Test Drive: VDL Futura 2 Euro 6

There’s much to be said for a coach that can be kept busy on a variety of work, and that is the case with two Euro 6 VDL Futura 2s recently delivered to Guildford-based Safeguard Coaches. So far they’re proving to be popular. Tim Deakin drives one of them.

New coaches represent a major investment for a family-owned operator, and researching the market before committing is vital. That’s exactly what Guildford-based Safeguard Coaches did when it was in the market, and after a long selection process it plumped for a pair of Euro 6 VDL Futura 2s, supplied by Moseley in the South.

“We have never put as much effort into selecting new coaches as we did with these,” says MD Andrew Halliday. “We spoke to all the operators we know who were running them already, including Birmingham International and Marshalls of Sutton-on-Trent, and visited Anderson Travel in London to look at its Futura 2s.”

The twins entered service in late 2014, with one of them shown on the Associated Moseley Companies’ stand at Euro Bus Expo. They were built to Safeguard’s specification, meaning that by the time it committed to the purchase, Euro 6 was the only option.

“We were adamant we wanted 57 seats with no toilet. That meant we couldn’t take stock coaches,” Andrew continues. “We were not prepared to go for tri-axles; it absolutely had to be a two-axle vehicle with 57 seats, a layout not possible with some other products.”

Versatility was also a consideration. Safeguard operates its coaches for the long haul, and both Andrew and Engineering Manager Brett Lambley accept that today’s front-line flagships will, down the line, become contract coaches. Both Futura 2s are in for varied careers, and Andrew kindly made one of them available for a routeone Test Drive.

 

Build

At Euro 6, the two-axle Futura 2 is powered by DAF’s 11-litre MX-11 engine. The 370bhp rating will prove adequate for the majority of applications, but a 440bhp variant is optional. In tri-axle Futura 2s, the MX-13 rated at 460bhp is also offered.

Safeguard has chosen the 370bhp setting, coupled to ZF’s six-speed EcoLife automatic gearbox. EcoLife is only available in conjunction with the lower-powered MX-11, but a six-gear manual is also available with it and the 440, along with the ZF’s 12-speed AS-Tronic across the Futura 2 range.

EcoLife is proving to be the most popular gearbox choice, says Alan White of Moseley in the South, and availability of the automatic was one the Futura 2’s selling points from Safeguard’s point of view. It was specified following good experience and high driver acceptance of the EcoLife in an earlier coach from a different manufacturer.

Euro 6 works best with good airflow through the engine bay, and in common with many other coaches the Futura 2’s rearmost row of seats is raised slightly to allow that. The radiator is to the offside, and protected by a ‘bug screen’. The exhaust is to the nearside, and is smaller than some other manufacturers’.

“There is a lot of improvement in the Futura 2’s build quality compared with some of the older coaches in our fleet,” says Brett.

“I also see a lot which ticks many boxes from an engineer’s point of view. Build quality is something I regard as exceptionally important, because we don’t run our coaches for three or four years and then move them on. We keep them for 10 years or more. I can also get into the engine bay relatively easily, which is also important.”

Helped by the lack of a toilet, underfloor storage space is extensive, and accessed via manually-operated, top-hinged doors. There is also a small amount of storage behind the rear axle, suitable for use by drivers for their cleaning equipment.

Should operators require both maximum luggage capacity and a toilet, VDL can provide a floor-mounted unit at the rear offside. At Euro 6 it’s not as easily done as on Euro 5 coaches, says Alan, but it is possible.

Dual diesel tanks offering a capacity of 860 litres are mounted between the front wheels, and fillers, behind lockable flaps, are discreetly mounted on both sides. AdBlue goes in adjacent to the radiator.

 

Passenger access

Four steps take passengers from ground level to the platform, with a further two necessary to reach the sunken gangway. A plug door is provided, and it is rapid in operation.

The platform arrangement is slightly compromised by the presence of a standard-fit safe to the left of the driver’s seat; while no doubt useful, it is within a unit which extends outwards slightly, and it is possible that passengers’ feet may make contact with it.

It would possibly be better located within one of the steps into the gangway, as on Van Hool’s coaches, although the unit provides a useful base for a bin, which the test coach’s regular driver Simon Richards has provided for his passengers’ benefit.

Although there is no toilet in either of Safeguard’s Futura 2s, a continental door is present.

Both it and the front door are provided with lights which illuminate the opening; the front door’s is part of the gullwing mirror arm, and the centre door’s is at around chest height and mounted inside the stairwell.

Four steps to platform, two more to gangway
Four steps to platform, two more to gangway

 

Passenger comfort

Vogel Conturo seats are fitted, finished in red fabric with cream trimming to match Safeguard’s livery. In keeping with the coach’s restrained specification they include footrests and aisle-side armrests, and recline, but neither tables nor magazine nets.

Slide-apart functionality can be specified on the Conturo, but does not form part of Safeguard’s requirements. Various other seat models are available, although Alan explains that the Conturo has proved itself a “very robust” and popular option among buyers.

Two monitors are fitted as standard, connected to a Bosch entertainment system. Service units are above each seat and include the usual reading lights and air vents; a huge fridge is within the dash.

A six-camera CCTV system has been specified by Safeguard. Two cameras monitor the inside of the coach and three are sited externally at the rear: one mounted centrally for use when reversing and one on each side at the roofline, facing forward.

The sixth is a front-facing camera and sits on the dash. It can feed to the on-board monitors if required, something that proves popular with school parties, says Simon.

Side views are good, although the window line tapers upwards at the extreme rear. Combined with the chunky pillars here it slightly reduces visibility for those sitting in the back row, although not overly so.

Climate control is fully automatic and provided by a combination of a roof-mounted air-conditioning unit and convection radiators; three temperature sensors are provided within the saloon. The driver sets the desired temperature and the rest is handled automatically.

Simon also pays tribute to the effectiveness of the Webasto auxiliary heater. “I can start the engine and turn on the Webasto when I begin work, and by the time I have set the tachograph, done my first-use checks and dealt with paperwork, the interior of the coach is lovely and warm,” he says.

The auxiliary coolant heater can also be programmed to turn on as and when required when the coach is parked.

Ride quality is good, helped by the independent front suspension, and noise insulation is excellent.

In particular, when the engine is under full load its note intrudes only slightly into the saloon, even for passengers sitting at the rear.

The EcoLife helps in this regard, as it keeps engine speeds low; its excellent shift quality is already well established, and further contributes to the relaxed ride.

Luggage racks are provided, complete with passenger service units underneath.

The offside rack is split into two to allow increased headroom above the centre door, but the rearmost section would benefit from a more substantial front ‘lip’ to prevent things falling out of it under heavy braking.

Simple but smart interior includes 'uplighting' from luggage racks
Simple but smart interior includes ‘uplighting’ from luggage racks

 

Driver comfort

The driver has separate climate control, and also benefits from a highly-specified Isringhausen seat. Besides all the usual refinements it includes a heating element as standard.

An electrically-operated and heated signalling window is fitted, although no page window is present. Ample storage is provided to the right of the seat, where a large bin is present to hold maps, work tickets and so on. Two retractable drinks holders are in the dash to the driver’s left.

The handbrake is to the right of the seat, immediately above the aforementioned storage bin. For drivers who prefer a high seating position it will prove to be a stretch to reach; VDL’s view is that a coach’s handbrake lever is seldom used often enough to require ‘prime’ location.

Integrated cruise control and speed limiter buttons are within the steering wheel and can be operated without taking a hand off the wheel. A display on the dash (in km/h) shows the set speed, which can be adjusted up or down in 0.5km/h increments.

As with many other coaches, other controls are well sited but their number will require that the driver becomes familiar with them before using the coach in anger.

Cab is well laid out; Intarder to right of steering wheel
Cab is well laid out; Intarder to right of steering wheel

 

Performance

The 370bhp on tap means that performance is perfectly adequate. The EcoLife’s keenness to keep engine revs very low takes the edge off what would otherwise be possible, although it gives obvious fuel economy benefits.

That can be dealt with by using the accelerator’s kickdown facility, which gives more revs prior to an upshift.

It proved useful on the A272 when accelerating uphill out of a 30mph zone. Kickdown allowed the engine speed to be taken past 1,500rpm, and the coach gained speed rapidly.

It was also beneficial later when on a long A-road drag with Simon at the wheel. The coach maintained 50mph easily.

The Futura 2’s independent front suspension means it holds the road well when pushed through corners. Alan explains that it is fitted with electronic stability control, which will take over if things start to get out of hand, although clearly it doesn’t remove the need for a responsible approach from the driver.

Also notable is how well the Futura 2 stays in a straight line regardless of road or weather conditions.

On an exposed part of the A272 it didn’t fall victim to crosswinds, and when heading south on the A3 it remained perfectly composed despite a generally poor road surface in lane one.

At 62mph the engine is turning at around 1,400rpm, well within its exceptionally wide torque band. This runs from 1,000-1,650rpm, meaning that under normal driving circumstances full torque is always rapidly available, benefiting fuel economy.

Also worthy of note is the steering lock, which gives excellent manoeuvrability. This was exemplified when arriving at Fleet Services on the M3, where a U-turn is required to access the coach park. It was managed easily and with space to spare.

 

Verdict

The VDL is a competent coach and will benefit from its durable driveline and solid back-up from the Associated Moseley Companies. Safeguard Coaches has bought its Futura 2s to fulfil a variety of roles, and versatility formed a key part of its decision-making process from the outset.

It has chosen well, and appears to have two coaches which do exactly as required; driver Simon explains that his is proving highly popular among passengers on longer-distance hires – two of which have taken it to France – while with 57 hard-wearing seats both are also suitable for school hires and other jobs requiring high capacity as and when needed.

“From a passenger’s point of view, I think the Futura 2 was the right move,” he says. “Groups love it – they like the space, aisle width, legroom and general comfort.”

The chassis is highly capable, and the Futura 2 has proved popular in the UK since its introduction. The Associated Moseley Companies expects this to continue at Euro 6, and sales of 90 VDLs are projected for 2015, the vast majority of which will be Futura 2s.

The move to Euro 6 also doesn’t pose much of a worry for the operator. “It’s similar to when we moved to Euro 4, which was a big step over Euro 3,” says Brett. “We will maintain the coaches in our own workshops, and while it’s early days at the moment I will be interested to see how the technology fares years down the line.

“But we’re happy so far. In many ways a boring coach is a good coach; I don’t like flashy vehicles with all the mod-cons as there is more to go wrong.” Fuel consumption has also been good, with a return of around 11mpg on a recent trip to Blackpool.

“I look for good DNA in a vehicle. From what we saw when we visited other operators, the VDL is the best match for the work we expect our coaches to do.”

 

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