Test Drive – VDL Futura FHD-2

VDL’s Futura 2 has a tough act to follow, with its predecessor having been the bedrock upon which more than one coach operator built their business. Uncommon so far is the tri-axle version, with just three in service in the UK. Tim Deakin drives one of them.

As natural successor to the long-lived Bova Futura, VDL’s Futura 2 has some big shoes to step into. It’s fair to say that the older model’s reliability and frugality have transferred across, with many respected operators having nothing but praise for the newer coach.

Among them is Bonvilston, Vale of Glamorgan-based Watts Coaches. It runs a varied fleet on everything from local service work to continental touring, and among them are three Futura 2s.

MD James Watts rates the model highly, describing it as a trouble-free, fuel-efficient and driver-friendly coach.

Two are twin-axles in Leger Holidays livery, and after good results with these, Watts Coaches joined a much more exclusive owners’ club when it received one of only three tri-axle variants yet delivered to the UK, an FHD12-139.

Tri-axle coaches have become an increasingly common sight on the UK’s roads as unladen vehicle weights increase. Although usually offering a capacity only slightly above the best seen in the two-axle sector, the risk of overloading on luggage-heavy work is removed by the additional axle and around six tonnes increase in GVW.

This 61-seater is employed on the full range of Watts’ work, but its staple diet is European tours. It was from one of these that it had returned the evening before James and his sister Jo-Anne kindly made it available for a routeone Test Drive.

Build

The Futura 2 has a distinctive look and is not easily mistaken for any other coach. Mechanically it is relatively simple and well up to the task at hand, with a 12.9-litre, 462bhp Euro 5 DAF engine driving through ZF’s 12-speed AS-Tronic automated manual transmission, a combination which has earned a reputation for reliability in LGV applications.

Engine is reasonably easy to access
Engine is reasonably easy to access

Access to mechanical units, the exhaust and radiators is good, as is that to the Spheros pre-heater, which warms and circulates coolant. This delivers the added benefit of reducing the wear otherwise generated when starting the engine from cold.

As an integral vehicle there is no chassis rail intrusion into under-floor luggage accommodation, which is cavernous despite the sunken centre toilet and continental door. Jo-Anne explains that even when used on extended tours carrying its full complement of passengers, it is often not necessary to make use of all the available space.

Cavernous luggage accommodation below cabin
Cavernous luggage accommodation below cabin

Twin diesel fillers are behind lockable flaps directly above the front wheels, with that on the offside also hiding the AdBlue cap. Batteries are below the driver’s signalling window and a spare wheel mounting position is beneath the platform. One aspect which draws James’ praise as well thought out is the ease with which electrics are accessed through the dashboard. The top can be removed in one piece and with no fuss, giving excellent access to fuses and wiring, including that to the radio, CD and DVD player units.

Removable dash top gives excellent access to electrics
Removable dash top gives excellent access to electrics
AdBlue and diesel fillers beneath lockable flaps
AdBlue and diesel fillers beneath lockable flaps

Passenger access

Access is typical of a high-floor touring coach, with three steps taking passengers to the platform and one more to the floor-level gangway, which is flat.

Access arrangement is on a par with any other touring coach
Access arrangement is on a par with any other touring coach

Watts has specified wood-effect flooring throughout. As is customary, a further step is necessary to reach the rear row of seats, but this is not as steep as found on some other coaches.

The entrance and gangway are nicely lit, with the latter given a ‘cavern’ effect thanks to upwards-facing lights in the lip of the luggage lockers. Reading lights are at every seat.

Gangway width is on a par with any other coach. The Vogelsitze seats can be specified with ‘slide apart’ functionality for additional comfort, and have the necessary button present, but with the coach occasionally being used for school parties when not on tour Watts elected to omit this option.

A centre continental door is reasonably wide and accessed by four steps, as is the toilet. All step edges and handrails are marked in high-visibility yellow. Unlike some other coaches, aisle seats don’t have handholds in the top corner, meaning there is little to grasp when moving around the vehicle.

Passenger comfort

Interior creature comforts are many and reflect the coach’s application as a long-distance tourer. Its seats are finished in smart grey moquette, nicely complementing the wood-effect flooring and beige curtains.

They include leather headrest inserts and have lap belts, retractable armrests and drop-down tables.

Passenger accommodation is upmarket and welcoming
Passenger accommodation is upmarket and welcoming

The backs are relatively thin, meaning that even with a capacity of 61 within a 13.95m coach, legroom is good. Comfort and support are not affected by the seats’ slender design, and while not armchairs, they are pleasantly comfortable.

Heating is from perimeter vents. Air is circulated through ducts by two blower units, one mounted in the over-wheel ski lockers on each side and fed by coolant. The ducting, at floor level, is made of sturdy metal and it would take a very determined effort to damage it.

A roof-mounted air-conditioning unit is fitted, controlled from a simple console in the cab through which the driver also sets his or her own ambient temperature.

The freshwater toilet is of a standard design and topped by a servery unit.

Above, a lockable section of the luggage rack allows storage of supplies, with a hatch next to the top of the toilet door giving access to a below-floor bin. Apart from two further lockable sections at the front, the remainder of the luggage racking is open.

Entertainment is from a Bosch system with two monitors, one above the windscreen and the other immediately above the centre staircase. Two head units are mounted in the dash to control radio, CD and DVD, with ‘zones’ allowing passengers and driver to watch or listen to different things.

Ride quality is good and sound insulation excellent.

The noisiest place on the coach even with the engine under load is adjacent to the centre door, with rain earlier on the test day conspiring to cause spray and resultant noise intrusion, although not overly so.

Fridge is mounted in dash; of reasonable size
Fridge is mounted in dash; of reasonable size

Driver comfort

As would be expected of a top-line coach, driver comfort is good. A high-end Isringhausen seat is fitted with all manner of air adjustments along with an in-built microphone.

The AS-Tronic’s stubby gearstick is mounted on a pedestal to the left of the seat, although it is quite far back and does not get in the way. Here also is where one of several lockable storage compartments is located, although its size means that it’s suited only for smaller items such as pens, parking tickets and loose change.

Cab not extravagant but well laid-out and comfy
Cab not extravagant but well laid-out and comfy

Other secure storage areas are at the front of the luggage racks, with another in the lower part of the dashboard.

Visibility from the seat is on the whole good, helped by large gullwing mirrors.

One area which would benefit from improvement in this regard is the door; the lower half is unglazed, and when winding through the parked car-infested streets of Tremorfa a view of the nearside corner would have been useful.

Buttons are many but easy to understand. The ignition key does not slot into the steering column but rather goes into a barrel below the signalling window, which is heated and electrically operated.

Sun protection is via two electrically-operated blinds, and also mounted on the windscreen is the rear-view mirror, which gives a good view. Unlike some others, it’s not mounted too high to be seen easily. The dashboard is dominated by two large dials, one the speedometer and the other the rev counter.

Also present is a display which monitors the various systems on the coach and makes the driver aware of any problems.

Indicators and headlight flash are on a stalk on the left of the steering column with cruise control and retarder on the right; there are no buttons on the steering wheel.

Performance

With 462bhp on tap in a coach which weighs a little over 15 tonnes unladen, performance is as would be expected and best described as brisk.

One pitfall of a powerful coach in wet weather made itself known early into the test with wheelspin briefly experienced when climbing away from a roundabout.

The traction control system immediately cut power, but in similar situations it is wise for the driver to engage the air dump facility on the tag axle, which transfers more weight to the drive wheels.

Climbing away from Cardiff on the A470 towards Merthyr Tydfil was effortless and the coach easily outpaced a number of cars on this stretch.

There then followed a short but steep stretch along the Heads of the Valleys Road, giving a stern test towards Hirwaun, and then the winding A4061 into Treorchy.

The latter is a testing route for a coach of this size, but the reasonably short wheelbase coupled to a steered rear axle meant it tackled the bends with ease.

Equally it also took on a prolonged steep climb with no problem, easily matching the speeds to be expected from a car on such a route.

When descending into Treherbert the gearbox-mounted retarder handled much of the braking, giving a sure-footed descent on the twisting, wet and winding roads. The coach proved less wieldy when negotiating the busy villages on the way back down the valley, and care was needed to ensure the tail was kept clear of obstacles.

The service brakes proved their mettle in one sharp stop on a wet road, and on the M4 the coach proved to be remarkably stable for a high vehicle; the effect of its extra pair of tyres on the road was obvious, and it stayed in a perfectly straight line without the driver’s constant input. At the 62.5mph limited speed the engine is turning at 1,200rpm, conducive to good fuel economy while still remaining in the area of peak torque should road speed begin to drop when climbing.

Steep hills in the Valleys proved that the big MX engine is capable of lugging down almost as far as 1,000rpm with no complaint, and the AS-Tronic makes best use of this flexibility by often taking engine speed just out of the green band before changing up two ratios at once.

However, the gearbox was caught out once, when there was a brief but noticeable gap of around a second while it picked the right ratio. A hill-hold function is fitted as standard, preventing roll-back when the coach is held on the footbrake.

Verdict

The tri-axle has been in service for almost 10 months and has already covered nearly 100,000km. James is a convert to the type, and has recently ordered a Synergy double-decker on the back of excellent service, not only from the VDLs but also supplier Moseley in the South.

“The Futura 2 is a phenomenal coach and I would buy another tomorrow,” he says, adding that the only problem experienced so far was a minor issue with the signalling window.

“In my opinion, it’s the best product on the market by some margin. I really cannot speak highly enough of our Futura 2s, although we still run an original Futura and that has been a great workhorse too.”

It’s not difficult to see why James holds this view. The coach has a frugal driveline – 14mpg is a common return for Watts – and is well-specified inside.

As distinctive looking from the rear as it is from the front
As distinctive looking from the rear as it is from the front

It easily handles anything that European work might throw at it; 462bhp is, James accepts, more than is really necessary even for a 24-tonne GVW coach but it makes driving the tri-axle effortless.

He adds that, were one available, he would have opted for a fully-automatic gearbox rather than the AS-Tronic.

Although ZF’s six-speed EcoLife is available on two-axle Futura 2s, and has proven popular, the tri-axle’s 13-litre engine produces more torque than it is able to handle, meaning AS-Tronic is the only option for this variant.

As a 61-seater, Watts’ Futura 2 is currently unique in the UK. Jo-Anne confirms that the operator would purchase another without hesitation should work dictate, and there’s little than can be added to her or James’ views on the coach. It’s a fine machine.

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