Van Hool EX16M is a solid mid-range challenger

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After a stuttering start, Van Hool’s EX range is set to mount a serious challenge in the middle of the market, says importer Arriva Bus and Coach. The 13.3m, two-axle EX16M is highly pleasing to drive

The carefully-curated Van Hool brand retains its aspirational aura, but the Belgian-built TX range comes with a price to match it. The Macedonian-assembled EX line-up is a different prospect: It is a cost-effective mid-range coach.

Arriva Bus and Coach (ABC) is the exclusive UK supplier of the EX. The coach is offered at three lengths and two heights, although not all combinations of those are available. DAF’s MX-11 engine is fitted as standard along with the ZF EcoLife automatic gearbox.

Destined to be the most popular variant of the EX is the two-axle, 13.26m EX16M. As signified by the suffix, it is a mid-height model at 3.68m. A GVW of 19,000kg means that it can carry a maximum of 57 passengers with a toilet.

ABC stresses that the EX uses materials of the same quality as the TX. However, because it is less configurable, savings can be made in the procurement process. Compounding that, the new assembly plant in Skopje is designed around the EX, adding further economies of scale.

After a rethink on pricing, the EX is slowly gaining momentum. A batch of stock coaches arrives shortly, although only a handful remain available; the others are sold, with Woods of Tillicoultry among buyers. ABC also makes the EX available for long-term rental for periods of three years and above.

To ABC’s standard specification, the EX’s trim level makes it suitable for a wide variety of work, including tours. EXs can also be customised, as will be the case for Woods; its EX16M will have a floor-mounted rear toilet to maximise luggage space.

The EX is perhaps the most futuristic-looking coach on the market. ABC is doing its best to promote the range to potential buyers. Its EX16M demonstrator was made available for a routeone test drive; retail price as tested is £245,000.

Build

The MX-11 engine is rated at 435bhp, which when combined with the GVW gives a power-to-weight ratio of almost 23bhp/tonne. As an indicator of how high that is, a tri-axle coach would require almost 600bhp to equal it.

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A high power-to-weight ratio means that the EX16M performs very well

As yet, there is no automated gearbox option to complement the EcoLife, but it is not impossible that one will debut later. What will definitely follow is DAF’s next-generation MX-11 engine, which promises increased fuel economy.

The demonstrator comes with manual parallel-lift  luggage locker doors and a powered continental door amidships. Room behind the rear axle alternatively allows custom-built EXs to have the second opening there..

A welcome fitting on the EX is the offside radiator, which will reduce the volume of road debris that accumulates on the core when compared to one on the UK nearside.

The EX16M’s length means that its wheelbase is substantial, at 6.91m. The fuel tank is above the front axle and fillers are located on each side. AdBlue goes in at the offside rear.

315/80 R22.5 tyres are fitted to Alcoa Dura-Bright alloy wheels, while the Van Hool logo is prominent below the windscreen. ABC standard specification on the EX includes a reversing camera.

Passenger access

To boarding passengers’ left is a polished steel handrail that rises before becoming horizontal. No hand-hold is fitted to the underside of the courier seat, although it is locked in position for the inevitable occasions that the edge of the squab will be used for that purpose.

Four steps rise to the platform and a further two very shallow ones to the flat gangway. At the rear, an even smaller step is necessary to reach the back row.

Access at the continental door is good for what it is, and the toilet is reached reasonably easily. Handrail provision at the centre stairs is also good, while passengers moving around the saloon will find that the luggage racks lips are deep and form good hand-holds.

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Demonstrator has Kiel 2010 seats; the 1020 type is available optionally

Passenger comfort

The demonstrator has Kiel 2010 seats, but the imminent batch of stock EX16Ms will come with the slightly more luxurious 1020 model. In the test coach, two-point belts are fitted but later deliveries will come with three-point securement.

Seats also have drop-down tables, footrests and magazine nets, but they do not have side-shift. Those in the test coach are finished in a half-leather grey scheme, but the curtains are a curious mix of grey and red.

Wood effect flooring is fitted throughout and leg room even for taller passengers is very good. Also impressive is the view to the side, particularly from the rearmost row.

Twin roof hatches serve as emergency exits. They are plastic covered, but when the grey-themed interior is taken into account, it may benefit the passenger environment for them to be glazed.

Perimeter radiators are fitted and they form part of a comprehensive climate control system that is governed by the standard Van Hool cab ‘wheel’, which also accounts for mirror positioning among other functions.

Twin fixed monitors are connected to a Bosch Professional Line entertainment system, with speakers part of the passenger service units. ABC also specifies a dash fridge – which is exceptionally deep – as standard, along with a servery above the toilet.

The saloon’s overall ambience is excellent, and the coach is well worthy of the Van Hool badge in that respect. One tiny rattle from beneath the windscreen was evident, but even on poor roads that was it. Noise intrusion from the driveline and the tyres is negligible.

Driver comfort

An Isringhausen seat is provided and it comes with a hands-free integral microphone. To aid comfort, the potential for adjustment of the steering wheel is good and even the tallest driver will find the right position.

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In the cab, much is common with the TX range; driving position is good

What may not suit quite as well is mirror positioning. When the seat is in the rearmost position the gullwing-mounted panes are slightly obstructed by the chunky A-pillars.

That’s the only real criticism of the cab. Visibility is otherwise excellent, and particularly to the nearside. There, the door glazing is deep and it aids the all-important need to monitor for cyclists.

Twin powered sun blinds are fitted, along with a manual sliding signalling window. The péage opening is unusual in that it is controlled from a button ahead of the courier seat, but it is powered nonetheless.

A safe can be installed either beneath the driver’s seat or within the two steps to the aisle. General storage provision is good, and it includes a covered tray on the dash and a larger bin to the right of the seat. Various other smaller pockets are also found.

Performance

A powerful engine coupled to a torque converter gearbox gives superb driveability. In fact, with the EcoLife observing a shift strategy that makes good use of the grunt available, it’s doubtful that many other coaches would keep up with the EX16M in a straight line. It is that fast.

As tested, the coach has DAF’s first-generation Euro 6 MX-11 engine. Any ordered from now on will come with the later variant. It delivers more torque and from lower revs, which promises even better performance.

It would be churlish to criticise a coach for having too much power, but the EX16M requires care in how it is handled. Heavy-footed drivers will need to rein in their aspirations except for under appropriate circumstances. Handling and poise are both peerless. Here, too, it is a true Van Hool, and it takes bends and poor road surfaces in its stride. Even when pushed hard it retains its composure without fail.

Adaptive cruise control is standard on the EX. It is simple to use; the driver selects one of three pre-programmed distances and the coach will maintain that between it and the vehicle in front.

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EX16M comes with fine driveline: DAF MX-11 engine and ZF EcoLife ‘box

A dash display details how fast both the coach and the vehicle ahead of it are travelling. Once the selected gap between the two is reached, the coach slows to maintain it, engaging the gearbox retarder if necessary.

When approaching a junction, the EX will, in an extreme situation, come to a halt without the driver’s intervention if the cruise control is not switched off.

That was demonstrated when leaving the M5. ABC Scottish Area Sales Manager John Gray was behind the wheel, and the coach did indeed back off when following a HGV towards a roundabout without any command from John.

Brake feel is excellent, particularly when slowing rapidly, and gearshift quality is superb. At 62mph, the MX-11 is turning at around 1,300rpm in sixth; it will also hold top at 50mph.

Verdict

Make no mistake, the EX is a genuine Van Hool. It delivers from a passenger’s point of view and it is also excellent from the driving seat. Refinement within the cabin is good and performance is superb. The EX is more of a fleet coach than its TX sisters. Potential for customisation is less, but that translates through to the retail price.

The adjustment to figures quoted for earlier EXs is key to the range’s potential. It looks like the Macedonian-built range is picking up the momentum that is imperative in the mid-range sector, and ABC aims to keep coaches in stock wherever possible to permit rapid delivery.

For buyers that are in the market for a mid-range model that is versatile and high-capacity, the EX is well worth a look. ABC is confident that the EX will retain its value on the second-hand market. Mechanically it has a strong pedigree, and the addition of DAF’s next-generation MX-11 later this year will further improve that.

Finish quality inside and out is good, the standard specification is high, and driveability is excellent. There is little wrong with the EX.

www.arrivabusandcoach.co.uk