Among manufacturers offering high-end Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based minicoaches is Altas, with its Tourline. Tim Deakin test drives a top-spec, V6-equipped Tourline that been delivered to Mansfield-based Harrison Ford Travel by AutoService (Pontypool).
The top end of the minicoach hire business is a discreet yet potentially lucrative one, with customers often prioritising service and attention to detail over anything else. It’s difficult for an operator to establish itself in this area of the market, but easy to come back to earth with a bump if it doesn’t deliver what discerning clients demand and expect.
Among the ingredients for satisfying their needs is a modern, reliable and well-specified fleet. The market has conclusively voted the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter as clear leader in this sector.
Not only does it offer excellent fuel returns, a refined driveline, solid reliability and good back-up, but its prominent grille-mounted three-pointed star acts as an almost priceless status symbol.
Several bodybuilders offer Sprinter-based minicoaches, with some very luxurious options available. Among them is the Tourline, built by Vilnius, Latvia-based Altas. Its UK agent, Autoservice (Pontypool), has recently supplied one to Mansfield-based Harrison Ford Travel.
MD and owner Roy Harrison kindly made it available for a routeone Test Drive; his business’ name, he says, came from his first minicoach, which was a Tourneo. â€œI first used the trading name Harrison’s Ford. Naturally, that was quickly shortened to Harrison Ford.â€ It’s been one big adventure ever since, he adds.
The Sprinter’s compact engine gives no driveline intrusion into the cabin. The example supplied to Harrison Ford is equipped with the top-of-the-range OM 642 three-litre V6 engine, which develops 190bhp and 440Nm of torque. That means performance is sparkling. Transmitting that grunt to the tarmac is the acclaimed 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox. Its closely-spaced ratios mean power delivery is instantaneous, but it also gives effortless cruising on the speed limiter regardless of terrain.
As tested, the Tourline retains van-style rear barn doors. They open to 180o, giving good access to a moderately sized boot. A coachbuilt option is also available, consisting of a one-piece door rising parallel to the vehicle.
Where storage capacity is key it would prove a good idea to opt for the slightly lengthened version. Its extra 50cm is all within the boot area.
The spare wheel is boot-mounted in a cubby hole, and also provided is a heavy-duty sheet which attaches to the lip with press studs, negating the possibility of damaging the bumper when loading or unloading luggage. This too has its own storage nook.
The diesel filler is mounted immediately behind the passenger door and is smartly hidden behind a hinged flap, although the latter would benefit from being lockable.
AdBlue storage is under the bonnet, with a rubber collar around the cap preventing spillage. Roy reports that the Tourline has covered over 6,500 miles since it was delivered in early January, and has used less than 20 litres of AdBlue.
Among Harrison Ford’s regular workload is the transport of touring band members and VIPs. As such, the Tourline needs to be discreet. It carries no lettering and also includes heavily-tinted windows, which while making it difficult to see in, still give a good outward view.
Daytime running lights are within the front bumper, part of a comprehensive body kit which also includes a chrome grille and highly polished wheeltrims. These will, in time, be replaced with a set of alloys, says Roy. A towbar is fitted; via two hefty bolts it can be mounted in any of three vertical positions to suit the ride height of the trailer.
The plug door creates a good seal and no wind noise was audible throughout the drive. Access is via three steps from ground level, with the sunken gangway requiring one further shallow step to reach the seats.
All internal steps are marked with white LEDs, complemented by high-visibility yellow edging. The platform is uncluttered and offers no trip hazards; an internal vertical handrail is provided on each side of the door.
Entrance steps and the gangway are surfaced with heavy-duty black carpeting. In the former case, two screws allow the removal of each strip for cleaning, while the long piece in the gangway â€“ which extends onto the platform â€“ can also be removed easily. Flooring below the seating area is wood effect with metallic flecks, giving a pleasing effect.
As would be expected on a Sprinter, the gangway is not as wide as a conventional coach’s despite the 2+1 seating arrangement. It’s reasonably easily negotiated, although aisle seats have a slide-apart function. When used it further restricts width, but also allows more personal space for seated passengers.
To reflect its high-end application, the Tourline has a comprehensive internal specification. The 16 Ä°nova Agile seats are finished in dark grey leather with lighter piping and come with three-point belts and magazine nets.
Besides the slide-apart function, a considerable degree of recline is also possible, while wood-effect aisle-side retractable armrests are fitted.
The second and third rows are around tables, which share the armrests’ design of wood effect around the edges and have blue centres; each has drinks holders. Both tables have two electrical outlets underneath, but on the test vehicle they are European two-pin. Altas confirms that it will fit UK-standard sockets on future vehicles for this market.
The tables are cantilever type, removing the risk of passengers’ legs coming into contact with any supports.
The space between the ‘back to back’ first and second rows has been utilised well. On the offside is a slide-out fridge above a storage compartment, and on the nearside is a cupboard with two shelves. The tops of both units are surrounded by a ‘lip’ preventing anything put there from sliding off.
Two luggage racks are provided and are large enough for smaller bags. Each seat or seat pair has a passenger service unit on the underside of the racks, which includes a speaker (and button to turn it off), reading light and stop request button. All are finished in brushed aluminium and backlit in orange, adding to the upmarket feel.
Within the luggage racks’ edges are small vents connected to a three-speed fan controlled by the driver. Also part of the climate control system is a roof-mounted air-conditioning unit and perimeter convection radiators on both sides. The final touch is added by a roof-mounted extractor fan at the extreme rear, which gives good air circulation.
Entertainment is via a comprehensive Blaupunkt system, which along with CD, DVD and radio functionality also includes a sat-nav and a reversing camera display. It is entirely touch-screen operated.
Two monitors are fitted: a fixed 19in screen on the rear wall and a slightly smaller drop-down example at the front. Complementing those in the passenger service units are four larger speakers, one mounted at each end of both luggage racks.
A digital clock and external temperature display is at the front.
As ever, the Sprinter’s driver is well looked after. The Tourline includes an air-sprung seat, with damping controlled by a rotary switch at the front through which the driver enters their weight. It is finished as standard in the same colour leather as the passenger seats, according to Altas’ literature.
Heating and air-conditioning in the cab is handled separately from the saloon. An engine-driven air-conditioning unit vents through the dash, with rotary controls for temperature, fan speed and direction of airflow.
Most usefully, all the passenger door glazing, and the small pane between the A-pillar and the passenger door, is equipped with a heater element. This, says Roy, proves worthwhile in cold temperatures, or wet weather when the minicoach is loaded, as it prevents the glass from misting up and gives full visibility of the nearside mirror. Forward visibility is good, with the extended windscreen â€“ elongated several inches upwards above the norm â€“ benefiting from an electrically-powered one-piece blind.
Controls for it and all passenger comfort items are mounted on a centrally-located dash panel above the entertainment unit. A hands-free microphone for the PA system â€“ identical to one used for a mobile phone â€“ is to the right of the windscreen.
The driver may enter through either door. Two remote control fobs have been provided: the standard Mercedes-Benz one, which locks and unlocks the vehicle and activates the alarm; and a second one by Altas, which allows remote opening and closing of the passenger door. From within, the door is controlled by a large red button.
With 190bhp on tap from the V6 it goes without saying that the Tourline as tested is never lacking in power. Even when the throttle is used with moderation it easily keeps up with other traffic, and when driven hard it is capable of leaving cars in its wake.
It’s debatable whether the V6 is strictly necessary, but besides providing a huge surge of power from almost any engine or road speed, it is also exceptionally smooth.
The smaller, 163bhp 2.2-litre four-cylinder OM 651 would also prove more than adequate in most applications, but some operators may opt for the V6 for prestige reasons. That’s the case with Harrison Ford; Roy expects to be in the market for a further new Sprinter in the summer, and he expects to choose the three-litre unit again. In the Tourline, it is returning around 28mpg so far.
Gears are selected via a four-position car-style selector, which also includes a manual override, although except when descending a long, steep hill it is difficult to see when this would be needed.
The 7G-Tronic is exceptionally smooth, with shifts completely imperceptible except for a change in engine note and via the rev counter.
Even when driven at full throttle away from a standing start, with the engine taken to almost 4,000rpm before upshifting, there is no hint of ‘snatch’ when changes are made. Ratios are closely-spaced, and the gearbox is not afraid to drop a cog to maintain the desired pace if necessary.
The ‘select and forget’ mentality made possible by the 7G-Tronic allows the driver to keep all his or her attention on the road. The passenger door’s glazing extends to within around a foot of aisle level, allowing a close eye to be kept on the nearside in slow moving or stationary traffic â€“ particularly important in London.
When travelling at the limited speed of 62mph, the engine is turning at around 2,200rpm. While its presence is detectable, noise levels are muted for a front-engined chassis, helped by the V6’s natural smoothness.
Mercedes-Benz’s standard variable cruise control and speed limiter is fitted, and a digital display as part of the dash’s LCD screen shows what it has been set to.
Ride quality is excellent, even when very lightly-loaded as on the test. The engine’s position ensures that the front springs soak up any bumps, while at the rear the effect is similar, if not quite as smooth. Roy explains that this changes when loaded; the back of the Tourline delivers the same ride quality as the front under those conditions.
The ratchet handbrake is to the driver’s left, and would perhaps benefit from a little more protection from the passenger saloon.
The Tourline is a fine minicoach, but it has to be if UK operators are to buy it. There is no shortage of competition from other manufacturers, but with the high specification in the test example it is not surprising that Harrison Ford’s Tourline finds the transport of band members, high-end corporate clients and VIPs among its regular jobs.
Altas’ contribution is well-finished and includes a number of big-coach aspects, while the durability, refinement and reliability of the Sprinter platform is well established. In Harrison Ford’s example, that should be further aided by the V6 engine, which gives flexibility and unstressed cruising.
â€œI can’t fault the Tourline, and am seriously considering another Altas in the summer based on my experience so far,â€ says Roy. â€œThe Sprinter came with a three-year unlimited mileage warranty and that was backed up by Altas, which has also given three years’ warranty.
â€œMy previous experience with Sprinters has been good; the oldest member of my fleet is a 58-plate example which has given no trouble at all despite having covered around 400,000 miles.â€