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June 06 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Plaxton unveils two new additions to its range

Plaxton has launched two new coaches, and they both major on a delivering a high level of accessibility. One is a striking double-decker and the other is a split-height, low-entry single-decker for service work

The Panorama demonstrator is a 14.5m accessible coach with 87 seats

Plaxton has expanded its coach range with two new models, and accessibility is the name of the game for both the Panther LE low-entry single decker and the Panorama double-decker, which are built on Volvo chassis that are new to the UK market.

As revealed by routeone, the striking Panorama, based on the B11RLE, has a completely flat lower deck floor and wheelchair users may be loaded at either the front or the rear door. It is suited to both scheduled services and private hire and tour work.

The Panther LE, built on a tri-axle B8RLE chassis, has step-free access to a low-floor area with space for one wheelchair, and a coach standard rear. It, too, will suit a variety of uses.

Both models have been developed in partnership with Stagecoach. The group has ordered five Panoramas and 19 Panther LEs, all for its Scottish subsidiaries.

But Plaxton is confident that, with the options that it can offer, the Panorama and the Panther LE will both appeal to other buyers. That includes those in the retail sector, particularly as both models give rapid boarding of wheelchair users and other less able-bodied passengers.

“The launch of two new products shows our continuing commitment to coaches,” says Plaxton Commercial Manager Mark Ballam. He adds that it was the first bodybuilder to offer accessible coaches for scheduled service work way back in the days of the Volvo B10M.

Mr Ballam says that overall, the coach market remains highly-competitive. But Plaxton believes that additions to its range coupled to a focus on, and dedication to, retail buyers will continue to attract new customers.

Dual-purpose Panther LE

The Panther LE uses Volvo’s low-entry bus front module combined with a coach rear. It represents the first use of a tri-axle B8 series chassis in the UK, although the very similar 8900 has been in left-hand drive markets for some time.

Those Panther LEs for Stagecoach are 14.6m long and they have 53 seats. 16 are within in the low-floor area, along with a wheelchair position that is larger than the norm. The latter comes complete with an NMI restraint system that is quick and easy to use.

14.6m Panther LEs for Stagecoach are 53-seaters on Volvo B8RLE chassis

A slightly-sloping floor and centre stairs lead to 37 more seats in the upper section, which is shared with other members of Plaxton’s range. Partly because of that commonality, the rear area could be fitted out in a 3+2 layout. It could also take a floor-level toilet.

Power in the B8RLE is from the D8K engine rated at 350bhp coupled to a ZF EcoLife gearbox, although Volvo’s own I-Shift is also available. Those for Stagecoach tip the scales at around 14,250kg unladen.

Initially, the Panther LE will be certified as a coach, and it will come with various driver assistance systems. Later, however, it is likely that the model will be suitable for certification as a bus. That will see the assistance systems dropped, but permit up to 17 standing passengers.

Glazing galore

The 3.44m high Panther LE’s low floor area is notable for its huge expanse of glazing. The window line extends from a height typical of a low-floor bus to the roof level of a coach. While it gives excellent views, it will test the air-conditioning in sunny weather.

In the rear section, the travelling environment is identical to any other mid-range coach. Stagecoach has specified Lazzerini seats with integral USB charging points, reading lights and stop request buttons, but Plaxton is able to fit other types as required.

Passengers in the high-floor area also benefit from overhead luggage racks. Immediately ahead of the drive axle is a 2m3 luggage compartment that can be used to store pushchairs and other smaller items.

Although Stagecoach’s requirement is for the B8RLE chassis in tri-axle form, Mr Ballam says that should an enabling order be received, there is scope to expand the twin-height Panther LE concept to two-axle format.

Panther LE’s low-floor area has wheelchair bay and expanse of glazing

Whether that occurs remains to be seen, but Stagecoach’s reasons for advocating development of a low-entry coach are clear.

Loading wheelchair users via a lift is time-inefficient, and it has also seen what it describes as issues with market acceptance of coaches on scheduled work.

New range-topper

Perhaps Plaxton’s new jewel in its crown is the Panorama. It, too, has seen Volvo come up with the goods chassis-wise. The manufacturer has combined the rear module from the B11R with an uprated front section from its bus range.

Arrival of the Panorama takes Plaxton back into a market segment it last served almost three decades ago with the Paramount 4000. The new coach seats up to 87, or 91 with no toilet, and it weighs in at around 18,250kg unladen.

Again, Stagecoach has driven the Panorama’s development, and accessibility is chief among its must-haves. Plaxton has delivered on that; the front entrance is as clear as will be found on any double-decker coach and when suitably configured, access at the rear door is equally good.

Initial Panoramas are 14.5m long, but in a nod to to the retail market, Plaxton says that it will be able to build shorter variants subject to orders being received. “Achieving a flat floor on the lower deck was a huge challenge,” says Head of Coach Engineering Vaugn Bulmer. To maintain body strength and rigidity, some of the side members are thicker than would otherwise be the case.

Plaxton has also incorporated two ‘swan necks’ above the front axle. Although that on the offside is part of the staircase and that on the nearside appears to be an aesthetic addition, they both contribute to structural strength. While double-deckers are not mandated to comply with R66 rollover regulations, the Panorama does. A further staircase is at the rear door. It and the one at the front are lit via adjacent windows, and they also have strip illumination in each step edge.

Panorama passengers

Stagecoach’s design brief for the Panorama called for the carriage of one wheelchair user, loaded via a portable ramp at the centre door and accommodated in a dedicated space.

The front entrance to the Panorama is clear, with space for a wheelchair

A variety of other layouts are possible. Plaxton’s demonstrator has Kiel 1020 seats, and the rear four pairs on the nearside have tip-up bases. They are on quick-release tracking, and can be ‘shuffled’ together to create a wheelchair area. Wheelchair users can also board at the front.

“The base vehicle layout gives many options,” says Mr Ballam. “With the ‘shuffle’ seats, the coach can run at its maximum capacity for 99% of the time if required, but when it is necessary to carry a wheelchair user, it can be adapted quickly.”

What should not be forgotten is that the Panorama is as well-suited to touring as it is to scheduled work, and at a shade under 4m tall, it is able to venture onto the continent.

Plaxton has already sold one to a retail buyer, and the demonstrator comes with a courier seat and two tables on the lower deck. All manner of additional fittings are available.

Luggage capacity is typically a double-decker coach’s Achilles’ heel. The Panorama has the standard area over the rear bogie, and it has been designed so that there are no inclined surfaces within it to allow the space to be maximised.

As well as top-hinged flaps, the luggage bay has a full-height walk-in door with integral steps. Attached to it by two ratchet straps is the fold-up wheelchair ramp for use at either door.

Mounting points for a ski box and/or a towing hitch can be added, and Plaxton is also keen to point out the lower deck’s overhead racks. They are deeper than those seen on other double-deckers, and they will easily accommodate modestly-sized bags.

The B11RLE chassis has 600 litres of fuel storage. The Panorama demonstrator, and those in build for Stagecoach, are powered by the D11K engine rated at 460bhp coupled to Volvo’s I-Shift gearbox. At the optional 380bhp rating, the ZF EcoLife is an option.

Panorama takes styling cues from other Plaxtons, but it is a new coach

What comes next?

Plaxton is in the process of completing the two concurrent orders for 19 Panther LEs for Stagecoach’s Scottish operations. Several were in build last week; a number have already been delivered.

The first Panorama has also been delivered, while the prototype-cum-demonstrator shown to the press will shortly depart for a three-month stay at Millbrook Proving Ground for extensive testing.

After that, it will be available for evaluation. Operators will also have the chance to see the Panorama at Euro Bus Expo at the NEC Birmingham between 30 October-1 November, where it already looks set to be one of the stars of the show.

What should not be forgotten is Volvo’s contribution to the two new Plaxtons. Whie the tri-axle B8RLE was not a big step from an existing left-hand drive chassis, development of the B11RLE represents quite a leap of faith.

Volvo Bus UK has worked with its colleagues in Brazil to develop the model. “The front module is effectively our low-entry bus product, but the suspension has been upgraded for higher-speed use and heavier weights,” says Coach Product Manager Richard Mason.

Plaxton and Volvo have worked to take both the Panorama and the Panther LE from concept to reality within a year. They each have high hopes for the products, and on a first showing, they may well be rewarded.

routeone comment

Plaxton represents the last of the UK’s tradition of coachbuilders. There is always a sense of anticipation when it launches a new product - or two, as the case may be. Its range has come on leaps and bounds under Alexander Dennis (ADL) ownership. That continues with the Panorama and the Panther LE. Both are solid coaches; they have numerous clever design aspects and they also look the part.

Plaxton has also strengthened its team recently, and that is arguably as important - if not more so - that the hardware. It’s also seeing market share increase, while ADL’s simple parts ordering portal will soon encompass the Plaxton range.

Volvo’s products have achieved a good reputation at Euro 6. The D8K engine delivers excellent fuel economy and the D11K in the B11 line-up gives excellent driveability.

Neither the Panorama or the Panther LE are high-volume products, but they are worthwhile additions to an every-strengthening range.

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