission, though there are software differences between it and the versions used in conjunction with the B11R and other engine types. Alternatively, you can specify the six-speed fully automatic ZF EcoLife transmission, as Woodstones of Kidderminster have done for two B8R Leopards that are the first ordered by a private operator. The Ministry of Defence and Dawsonrentals have also ordered batches.
The air suspension system has four air bags at the rear and two at the front while the hydraulic power steering is a ZF system with a maximum angle of 52 degrees on 295/80R22.5 tyres.
Features of the EBS5 electronic braking system which has disc brakes on each wheel include an ESP electronic stability programme, ABS, ASR, brake blending, hill start aid, drag torque control, poor brake performance warning, brake assistant, lining ear sensing and analysis, brake temperature warning and automatic calibration after pad changes.
The radiator pivots for cleaning and maintenance and the coolant within it will operate at a higher temperature to enhance cooling performance and, it s claimed, improve fuel economy.
As on the B11R (tested under the Volvo 9700 in B&CB issue 1261, 31 January 2014) the new I-Start dual battery system is standard on the B8R. It has separate systems for starting the coach and running the ancillaries so that there is always enough power to start. There are two small 12V start batteries and two larger 12V 105Ah consumer batteries. The three alternators each have an output of 150A.
With successive rounds of legislation adding weight to vehicles and increasing seat pitches, the days of 53 seats in an 11m long coach have long gone. Rather than opt for a body of around 12m that would have enabled 55 seats Plaxton and Volvo decided to go for a 12.8m length with 59 seats that Plaxton’s impressively optimised construction techniques easily allow. When many bodybuilders’ products are well up towards the 14tonne mark, this coach troubled the weighbridge to the extent of only 11,921kg leaving a useful 1,507kg luggage capacity listed on the now obligatory sticker. Unimpeded by a toilet compartment, because Plaxton won’t be offering one on the B8R, the luggage capacity in the hold within the 6,850mm wheelbase is ten cubic metres.
Other alternatives Plaxton is offering on the B8R include a 70-seat (3+2) version of the 12.8m Leopard, a 12.8m Panther III with the new emergency door and either 57 seats or 65 seats (3+2), a Panther III with a continental door and less than 57 seats, and a 12.6m Panther III with front wheelchair access. I understand that the Panther B8R would be a special build rather than stock model and for a comparable specification the price difference would be around £20,000.
Structurally, the frame is made of 12% chromium stainless steel with a primary anti-corrosion treatment on all surfaces below the waistrail and a two stage underseal process. The composite main side panel is bonded in place with aluminium framed and skinned top hinged sidelockers and GRP front and rear panels. The side windows are double glazed, there is a rear window fitted and a deep one-piece front screen with a glazed feature panel below.
In appearance, the Leopard has echoes of other members of the Plaxton range without looking particularly like any of them. The deep front screen is quite upright though rounded at the top edge, stopping just short of the top line of the side windows. The forward mounted air conditioning pod on the roof isn’t particularly harmoniously incorporated. Like the Paramount 3200 of old, the Leopard has one narrow (792mm) window in the second bay on each side though all but one of the other side windows are the same size (2046mm), the exception being a half width unit (1023mm) at the rear of the offside.
The power operated inswing pivot door has a deep glazed area with a curved lower edge, the inswing concept being popular for pick ups because of its ease of operation and its reduced vulnerability to expensive damage from street furniture and other vehicles. The stairwell is well equipped with hand rails, including a curved one on the door inner and another on the courier seat base. There are four steps from ground to platform and a further one up to the flat saloon floor. Decency screens follow Plaxton’s recent trend towards tubular aluminium and smoked glass and these are not to everybody’s taste though I did not personally object to them.
Looking down the coach from the entrance, the passenger’s first impression is an uncomplicated yet smart and inviting one. The seats are attractively trimmed in blue moquette matching the driver and courier seats, coordinated with the rack undersides, the full draw pleated curtains are neatly stowed, the open racks run the full length of both sides and at the rear there is a window that, combined with the two glazed roof hatches toward the rear of the saloon, ensures that there is sufficient light in daylight without the need for the full length lighting strips running along both sides of the ceiling. The saloon floor is flat with only one step ahead of the final seats row.
Turkish built Bursa recliners are fitted, the backs of which are contoured to maximise knee room. These have external three point belts, folding armrests to the rear, two vertical had rails to the rear and plain moquette trimmed backs. Providing the seat in front is not reclined, legroom is good, indeed it did not feel like a 59 seater. I once went to London and back on a 57-seat Javelin Profile and that was far more tightly spaced, so from the passenger’s stance the high capacity Leopard is a step up.
Behind the driver’s seat, restricting the distance it will move backwards, is the driver’s blind which is attached to the decency screen by press studs. It would probably have been preferable to have it as a pull down from the rack. As it is, many operators will simply remove it and it will get lost, not that anyone ever uses them.
A significant area that legislation has impacted upon is the emergency door. It is no longer sufficient to have the type of half height emergency door typical of British coaches for the past 70 or so years; it now has to be virtually full height with a drop down step facility to reduce the distance between the last step and the ground. To comply, Plaxton has developed a deep one piece door with glazing matching the side glass in the upper section. It extends below saloon floor level to cover a slide out step that deploys automatically and locks in place when the door is fully opened. You need to release a lever to free it when shutting the door.
Unfortunately, this door did not match the rest of the coach in terms of quality or practicality. The step mechanism itself , though it should rarely be seen, has a lot of bare metal, does not look finished and there is the fear that it will fill with dirt when out of use. More important is the door itself, which we found impossible to shut from the inside because the mechanism is plastic and flexes, so however hard you try to slam it from inside, the top edge remains adrift though the locking mechanisms are engaged. The result was that whenever it was opened and you thought it was shut, a warning buzzer in the cab would sound and refuse to go off until somebody disembarked and closed it from the outside. I think a more robust mechanism would probably cure it though it is a concern that the door flexes sufficiently for the lower lock to engage with the top door edge still ajar. There was also bubbling in the exterior paint at the lower edge.
After the test I asked Plaxton to comment on this uncharacteristically poor aspect of the coach and they explained that, having checked it at Anston while repairing the damage to the rear corner, the top corner was a poor fit, possibly because something had been jammed in it at some stage. In fairness, this pre-production vehicle has been used for development and the same failing is not evident on production vehicles, something one of our team has since checked in person on a newly delivered B9R Leopard.
There has inevitably been an increase in prices with the advent of Euro6 to cover the massive investment that manufacturers have been forced to make, but a retail price of £215,000 will still look a lot to most operators, especially when an essentially similar Euro5 model without the greater emissions complications can still be bought for around the £200,000 mark.
On the road
We had left Volvo Coach Sales and made it less than a mile to the A45 roundabout when, stationary in traffic, there was a loud noise which we initially took to be a brake noise as there was little shudder through the body. However, it turned out that a taxi driver in a Mondeo had dented nearly every panel on his nearside in the process of destroying our offside lower corner panel. This was a record for a B&CB test: nobody previously has managed to hit us that soon after setting out. After exchanging insurance details, we set off again hoping that the damage wouldn’t look too bad in the pictures and that those scheduled to have the coach on demonstration would understand why it was temporarily unavailable.
On the motorway we were doing 1,350rpm in top at 60mph and a touch over 1,400rpm at 62mph/100kph. Earlier, at 40mph it had been doing just under 1,200rpm, though we were unsure which gear we were in because the display only read A at the time. It was much later that Norman finally managed to get the dash display to show which gear was engaged. The same display also shows the AdBlue level, water temperature, oil temperature and battery level. Our coach did not have an on board computer specified but it is an option.
Andrew commented, ‘it doesn’t half go well, it’s quite lively. You are soon up to speed. I’m sure it will still go well when loaded. You can use all of the power it delivers and you never feel that it doesn’t have enough. Not only does it pull well, it’s very smooth. You can hear first gear go in but not thereafter.’
‘There is no driveline vibration when climbing uphill. It’s very impressive, especially compared with its predecessors,’ he said. He also found it very stable and well balanced, which was no surprise given the low height and long wheelbase. ‘On these uneven roads the beam front axle provides pretty good comfort and that would improve still further with a load on.’
‘That retarder is good,’ he said, on a long descent from Stow. It can be operated on the stalk and on the first stage of the footbrake.
He felt the Plaxton dash was ‘all neat and tidy. You can see everything and it’s all in reach.’ It was noted that while the hill hold function on the gearbox was now automatic on the B11R/9700 we tested recently, the system remains dash button operated on the B8R.
Andrew Fowler concluded, ‘It performed very well. To drive it is exactly the same as the B9R, but with a smooth quiet engine instead of a rougher noisier one. It has cured the one thing that was wrong with it. Compared with our B7Rs it is smoother through the gears and the engine is more refined.’
After meeting up with Andrew Pulham he took the wheel. His immediate reaction was, ‘It’s very quiet. You can tell that straight away that it’s quieter than a B9R. It pulls well, this is a fair old bank but we’re gaining speed in tenth. You can’t knock that, there’s plenty of power. It’s light on the steering. I’m impressed.’
‘I haven’t got too many issues with the mirrors. I’m OK with the position of them and I like the fact they lift off. They are much more practical than gull wing units.’
‘It is quiet on the bumpy roads. There are no rattles it’s just quiet. I didn’t expect it to be as quiet as that, especially on the big hills out at Northleach. You imagine that with a smaller engine it will be noisier.’
Throughout the test, particularly at speed and on open roads, there was a persistent whistling noise that proved difficult to locate. We were pretty sure it wasn’t the entrance door or the driver’s window and suspected it was related to the roof mounted air conditioning pod. Otherwise there was next to no body noise. There was a small amount of window shimmer but no movement or noise from the racks except on the roughest sections of rural road encountered. Norman contacted me after the test when he had spoken to Plaxton about the whistling noise. They explained that this was down to the driver’s mirror and that, apparently, the angle of the triangle shaped gap between the mirror head and body side created the noise. They were confident that minor adjustment to the head should eradicate the problem.
Using the brim filling before and after method, the coach used 12.5 gallons (56.83 litres) covering 140.43 miles (226km) to give a fuel return of 11.23mpg which we were quite impressed with given that quite a while was spent on undulating cross country roads. Norman admitted he was a little disappointed as he had hoped for nearer 12mpg but accepted that was probably ambitious as the coach had only travelled from Manchester to Coventry with that engine installed. He said that they generally see a 5-10% fuel consumption improvement with a run in engine. Set against this, a full load of passengers would have reduced the figure, though it is always unwise to read too much into one off figures.
Volvo is offering one year Volvo Fleet Management and two years of European Blue Contract because it believes many will be wary of moving to Euro6, but Andrew Pulham isn’t among them. ‘I know many operators are shying away from it but I’m not at all,’ he said. ‘I know there’s the initial cost but in years to come we’ll be saying “I wish I hadn’t bought that Euro5”. I’m looking for a full life so I’ll buy Euro6 before Euro5. It’s coming anyway. If there are differences in parts and the like I may as well know what they’re about. People are saying that Euro6 is more economical. I’m not staying away.’
‘I think the best thing you’ve come up with is that I-Start battery system,’ he said to Norman. ‘I reckon it’s absolutely brilliant, a cracking idea.’
He was positive about most aspects of the body noting, ‘this is a great product to replace the Profile. I’d use it on day work up and down to London, especially with the inswing door. We do a lot of school children so I quite like the fact that it is simple inside, though you could spec it up. I can see a home for these with quite a few people. It’s not a touring vehicle for me, it’s a day coach. The trouble with plug doors is that they are no good with school kids.’ He felt it would always have a job it could do and could be readily cascaded through the fleet.
He commented, ‘They’ve repositioned the demister vents higher, though they are not the same colour as the dash. I could never get the screen clear on a Profile. I preferred the wood on the dash of our Profiles though. This is supposed to look more modern but I think it looks cheaper. It is very neat the way the one-piece blind is repositioned within a recess at the top of the screen.’ However, he thought the window pillars created a blindspot for passengers in the fourth seat row.
Andrew Fowler commented, ‘I thought the Volvo bit was fabulous and the fuel figure underlines it. We covered some hilly terrain during the day so if I was buying one I’d be well pleased with that, it’s better than I expected. If I was having one, I’d drop down to 57 seats and have a conventional continental door because I really don’t care for the drop down step arrangement and door.’
‘I think the bonded windscreen and the lower glazed front panel are a bit of a concern. I don’t know why they have done that because I can’t think of any reason why you would want a glazed panel in such a vulnerable position. My worry is the time it takes to replace it and the cost.’ He questioned whether operators wanting an entry level vehicle really needed a 12.8m coach rather than a 12.0m because there were a lot of places where the extended wheelbase was difficult operationally, as he has found with a B12M Plaxton Paragon of similar dimensions.
The two Andrews disagreed over the vehicle’s front windscreen pillars. Andrew Pulham commented, ‘that pillar is big when you look left. There’s more of a blind spot than I’d want there.’ After rather longer in the seat, Andrew Fowler commented, ‘The pillars are thick. When I first got in I thought they would cause problems but they haven’t caused any at all. Visibility is very good actually, even the bar on the inset side window is high enough not to impede vision.’
They were in unison over the emergency door, described by Andrew Pulham as ‘an afterthought’ and ‘a big shame.’ He added, ‘we blame Brussels for that, don’t we.’ He felt the interior door handle mechanism needed another support. Andrew Fowler expressed concern about what would happen when school children realised how it worked.
Unfortunate though it was, our contretemps with a taxi did not impair the performance of the vehicle in any way. I was hoping for good things from the B8R having driven and travelled on coaches with early versions of the unit on Volvo’s Hallerad test track in Sweden last year, but I was nevertheless surprised at just how much of an improvement on the B9R it represents when used in anger. It really is very smooth and quiet, significantly enhancing the passenger experience. There is also a great deal to like about the Plaxton Leopard body and though the rear emergency door warranted criticism on this coach, it does not appear to be an issue on production vehicles.
- Length: 12,800mm
- Width: 2,550mm
- Height: 3,440mm (over a/c)
- Wheelbase: 6,850mm
- Front overhang: 2,535mm
- Rear overhang: 3,415mm
- ULW: 11,921kg
- Max GVW: 18,000kg