Plaxton’s Panther Exec is a coach for all seasons

The coach industry has seen a lot of focus on the cost-effective sector of the market of late. Plaxton is the latest entrant into this segment, with its Panther Exec body on Volvo B8R chassis. It’s a coach that has many uses through a long life

There has always been a market for coaches with a good passenger capacity at a keen price, and that’s what Plaxton targeted when it unveiled its Panther Exec on Volvo B8R chassis earlier in 2016 (routeONE, Big Story, 16 March).

Panther Exec has joined Jones Login fleet as a tourer, but is highly versatile

But Plaxton also claimed that it had achieved a low unladen weight and good fuel efficiency with the model. In order not to trample on the paws of its successful Leopard, it also pointed out that the Panther Exec is not a one-trick pony; it can handle a variety of duties.

One is touring, and that is why very early buyer Jones Login signed up. Based in West Wales, the operator took a stock example, and for its early years it will be used on tours throughout the UK. But the coach’s versatility is as much a part of its appeal, says Director Endaf Jones.

“My consideration when buying is the coach’s second life – what do you do with it then? Our Panther Exec is currently running as a 53-seater with a toilet, but we also have three additional seat pairs.

“When it is no longer a front-line vehicle, we will install them and use it on other work. Our previous tourer went to Plaxton in part-exchange, but I don’t foresee having to do that with the Panther Exec.

“This will be a ‘full life’ vehicle, because with the potential to go to 59 seats in the future, it is highly versatile.”

The B8R quickly demonstrated a significant fuel efficiency improvement over its predecessor, a B9R. Endaf reports that on tour work it returns up to 12.5mpg, over 2mpg more than the B9R.

“We are very impressed with the Panther Exec so far, and the B8R also has an edge over the B9R from a driver’s point of view,” he says, kindly making his fleet flagship available for a routeONE Test Drive.

Build

7.7-litre D8K engine develops 350bhp and drives through I-Shift gearbox

The Panther Exec is built exclusively on the B8R chassis. Power comes from the modest, 7.7-litre D8K engine driving through a 12-speed I-Shift automated manual gearbox.

Diesel fillers are on each side above the front wheels and the Ad-Blue tank and filler are immediately behind the door. Although Plaxton has worked to keep the Panther Exec’s purchase price down, the door remains a plug type and it is almost fully glazed – which for the driver, is very welcome.

Luggage locker doors are manually operated on the Jones Login coach, as is the continental door. It is front-hinged, and care is thus necessary when opening it from inside. There is 10.5m3 of underfloor space.

The external lower dash panel is removable to reveal a spare wheel and the emergency braking system sensor; the lane departure warning system camera sits internally at the lower centre of the windscreen.

Access to the engine bay is via a two-piece door. The smaller top section is hinged, and the large bottom piece comes away completely. Should heavy driveline work be required later in life, this will make it easy to carry out.

Dimensions-wise, the Panther Exec is 12.8m long and 3.68m high. Window depth is 97cm. The Jones Login example weighs in at 12,472kg unladen.

Passenger access

Handrail layout at door is excellent, and better than most other coaches

Four 22cm-deep steps lead passengers to the uncluttered platform and one more, at 25cm, rises to the gangway. Notably, the floor is completely flat throughout; the compact D8K engine means that it need not rise at the extreme rear.

One of the Panther Exec’s strong points is the provision of handrails around the entrance, and it is among the best coaches on the market in this regard.

Two upright handles at the bottom of the steps are complemented by a long, swooping bar higher up that splits into two horizontal sections, and the underside of the courier seat base has a sturdy plastic handrail.

The seat base does intrude slightly into available space, but not overly so.

The coach has wood-effect flooring throughout, but all steps and the gangway have removable hard-wearing carpet fitted. Moving around the cabin is helped by all of the Brusa seats having grab handles at both top corners.

Passenger comfort

The 53 seats are finished in a dark fabric, complete with lighter leather inserts. All have cup-holders, footrests and three-point belts.

At the centre is a sunken toilet topped by a small servery, bin and an upright fridge. On the Jones Login coach, there is no fridge in the more normal dash position, although it can be specified optionally.

53 Brusa seats currently fitted, but potential to go to 59 later in life

Visibility for passengers is good, with the seats at around the optimum height in relation to the windows.

However, windscreen wiper ‘sweep’ could be more extensive; the test was undertaken on a wet day, and passengers do not benefit from having their forward field of vision cleared in such weather.

The demountable toilet is relatively tall, but with there being no monitor above it, it does not affect frontal views for those sitting behind. The single monitor on the coach is at the front, and connected to a Bosch radio, CD and DVD player.

A Thermo King roof-mounted air-conditioning unit is fitted, coupled to climate control and perimeter radiators.

The cab control unit is easy to understand but gives much scope for adjustment; the driver may set a temperature and leave the unit to its own devices, or may alternatively exercise a closer degree of control over fan speed and operation of the heaters or air-conditioning.

Saloon lighting is by two simple LED strips in the roof, complemented by reading lights in passenger service units. Additional natural light is provided by two glazed emergency roof hatches.

Driver comfort

Immediately noticeable in the cab is the amount of space around the driver’s feet and legs. Coupled to a steering wheel that adjusts well and a comfortable seat with the usual refinements, that gives a positive first impression of the coach.

Cab layout is good, with lots of room around pedals and steering column

Storage in the cab is reasonable if not exceptional, and an electrically-powered signalling window is joined by a manually-operated péage opening.

The dashboard is finished in mock polished steel, and Plaxton’s chunky rocker switches for body functions are joined by a smaller number of similar buttons that govern chassis controls.

An aftermarket Autosound reverse camera has been installed complete with dash monitor, and a charging point for sat-navs is present. A one-piece electric sunblind is fitted.

Gullwing mirror arms are complemented by an additional lower mirror on the offside.

All have powered adjustment and give a very good view, but surprisingly it is not possible to avoid a view of the back of the lower casing in the larger of the two panes on the offside gullwing arm.

Observation from the cab to the lower nearside is easy thanks to the extensive door glazing. Checking over the driver’s right shoulder is not as simple, as the cab window line rises from the front, but it can be done.

Performance

Upon launch of the Panther Exec, some murmurings were heard about whether the modestly-sized D8K engine would be sufficient for a tourer. While the test was undertaken unladen, there was no evidence to back these suggestions up, although naturally it lacks the outright hill climbing ability of its big brother the B11R.

Nevertheless, the B8R is no slouch, and as ever, the excellent I-Shift makes the most of the available power by selecting the correct gear at all times.

Long wheelbase requires care, but B8R chassis is up to the job in hand

The coach rapidly accelerated to 50mph on a climb along the A40 towards Haverfordwest, helped by the D8K being a ‘free revving’ unit.

I-Shift uses this characteristic well, taking engine speeds to around 1,800rpm at times of high power demand before block shifting to return to the peak torque band. At 62mph in top gear, the tachometer shows approximately 1,500rpm.

Unlike a previous test of a B8R that had a simple version of the I-Shift, the gearbox in the Panther Exec retains full driver control. Its kickdown facility is useful; it allows gears to be held on stiff climbs that momentarily flatten, something that the I-Shift’s software cannot predict.

Opportunity was taken to test the coach’s overrun hold-back facility. It allows the driver to enter a speed above the cruise control setting at which the retarder will engage on downhill sections, and it proved very useful thanks to a highly capable auxiliary brake.

Endaf explains that when driving the Panther Exec on motorways, he sets the cruise control to 60mph and the maximum overrun to 62mph, and has no concerns about recording an overspeed on the tachograph when descending hills as a result.

One thing that does require awareness is the coach’s wheelbase. At 6.85m it is longer than many other models’, and particularly when turning left means that a substantial amount of road must often be used if kerbs are to be avoided. Steering action is excellent, and ride quality at both the front and back is good.

Verdict

The Panther Exec is aimed at operators who may be tempted by keenly-priced coaches built outside the EU, and Plaxton did not hide that fact when it launched the model; although the exact figure depends on specification, the manufacturer reiterates that it is very competitively priced.

When examining the coach it is obvious that Plaxton has adopted a ‘simple is best’ mantra in some areas. But what it has not done is take away driver or passenger appeal; both parties will find travelling on the Panther Exec a pleasant experience, and its flat floor, excellent handrail arrangement plus good driver visibility to the nearside are benefits not always seen in other coaches.

Panther Exec is a cost-effective coach, but displays some excellent touches

The B8R is a willing performer, and it also makes a significant contribution to the Panther Exec’s total cost of ownership; with Jones Login, fuel returns have proved better than expected and well above those delivered by a B9R predecessor.

Endaf identifies a further improvement in the B8R, and that is its noise levels. The metallic tone of the Euro 5 D9B engine is gone, replaced by a more muted and smoother sound, and that is reflected inside the coach.

“I stick with the Plaxton Volvo combination largely because of back-up. We have had issues with coaches in the past, but Plaxton is always quick to deal with them.

“We also have a Volvo dealership within 10 miles of our yard. For an operator in a rural area, both those things are very important,” he adds.

Endaf also highlights the model’s versatility, and understandably so. Unlike some more expensive coaches, the Panther Exec will easily become a high-capacity vehicle for school duties and local private hire in later years, giving a full life’s earning potential with many operators.

If you buy vehicles with your business’ bottom line in mind, then the Panther Exec is worth a look. It is a smart, well-executed and fuel efficient coach that has a multitude of uses.