The low-floor minibus market is a niche one, limited to mobility work and a handful of scheduled bus services. The sector’s newest entrant is EVM’s Community, based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
The Sprinter has long since proved itself king of the minicoach market, with its durable, reliable and fuel-efficient platform favoured by many operators in the sector. Its stock has risen even further with the Euro 6 version, thanks to new engines and Mercedes-Benz’s acclaimed 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox.
Sprinter is much less common on bus work, but a new entrant hoping to crack this market is Irish bodybuilder and converter EVM. It offers Community, a low-floor variant which is suitable for mobility and lighter-duty bus work.
Community was launched in June having been in development for some time. As with EVM’s minicoach bodies, much of it is modular, allowing considerable lattitude in specification, and a variety of internal options are available.
British importer EVM Direct sees a moderate market for Community, and regards 20 sales in its first year as reasonable, says Sales and Marketing Manager Peter Flynn, who made the demonstration vehicle available for a Test Drive.
Community retains the Sprinter’s stylish and popular look, and for the status-conscious operator Mercedes-Benz’s three pointed star is prominent at the front and rear.
From the offside, apart from graphics applied by EVM to promote its accessible credentials, there are few obvious differences between it and one of the manufacturer’s minicoaches.
That’s helped by the presence of tinted glass and EVM’s X-Clusive styling package. The latter is popular on its minicoaches, although Peter expects it to be deleted from most production minibuses.
A driver’s door remains in situ, although cab access from within is good and better than some other front-engined chassis.
Things are different on the nearside. The van-type passenger door is replaced by a smaller fixed panel. Behind, and occupying some of the space a hinged door would, is a large sliding door made by Ventura, which also supplies the wheelchair ramp.
The low floor ‘kit’ is supplied by Belgian company B-Style and installed during conversion by EVM. It substantially alters the Sprinter, giving it a step-free entrance, and incorporates some important modifications not visible to passengers.
Beneath the floor, diverting the propshaft under the wheelchair accessible section has been tackled by use of a robust looking ‘drop box’ on the rear of the transmission. It is then routed through the holes drilled in the chassis cross-members.
Thanks to the propshaft being higher than the bottom of the chassis beams and cross-members, it’s protected from potential damage by being driven too fast over speed humps. Ground clearance at 18cm is good for a vehicle of this type, and in fact the lowest part of the body is its X-Clusive styling kit.
At the rear, van-style barn doors are still present, although they serve little purpose as the test vehicle’s seats are hard against them. If the customer required, EVM’s large drop boot could be installed, as is common on its minicoaches.
Diesel is added at the rear nearside, and AdBlue beneath the bonnet. A rubber collar around the AdBlue filler prevents spillage; tank capacity is 18 litres.
[tab title=”Passenger Access”]
The large, 120cm sliding side door is rapid in operation, and in a nice touch its open/close button is identical to and integrated with the Sprinter’s other dash switches, creating a ‘factory fitted’ impression rather than looking like an aftermarket addition.
The door’s opening and closing gear is all mounted at the top, as is its securing mechanism, meaning there are no trip hazards at floor level.
It also has a guiding rail around five inches above the bottom, connected to a rotating stanchion and ensuring a tight fit.
During the drive, there was no wind noise detectable around the door, suggesting a good seal. A high-intensity exterior light is mounted above the opening.
This bus’ main attraction is its step-free, wheelchair accessible nature, achieved using a Ventura manual bookleaf ramp. Were it parked next to a raised kerb, the ramp would act as a flat ‘bridge’ between the bus and pavement, and even when opened directly onto the road, the 27cm entry height means that the angle of attack is manageable.
The low-floor area is large enough to accommodate one wheelchair user. Within the same section there are three seats, all of which are hinged and fold away when needed.
A basic yet very sturdy-looking drop bolt secures them in either position, complete with some heavy-duty welding. Despite this, altering the seats’ position is easily done, although it will pay to keep the hinges, springs and locking mechanisms lubricated.
Access to the rear part of the bus, where a further 13 seats are found, is via two steps. At 13cm and 18cm, they are very shallow. Nevertheless, given that the Community will often carry passengers who have sight impairments, adding high-visibility edging strips on production models will be beneficial.
Handrails around the door are painted in fluorescent yellow, and are well sited. The ramp has an abrasively-textured coating, ensuring good grip.
[tab title=”Passenger Comfort”]
The 16 high-backed seats are by Politecnica and have three-point belts. All those which adjoin the aisle have an armrest that can be lowered out of the way when required.
Windows are as would be expected in a Sprinter conversion, and provide a good view from the raised rear section. The same can’t be said of the low-floor area, where on the offside the window line is too high for most passengers, although the fully glazed door enables scenery to the nearside of the minibus to be enjoyed.
EVM offers a solution to this problem, and can optionally install panoramic glazing to the offside of the low-floor section, substantially lowering the windowline to the benefit of passengers there. Further natural light comes from two glazed, roof-mounted emergency hatches.
Optional air-conditioning was fitted to the test vehicle in the form of a roof-mounted unit, controlled from a dial integrated into the dashboard, which like the door button has a ‘factory built’ look to it.
An auxiliary Webasto saloon heater is also present. On a hot and sunny day, it proved necessary only to use the air-conditioning unit’s lowest fan setting to bring down the saloon temperature. Two saloon-length strip lights in the ceiling provide illumination.
Wheelchair securement is by a novel system. Four floor-mounted straps are fitted, which when not in use retract to be completely flush.
The front two extend only when a button on the rear of the driver’s seat platform is pressed, and secure in a ratchet-like manner, as do the rear pair. When pulled tight, they enable the wheelchair to be securely locked in position; EVM provides a number of additional straps in the glove compartment as standard.
Suspension is springs all round, although air can be specified at the rear. That may be a sensible option as the ride there when unladen is, unsurprisingly, slightly harsh, exacerbated during the test by poor road surfaces in and around Crawley. That may differ with a full load of passengers.
[tab title=”Driver Comfort”]
There is little to say regarding driver comfort other than as a workstation the Sprinter is a pleasant place to be. It is refined, quiet and car-like, with noise levels no higher than at the rear when cruising.
A comfortable seat is provided which gives ample support, and access to the cab is easy, either from the passenger cabin or through the exterior door. The steering wheel doesn’t impose into the driver’s space.
A combined variable cruise control and speed limiter is provided on a stalk to the left of the steering column, making the driver’s life even easier. Dash air conditioning is present, running independently of the saloon unit, although both are controlled from the same panel.
Ride at the front is very smooth for a steel-sprung vehicle, with the imposed weight of the engine and gearbox helping soak up most road surface imperfections.
A four-and-a-half-hour stint behind the wheel of the Sprinter would not become an endurance test.
The Sprinter as tested is fitted with Mercedes-Benz’s 2.1-litre, four-cylinder 163bhp Euro 6 engine. It’s coupled to the excellent seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, creating a drivetrain which is both willing and able and also refined and efficient.
No other gearbox options are available, and it’s difficult to see why any operator or driver would object to that.
The 7G-Tronic is an excellent piece of equipment, and one which gets it right every time. It also makes the best use of the engine’s low-down torque, with maximum pulling power coming in from 1,400rpm.
Selection is via a stick similar to a manual transmission’s. Shifts are imperceptible and seventh gear isn’t reached until in excess of 50mph, which allows relaxed motorway cruising at the 62.5mph limited speed. That sees the engine turning at around 2,100rpm.
The Sprinter’s steering is another pleasing aspect of the driving experience.
It is very positive, and neither under- nor over-steers at all. Simply put, it goes where it’s pointed, holding the road well as it does so. There is no hint of roll even when pushed hard through corners; the addition of a low-floor section to the Sprinter has done no harm to its stability.
A particularly useful aspect to the driver is the low-floor conversion’s large glazed passenger door. At more than one awkward junction it provided an excellent view of traffic from the left, which may otherwise not have been possible.
Not only that, but when used in city environments with high cyclist populations, it will allow an eye to be kept on any who may have ridden up the nearside of the minibus when stationary.
If the Sprinter’s excellent mirrors are set properly, then combined with the glazed door there is no blindspot of note to the nearside.
[tab title=”Verdict & Specs”]
The Community isn’t the first low-floor minibus on the UK market, and neither is it the first such vehicle on the Sprinter platform.
That it is built on the Mercedes-Benz chassis will be a major attraction, with Sprinter having gained a reputation for acceptability and reliability. It offers solid residuals in minicoach applications, but how this transfers to minibus remains to be seen.
Fuel efficiency is good for a vehicle of its type. A mixed run, including a number of circumnavigations of congested Crawley and Gatwick Airport combined with a trip along the M23, saw an average of 23mpg returned; this will naturally increase if the proportion of urban use is reduced.
With the help of B-Style, EVM has produced a competent vehicle which is capable of doing the task at hand well.
Its wheelchair restraint system is novel, and Community will be an appealing package to drivers and passengers alike.
A variety of layouts in the low-floor section are available, from the three fold-away seats seen in the test vehicle to a trio of tip-ups. Alternatively, where wheelchair access is not required, the ramp can be omitted and five fixed seats fitted instead, giving a total capacity of 18. Community can also be built with destination equipment and a mounting location for a ticket machine if required.
All of these combine with EVM’s ‘can do’ attitude to bodybuilding and conversion, and it can incorporate a number of elements from its minicoach range into Community. Besides the drop boot they include a high-specification Parrot entertainment system and even a fully glazed roof which, combined with the panoramic offside glazing, would give the ultimate in natural light.
The market for low-floor minibuses will never be huge, but EVM’s Community is a worthy entrant to it.