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May 17 2017
By Mel Holley

Mel is the Editor at routeONE magazine. He has more than 30 years’ experience in road and rail transport journalism.


A Van Hool for everyone

It’s unmistakeably a Van Hool, and the latest addition to the manufacturer’s EX range is likely to create much interest in the UK.

Van Hool has long been regarded as an aspirational brand, says Arriva Bus & Coach (ABC), yet it’s often had a price tag to match.

In response, to fill a market need for the more cost-conscious operator, Van Hool launched the EX range in Europe in 2014, initially in left-hand drive.

Its debut right-hand drive offering came as a tri-axle. With most operators preferring two-axle coaches, sales have understandably been modest.

Now the operators’ choice, a two-axle high-floor EX has been launched.

A fortnight ago was operators’ first opportunity to see it, when displayed at the UK Coach Rally at Blackpool, where it won positive feedback.

Cleckheaton-based ABC kindly made it available to routeone for an exclusive first test drive.

The EX complements, rather than replaces, the TX range. While operators can - and do - specify every last detail on a TX, the more affordable EX comes with more limited choices. These are largely limited to a palette of six moquettes and curtains. ABC notes that once you start changing the spec, you’ll add cost and be into TX territory.

Having said that, there’s around a £30,000 saving compared with a TX, and the standard spec has already been increased by ABC, compared with Van Hool’s factory output, so it’s hardly ‘poverty spec’.

The demonstrator is a straight 49-seater, with toilet and servery and entertainment. It is also delivered with a full fuel tank as standard.

Build

From the outside, the EX15H looks identical to its tri-axle sister and no changes have been made to the styling. Inside it’s a similar story.

The angular design neither looks outlandishly futuristic nor tediously dull, suggesting that it will stand the test of time without become dated in appearance.

It retains the 10.8-litre MX11, as fitted to the tri-axle, to ensure that both are the same to simplify production and other aspects, such as CANBus. The result is that with 435bhp on tap, but less unladen weight, it’s not hanging around. The 2,100Nm of torque delivered across a wide band, from 1,000-1,450rpm, giving it plenty of ‘legs’.

The range is aided by a 400-litre fuel tank, while AdBlue capacity, added at the offside rear, is 63 litres.

The aluminium pantograph luggage locker doors are manually operated, and an emergency driving mirror and tool kit are thoughtfully provided in the 6m3 luggage bay.

Passenger access

The doorway is relatively wide, with four steps, then three more onto the flat gangway. The steps are wide and not unduly steep, while handrails at the front aid access. The courier seat does not intrude unduly and there’s plenty of room in the entrance meaning that larger passengers shouldn’t have any significant problems.

The steps to the centre door are steeper, with five to the ground, but it is on a par with similar coaches.

Access along the aisle is unimpeded, but seats lack handholds. Additionally, the sunken gangway makes it a stretch to reach the overhead racks for some passengers; it is easily managed by a taller person, but will be trickier for those who are shorter.

The step into the centre stairwell is marked in both high-visibility yellow and with a blue LED strip, and is very obvious.

Passenger comfort

Arguably the most important aspects, the demonstrator’s comfortable Kiel Avance 2010 seats, in dark fabric with red synthetic leather headrest inserts make the saloon look smart.

It comes with lap belts, magazine nets, drop-down tables and footrests. Optional extras include three-point belts, 220v or USB points.

Two monitors, powered by a Bosch Professional Line entertainment system are fitted, along with the water-flush centre sunken toilet.

A five-litre water boiler with tap and sink, with a 60-litre supply completes the servery. A fridge is in the front dashboard.

The automatic climate control, with a manually adjustable temperature and fan speed, allows the Sütrak air-conditioning to blow through vents in the luggage rack edges. On a warm day, it was powerful and swiftly effective.

Good insulation and a quiet driveline means that noise levels within the coach are excellent, while the large back window makes it an airy place to be.

Driver comfort

An air-suspended Isringhausen driver’s seat with all the usual adjustments and a hands-free microphone is fitted, while the driver also benefits from a steering wheel that has a good degree of adjustment. Access to/from the seat is easy and there is good legroom on both sides of the steering column, meaning that all drivers should be able to settle comfortably.

A one-piece electrically-operated sunblind is effective, while storage is in a dash-mounted tray and to the driver’s right.

Van Hool’s multi-function steering wheel is fitted and controls body functions along with the dash computer and mirror controls. The handbrake falls comfortable to the right, in a lower area, above which is a rotary control and selector buttons to access other functions, such as the climate control.

Once you get used to it, it’s fairly straightforward, however drivers will need to be familiar with it all before setting off. The push-button 1-2-3-D-N-R push buttons are mounted on a vertical panel to the left of the driver. The tachograph is the bottom of three units mounted in this panel. Some drivers would probably prefer it to be in the top position, rather than the DVD player.

The speedometer and tachometer are very clear, while the excellent mirrors are shake-free and offer good views of the blind spots. This is aided by general good all-round visibility from the cab.

At the front of the coach, it is almost silent with no noticeable wind noise. When cruising the engine cannot be heard from the cab, and only makes you aware of its presence at lower speeds when hill climbing.

Performance

The EcoLife and MX-11 combination are already well proven and liked and in this coach combine to make it quick off the mark, with smooth progress. Even on the hilly M62, it quickly gathered speed up to its limited maximum after being stuck behind slow overtaking trucks. Progress is very rapid using kickdown, yet sixth gear is only taken at around 60mph on the level. At 62.5mph (100km/h) the MX-11 is running at 1,275rpm.

Gearshift quality is excellent, and almost imperceptible, giving a very smooth ride. On the motorway sections, much resurfacing has taken place in recent weeks, and the coach happily kept a stable line; this was the same on some of the more distressed surfaces. Should you deviate, the lane departure warning system vibrates the driver’s seat.

Once we got onto twisting B roads the EX felt just as composed, soaking up the bumps on uneven surfaces without any rattles or bangs. Cornering and other manoeuvring was achieved with aplomb, the coach holding its line very well, giving the driver good feedback and delivering the confidence needed to position it exactly every time.

That’s all thanks to the independent front suspension that gives excellent poise and negligible roll, even under hard cornering.

A stalk-operated retarder is fitted and it is very powerful, bring the coach to a halt without need to use the footbrake. Other systems, fitted as standard, include emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.

Verdict

As a mid-range cost-effective coach, you’d be hard-pushed to discern that from the quality, finish, comfort or drivability. The coach was not travelled very far - from Hull to Cleckheaton, Blackpool and back, before our test drive. Over that short time it had delivered a remarkable 14.85mpg; we suspect that when loaded and on more demanding routes that will fall back, but even so the whole package should be cost-effective to run.

Having added that caveat to the fuel consumption, it is worthy of note that the MX-11 - which is not unduly stressed in this application - delivers its torque over a flat line from 1,000-1,450 - so good fuel consumption should be expected

While it’s not a budget school coach, it would make a competent tourer. And with 49 seats, its legroom is not cramped either.

Price-wise, at £260,000 it sits midway between the ABC’s budget-price offering (a 12m Temsa Safari) and the premium Van Hool TX range.

For those who aspire to owning a Van Hool, yet cannot afford the top-spec of a TX, but neither want a budget coach, this EX may be just the ticket. With the prestige of a Van Hool badge, driven by the well-respected DAF/ZF driveline, we’d expect to see it as an attractive proposition that will hold its own in this competitive sector.



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