Wednesday 23 October 2019

CV Show review: passenger vehicles

We report from this month’s Commercial Vehicle Show on some of the passenger-carrying vehicles on display

MAN’s position in the British passenger transport market could be on the verge of receiving a fillip from a sector the company has only just entered.

The Commercial Vehicle Show saw the company promote a 16-seater-plus-driver minibus. Based on the TGE 5.180 – the TGE is a rebadged version of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ Crafter – it is being converted into a passenger carrier in the UK by Minibus Options.

Rear-wheel-drive and grossing at 5.0 tonnes, the newcomer is equipped with a 2.0-litre 180hp diesel married to a six-speed manual gearbox.

A fold-out nearside step is fitted to aid access to the passenger saloon, which can be made wheelchair-accessible and laid out in various different ways. It can become a ten-seater with space for two wheelchair users for instance, or a 14-seater with room for a single wheelchair user.

The seats are attached to tracking and can be demounted.

Also present at the exhibition was a low-height front-wheel-drive TGE chassis cowl. Powered by the 140hp version of the 2.0-litre diesel, again paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, the 3.140 grosses at 3.5 tonnes.

A 4.0-tonne version can also be produced; and the chassis could potentially be used as a platform for a coach-built wheelchair-accessible minibus or welfare bus. Venturing above 4.0 tonnes would require many of the components used to be updgraded.

MAN is promoting the out-of-hours service and repair facilities delivered by its truck-based dealer network to help it boost TGE sales.

“It is often possible for TGE owners to drop their vehicle off at one of our dealer workshops last thing at night, then pick it up first thing the next morning with all the work done,” says Daniel Holbein, newly-appointed as the manufacturer’s UK head of van.

“It’s service while you sleep.”

An electric right-hand-drive TGE could be available by the end of 2020, and could appeal to minibus operators eager to introduce zero-emission vehicles. However, MAN will only launch it if it is certain there will be enough orders to make the exercise worthwhile, says UK managing director, Thomas Hemmerich,

“Its battery will carry an eight year warranty, so I struggle to see why people would hesitate,” he remarks.

Turning to larger vehicles, the company has enjoyed some success in the British coach market in recent times with Neoplan Tourliner.  It is a success that Hemmerich wants to build on.

With this end in mind, two additional models with different, entry-level and mid-level, specifications look set to arrive next year.

“We’ll be playing with Tourliner’s interior,” he says. “So far as sales are concerned we want to get a bigger piece of the cake.”

MAN’s performance in the UK bus sector has fallen far behind that of its competitors, however; and it is a situation Hemmerich wants to reverse over the next one to two years.

“The UK is one of the top three bus markets in Europe and we are not going to let go of the opportunity it presents,” he says.

Once again though the introduction of right-hand-drive versions of models such as the new electric Lion’s City bus, scheduled to go into production at the end of next year, will depend on MAN being sure there will be sufficient fleet demand.

VW Commercial Vehicles is determined to ensure that MAN does not garner all the minibus glory.

Prior to the show, VW announced the arrival of a rear-wheel-drive 5.0-tonne Crafter CR50 converted into a 16-seater-plus-driver passenger carrier by Northern Ireland’s Taxi Bus Conversions. It too is wheelchair-accessible courtesy of a rear-mounted inboard Braun Vista lift.

That was not what was on display on its stand, however. Instead, it exhibited a non-wheelchair-accessible CR50 minibus with the same seating capacity and sourced from the same converter, but built to luxury specifications, with leather-trimmed seats and a carpeted rear luggage compartment.

VW’s UK minibus activities come under its Engineered To Go special conversions programme, which was re-launched in January.

The majority of vehicle manufacturers and converters were promoting electric vehicles in one form or another at the show, and small bus specialist Mellor was no exception. It was showcasing the latest version of its battery-powered low-floor 16-passenger Orion E, which has received a number of improvements, says managing director John Randerson.

“They have been suggested by operators who have learnt from real experiences working with the vehicle in diverse operational and geographic environments,” he says.

A new electric motor has been fitted, delivering peak torque of 5000Nm to Orion E’s front-wheel-drive system. It has improved the 5.0-tonner’s hill-climbing capability significantly, he says.

“The range between recharges is now up to 120 miles,” Randerson adds – 20 miles more than was on offer previously.

Furthermore, its range remains the same no matter how bad the weather is outside or how cold it is, he contends. Freezing temperatures, driving rain and howling gales can all potentially reduce the range of electric vehicles.

The little bus still uses a front end borrowed from Fiat Professional’s Ducato and it typically takes 4.25 hours to recharge the battery pack, says Randerson. Plug it into a rapid charger and the figure falls to 2.25 hours, he adds.

Mellor is by no means ignoring the burgeoning market for small diesel buses. At last autumn’s Euro Bus Expo, it launched the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based 30-passenger 6.0-tonne 8.8m Strata Ultra and the first one is going into service with West Yorkshire operator Stringers Pontefract Motorways.

Not to be outdone, Mellor’s sister company Treka Bus used this year’s show to launch its van-based 3.5-to-4.25-tonne Treka Everyday minibus. Available as a conversion on a variety of base models, including Renault’s Master and Peugeot’s Boxer as well as Crafter and Sprinter, it can carry up to 14 seated passengers.

Up to four spaces for people in wheelchairs can be created, with access provided by either an under-floor or inboard passenger lift. Treka’s target markets include charities, healthcare providers and educational institutions, as well as local authorities and rental fleets.

Standard features include a wipe-clean interior, LED lighting, and heating and cooling for the passenger saloon – while options include a power-operated side access step, fold-out candy-cane-style handrails, parking sensors, a reversing camera and an onboard CCTV system. The vehicle is covered by a seven-year warranty.

Both Mellor and Treka form part of the Woodall Nicholson group of businesses.

Returning to Mellor’s Orion E, at £150,000 to £160,000 it does not come cheap, Randerson admits; the penalty one pays at present for opting for zero-emission battery technology. “It’s double the price of a diesel Orion,” he says.

Public money is therefore required to make up the difference if such environmentally-friendly vehicles are to be adopted more widely. It has to come from national government or the devolved administrations given that local councils remain chronically short of cash, and operators often struggle to make a profit on many of the routes they serve.

Unfortunately such subsidies are not widely available, says Randerson; at least not for small electric buses.

“Government needs to do a lot more,” he says.

“Funding is at the heart of the problem,” he adds. “There should be targeted expenditure to help local authorities and operators bridge the gap.”

Politicians and voters want a greener environment; but there is a price to pay for cleaner air.

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