Van-derived minibuses were hugely popular following deregulation, but have long since fallen out of favour. With the launch of its Euro 6 low-floor Sprinters in Dortmund, that might be about to change if Mercedes-Benz has its way.
Emphasis was stoutly placed on reduced purchase and running costs compared with full-size buses, at Mercedes-Benz’s press launch of its Euro 6 low-floor Sprinter range in Dortmund in late May. The German manufacturer is now clearly targeting the smaller vehicle at bus work throughout Europe, including the UK.
Sprinter has become widely accepted as a highly-competent, market-leading minicoach platform, and a small number of the low-floor variant have been sold into the UK market already. This is an area of its business which EvoBus (UK) wishes to grow.
At Euro 6 the Sprinter has been comprehensively updated, and Mercedes-Benz Minibus CEO Dr Ulrich Hesselmann is at pains to explain that it is now also an eminently acceptable bus for lower-demand routes, saying that it’s not just the Sprinter’s exhaust system which has been modified for Euro 6.
â€œIt’s a new vehicle from our van colleagues, with improved fuel consumption. Axles have also been changed.â€ Intelligent alternator management, reconfigured gearbox software and an electric fuel pump all contribute to improved fuel efficiency.
Bringing Sprinter up to Euro 6 has nominally added 40kg. â€œThat might have been a problem,â€ Dr Hesselmann adds, noting that attention has been focused on removing this weight from elsewhere on the vehicle. â€œWe have saved weight in the interior finish, but at the same time improved the look of it.â€
Accommodating the enlarged exhaust in a low-floor, front-engined chassis was among the toughest challenges to bring Sprinter to Euro 6. â€œIn the past, the exhaust was a tube,â€ says Dr Hesselmann. â€œNow it is a chemical plant, but it cannot go underneath a low-floor vehicle.â€ Mercedes-Benz has tackled this by squeezing the exhaust in at the front. Independent fuel consumption results show the Euro 6 Sprinter is 0.5-3.7% ahead of its Euro 5 predecessor depending on application, and in a further nod towards Mercedes-Benz’s keenness to see Sprinter considered for low-demand bus work, Dr Hesselmann notes that it returns figures that â€œeven a hybrid bus cannot get close to.â€
Mercedes-Benz claims that the Sprinter’s fuel consumption is â€œnot much above a car’sâ€ in certain circumstances.
Money in the bank
The low-floor range â€“ known as Sprinter City by Mercedes-Benz â€“ comes in a variety of sizes. Only one, the 7.3m long City 45, will definitely be coming to the UK, with the oft-cited development costs of creating right-hand drive variants to blame. Senior German figures present at the launch did not rule out offering others should demand warrant, however.
Mercedes-Benz’s perceived application for Sprinter City is two-fold. As the name suggests, it is designed for use in congested, awkward-to-access urban areas which create operational difficulties for full-size buses, but it can also fulfil a different requirement, one driven by another set of challenges.
â€œIn rural areas, do we need large buses all the time?â€ asks Dr Hesselmann. â€œWe must recognise cost pressures, and how to deal with them. Normally that would mean fewer buses, which then results in fewer passengers, and a downward spiral.â€ He adds that although the Sprinter City range â€œdoes not present a panacea,â€ it nevertheless offers an interesting way of dealing with the problem.
The City 45 has been developed exclusively for the right-hand drive market at the encouragement of EvoBus (UK). This year it expects to sell around 20, says Minibus Manager Lee Gibson, who is keen to expand City 45’s appeal across the wider bus industry. Airport shuttle operators are a particular target, he adds.
Based on a long-wheelbase Sprinter van, the City 45 can accommodate 17 seated passengers, including four tip-ups in the wheelchair bay, and five standees. A manual folding ramp is present at the full-width plug doors and the operator’s choice of destination equipment can be fitted; a LAWO unit is standard, but the Hanover or Mobitec units more familiar in the UK may also be specified.
Power comes from a 130bhp, 2.2-litre engine which is coupled as standard to the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox. Full air-conditioning can be included in the specification.
Despite the low-floor arrangement at the front of the City 45, its prop shaft has around a foot of clearance from the road surface when the vehicle is unladen.
A drive in the slightly smaller but otherwise almost identical City 35 showed it was able to handle cushion-type speed humps without grounding.
Evobus (UK) has already sold more than 30 Euro 5 City 45s, and operators include Liverpool-based HTL Buses, Isle of Man Transport and Norfolk County Council. The Euro 6 version starts from around the 70,000 mark, but with the Sprinter’s well-known durability and the potential fuel savings over a larger bus, it could represent a wise investment in certain circumstances.
Several Euro 6 City 45s for operators in the UK are currently in build at Dortmund.
Forming the left-hand drive City range are the 35, 65 and 77 models, extending from 6.9m to 8.7m in length. Of these only the City 77 is a possibility for the UK market, although both EvoBus (UK) and Mercedes-Benz stress that no concrete plans are in place for this to become a reality.
Demand may dictate that it does come here in time, and EvoBus (UK) would be happy to supply the City 77 in such a situation, but key to developments is the Australian market’s needs.
As displayed at Dortmund the left-hand drive City 77 is a two-door, tri-axle minibus. It has a step-free sunken aisle from front to rear, although only two of its fixed seats are actually accessible without mounting a step. Both doors have a ramp, and wheelchair spaces are present opposite each.
Including standees, Mercedes-Benz claims a total capacity of 40, although in continental style this is reliant on accommodating most as standees. Any possible UK vehicle would be single-door, and offer a higher seating capacity than the European spec City 77, as it would lack a rear wheelchair area.
Internal finish of the City 77, like the other members of the range, is deliberately modelled as closely as possible on the Citaro. Seats are identical, and all versions include ‘bus stopping’ bell-pushes.
Despite its position at the front, the engine generates little in the way of noise intrusion into the saloon, helped by revisions to the injection process, combustion and charge pressures for Euro 6, which Mercedes-Benz says have brought noise down.
Ride quality at the rear is little different to that of a full-size, rear-engined bus and the City 77 exhibits none of the pitching and bouncing previously associated with steel-sprung minibuses. The rear wheels sit outside the body structure in flared wheel arches, and thanks to their single layout do not intrude into passenger space.
This fixed, double-drive arrangement generates a slight vibration when turning sharply, but it is not intrusive. Steering lock is good despite the added drag of the twin rear axles.
Opportunity to drive the City 77 gave the chance to put Mercedes-Benz’s claims of excellent fuel economy to the test. Like the UK-only City 45, the tri-axle has the seven-speed automatic gearbox as standard, coupled to a 163bhp version of the 2.2-litre engine.
On a short route, which began with a stretch of Autobahn running at the limited speed of 95km/h and included a climb through a tunnel, and ended with slow-speed driving in urban Dortmund, the City 77 returned 15mpg.
That figure is good, but what is important for UK operators to consider is that throughout the brief drive both the saloon and cab air-conditioning units â€“ with a combined power draw of 18kW â€“ were working hard.
Based on this, a UK-spec City 45 â€“ lighter, lacking the additional drag of the City 77’s three-axle layout and possibly without air-conditioning, depending on customer specification â€“ could reasonably be expected to achieve in the region of 20mpg.
A hand-operated retarder stalk with several settings is present on the City 77, and is available across the range, says Mercedes-Benz. It proved powerful and able to bring the vehicle down to walking pace without recourse to the foundation brakes, further enhancing the ‘big bus’ feel.
Dr Hesselmann showed the visiting press group around the Dortmund plant, which has been the focus of Mercedes-Benz Minibus’ activities since 2008 and was expanded in 2010. The company buys Sprinters from Mercedes-Benz’s van arm and turns them into PCVs at the Westphalia site, which can produce 1,300 per year.
Chassis are delivered from Ludwigsfelde, south of Berlin, for conversion into City vehicles. Removed parts are kept together for when they may need to be reinstalled, and then the build process begins.
All mechanical work, including alterations to the propshaft, is handled at Dortmund, and Mercedes-Benz can offer a host of customer-specific fitments. For the UK market, this includes things such as ramps sourced from UK and fitted to the vehicle in Germany. Painting is to individual requirements, and double- or single-glazing is offered across the range.
A right-hand drive City 45 was shown to the press. â€œIt takes a lot of effort to create a low-floor Sprinter for the UK,â€ says Dr Hesselmann, but he acknowledges that the UK is Europe’s biggest minicoach and minibus market.
Sprinter, he continues, is part of Mercedes-Benz’s â€œcomplete solution to public transport demands,â€ noting that no other manufacturer is able to offer such a wide variety of products. A single warranty covers the whole vehicle.
New minibus dawn?
The low-floor Sprinter has been available in the UK for some time, but sales have been unspectacular. At Euro 6, both Mercedes-Benz and EvoBus (UK) want to change that, and put the City 45 â€“ and potentially its bigger brother, the 77 â€“ firmly in the limelight.
The Sprinter’s ability to stand up to bus work should not be in doubt. Three decades ago its predecessors were by far the most successful of the early minibuses, and constant development coupled to a focus on quality at the Dortmund plant mean it’s up to the task.
It’s not the cheapest model out there, and Mercedes-Benz does not pretend otherwise. â€œThe effort that goes in to producing a professional vehicle is considerable,â€ says Dr Hesselmann, and that is why it costs more than some others on the market. Through its presentation of case studies where the Sprinter City range has allowed better service levels at reduced cost in a number of European cities, Mercedes-Benz is clearly aiming it at rigorous, all-day urban service.
That a small, efficient bus can considerably reduce the cost of service provision is obvious. In the German town of Bad Belzig, Mercedes-Benz says conversion of the bus network to City 77 vehicles led to a 16% increase in passenger numbers and a reduced total cost of operation. But perhaps key to the whole equation is that Mercedes-Benz has worked hard to reduce the difference between van-derived buses and purpose-built, heavy-duty vehicles such at the Citaro, and continues to do so.
By presenting a product to passengers which retains most of the Citaro’s popular features and its level of refinement, but also has the benefit of giving operators a much-reduced cost base of running a service, it may be on to a winner.
The right-hand-drive-only City 45, developed at Evobus (UK)’s behest, demonstrates the UK importer’s confidence in the vehicle and its market. If it is successful, and a gap in the market opens, don’t bet against the City 77 following it.