Test Drive: Volvo B11R Plaxton Elite-i

The interdecker isn’t suitable for all coach applications, but it is a very useful piece of kit if it fits your operation. That’s the case with Beverley-based Acklams Coaches, which took a 73-seat example earlier in 2015. Tim Deakin takes it for a routeone Test Drive.

There’s something to be said of having a fleet with a number of USPs. That’s where Beverley-based Acklams Coaches positions itself in the market: besides standard 53-seaters, it also runs high-specification, wheelchair-accessible, and high-capacity coaches.

One of its most recent additions combines all of these. Familiar to visitors to Euro Bus Expo, it’s a Plaxton Elite-i-bodied Volvo B11R which can carry up to 73 passengers including a wheelchair user, fitted out to an exceptionally high standard.

The interdeck Elite-i is suited to a variety of tasks. Acklams’ has already been to Austria with a school party which would otherwise have required two coaches, and it is regularly employed on the operator’s contracts to transport fans of Hull’s sports teams.

Up to six removable tables can be installed as required, adding the prospect of undertaking corporate hires, where the coach’s high specification comes into its own.

An interdecker won’t fit into every fleet, but where a broad church of work is on hand to justify one, there may be a case to invest. Director Alan Acklam also reports that his Elite-i has created quite a stir locally, and brings an almost unbeatable on-street presence.

He kindly made the coach available for a routeone Test Drive.

 

Build

Power is from a 10.8-litre Euro 6 D11K engine rated at 460bhp, the highest of the D11K’s three settings (the others are 380bhp and 430bhp).

It’s coupled to an I-Shift automated gearbox as standard, although the 380bhp variant is available with the ZF EcoLife fully-automatic transmission.

Volvo’s highly efficient engine brake is present, able to deliver up to 290kW of stopping power.

The engine drives the second axle, with the third being hydraulically steered. Acklams’ coach is built to the 15m maximum length, meaning that rear overhang is substantial.

For build purposes, Volvo supplies Plaxton with a standard B11R chassis, with an elongated wiring loom and extended steering arm. The bodybuilder then alters it to lower the driving position and extend the front overhang.

The Elite-i is in effect a very high-floored single-decker. Its main saloon floor extends over the driver’s compartment to what becomes the upper windscreen, allowing a passenger compartment which is the full 15m long.

A double-decker style front staircase is provided, as is a nearside centre door accessed in the same manner it would be on a single-decker.

Underfloor luggage space is extensive. The huge locker doors are electrically operated – they would be very difficult to lower manually – and have internal close buttons. These can be disabled via a dash switch if required.

The height of the coach is 3.96m, making it suitable for use in continental Europe, and combined with its 15m length it has an undeniable road presence. The fuel tank is mounted over the rear bogie; the radiator is at the extreme rear nearside, the exhaust opposite.

Elite-i is unmistakeable, and creating 'quite a stir' in Beverley
Elite-i is unmistakeable, and creating ‘quite a stir’ in Beverley

 

Passenger access

Access for wheelchair users is one of the Elite-i’s selling points, but it is also relatively easy to board for able-bodied passengers.

The front door is a two-piece plug type and so the front section – to which the nearside mirror is attached – extends considerably forward when open. As a result, during normal operation it may pay just to use the rear portion. Controls are configured for this.

Opening both front leaves will be necessary when a wheelchair user is boarding or alighting. A ramp is stowed within the luggage compartment and locked into position; the front suspension’s kneeling facility should also be utilised to reduce the angle of attack.

A single seat is platform-mounted opposite the cab which can be used by either a passenger or the courier/co-driver. It is to the same high standard as the other passenger seats and is removable, creating space for a wheelchair.

Three further seats are immediately behind the driver. They are identical to those on the main deck, although lack armrests between positions.

Access to the upper deck from the platform is by a wide nearside staircase, which rises rearwards before turning left at the top. When in position, the removable seat doesn’t impede access as might be expected, and the amount of space available on the platform is not dissimilar to that on a single-deck coach.

On the upper deck, headroom in the area behind the front staircase is good, but is not as extensive ahead of it. The floor rises here to clear the cab and lower passenger compartment.

In particular, it is easy for passengers accessing the front pairs of seats to bump their heads against the drop-down monitor above the windscreen.

Entering through the centre door means a steep six-step climb from floor level. The lowest of these is restricted slightly by the toilet door, but otherwise there is a sturdy handrail to the right. The gangway edge is marked with red LEDs at both front and middle steps.

Huge door to accommodate wheelchair user
Huge door to accommodate wheelchair user

 

Passenger comfort

One area where the Elite-i excels is in the level of passenger comfort provided. On the test coach, Acklams’ specification is very high, including Wi-Fi connectivity.

However, most noticeable are its Brusa Extend 500 seats. Finished in red and cream leather, they are equipped with the full range of accessories including three-point belts, tray tables, magazine nets and footrests, and include armrests between aisle and window positions.

That extends the width of each seat pair slightly and removes a need for the slide-apart function seen on some other models; it also means the gangway is comparatively narrow, but this is not a coach that will ordinarily see use on high turnover work. There are 69 seats on the main deck.

Each pair is provided with a power point, which includes both a 240v and a USB socket within the fascia. In the lower cabin each seat benefits from such a socket; on the three behind the driver it is below the squab, while one is within the dashboard for the passenger in the platform position.

Power to the sockets can be turned off by a cab switch, and there is also an on/off button on the ski locker-mounted 3kW invertor.

The toilet is mounted at the bottom of the centre stairs. Its entrance door is rather small thanks to the adjacent exterior door mechanism, but the cubicle is large.

Above is a comprehensive servery unit which includes hot running water, an 800W microwave and a fridge, one of two on the coach. The other is mounted within the front staircase, where a bin is also sited. Both fridges have hinged doors and provide ample capacity for cold drinks and such.

Entertainment is from a Bosch system incorporating a DVD player, which feeds to no fewer than five monitors.

One is immediately behind the driver’s head for the three fixed lower-deck seats, while two larger screens are upstairs, one a drop-down unit at the front and the other fixed above the centre staircase. Two smaller displays are on the upper deck dash.

Climate control is provided by the combination of the roof-mounted Thermo King unit and perimeter radiators. Separate controls are present for the main saloon and the lower cabin.

The upper windscreen is provided with demister vents and a heating element, in common with the lower screen. It would possibly benefit further from a windscreen wiper, although it’s difficult to see where this would park without compromising the Elite-i’s sleek frontal lines.

Brusa seats finished in leather are very high quality
Brusa seats finished in leather are very high quality

 

Driver comfort

Predictably, the driver is well looked after. The Grammer seat, finished in the same two-colour leather as passenger seats, has adjustable armrests on each side and is complete with the full range of air adjustment, as one would expect.

Although the lower deck may from the outside appear claustrophobic thanks to its low ceiling, that’s not the case in practice, and there is ample room even for a driver over 6ft tall.

The lower windscreen is comparatively shallow, and has almost a ‘letter box’ look, but it gives no less a view than in a conventional coach. Equally, visibility to the side is as required. A heated, electrically operated signalling window is provided; a page window is not.

Storage in the cab is reasonable, with a bin on the windowsill to take smaller items such as pens, glasses and similar.

Other items can go behind the seat, but it is inevitable that when the lower deck is unoccupied some of the driver’s belongings will be left in the passenger area. He or she may also choose to use the recessed compartment above, provided in lieu of a luggage rack.

Buttons and switches in the cab are numerous, and provided with reasonably obvious pictograms. There is also a display unit for the Hanover destination display equipment.

Thinking long term, Acklams has specified the coach to be fully DDA-compliant, meaning that post-2020 it can be used on school contracts registered as local bus services, if required. To that end, there is also a power point for a ticket machine.

Cab area is well laid out and easy to use
Cab area is well laid out and easy to use

 

Performance

The Elite-i is a heavy coach, at well over 17,500kg unladen, and in such circumstances the D11K’s 10.8-litre displacement may be considered modest. Driving the coach proves that not to be the case, and its 460bhp is more than up to the job.

As already experienced, for Euro 6 Volvo’s I-Shift gearbox has lost its earlier distinctive clunking when shifting. That, says a manufacturer’s representative, was something Volvo worked hard to achieve, and now the only noise during gear changes is a brief snort of the engine brake to speed upwards block shifts.

A hill-hold function is standard and it works perfectly. Power delivery from the D11K is relentless, coming in very strongly from around 1,100rpm; it allows tall gearing for optimal fuel economy, and at the limited road speed the engine is turning at 1,300rpm.

While the test was conducted in an empty coach, and results will undoubtedly be a little different when operating at the 24,500kg MGW, the B11R took off like the proverbial scalded cat when climbing out of Barton-upon-Humber. Its throttle response is immediate.

What also became apparent in the North Lincolnshire town was that while the coach is manoeuvrable for its size, the driver must always bear in mind the huge rear overhang. Acklams plans to fit marker stalks to both rear corners, but Plaxton has done its bit by clever utilisation of the comprehensive CCTV system.

Down-facing cameras are mounted above the window line at both extreme rear corners. When the indicators are applied, the dash-mounted CCTV monitor automatically displays the feed from the camera on the opposite side.

This allows the driver to monitor tailswing when turning, and is very useful. Similarly, the dash screen defaults to the camera above the rear window when reverse is selected. Both of these allow the driver to remain aware of what is going on at the rear of the coach when manoeuvring.

There is just one issue with visibility: when the platform seat is occupied, it can be tricky to see the nearside mirror. Owing to the door and platform layout, however, it’s difficult to see what Plaxton might do to remove this problem.

In any case, the regular driver reports that the platform seat is rarely occupied unless the coach is operating at full capacity.

 

Verdict

The Elite-i has been purchased by Acklams for a purpose: to move a large number of passengers in comfort without the luggage limitations of a double-decker.

It performs that job well, and thanks to its high specification is also suited for corporate work, when it can be downseated and gain tables. The B11R chassis is highly competent and creates an effortless motorway cruiser which eats up miles with ease.

Acklams is a long-standing customer of the Plaxton and Volvo combination, and since delivery of the interdecker has taken a conventional Elite-bodied B11R to a similar specification. Alan Acklam rates both products highly, but reports that the odd issue with support has crept in with his two most recent coaches.

“Customers love the Elite-i, and once we’ve got a couple of issues ironed out, it will be great,” he says. “The product itself is brilliant, but we still have one or two niggles. Apart from those it has settled in reasonably well and we are finding that the coach is popular among sports fans and ski groups.”

The Elite-i is a versatile, high-quality coach which, in the format specified by Acklams, is exceptionally passenger-friendly. For operators that have the kind of work on which it excels, it may represent a worthwhile investment.

Volvo B11R Plaxton Elite-i facts and figures