New MAN-based Pulse from Nu-Track offers innovative school bus options

An innovative, lightweight and versatile replacement for its Vario-based school and mobility bus is how Nu-Track describes the high-floor Pulse, built on an MAN truck chassis and unveiled in Antrim last week. As Tim Deakin reports, it offers niche small vehicle potential. .

What life holds after Vario is a question for many operators who purchased the Mercedes-Benz chassis before its discontinuation at Euro 6. MAN and Wrightbus subsidiary Nu-Track think they have an answer in the jointly-developed Pulse, built in Northern Ireland on the TGL light truck chassis.

It’s initially aimed at local authority school and mobility applications, but both parties say a push towards the private sector with a higher-specification coach will follow in time.

Pulse’s frontal aspect retains the look of the TGL truck, which is supplied as a chassis-cab along with the kit of parts necessary for its conversion to a PCV. The kit enables alterations to the air intake and includes the necessary dashboard switches, but otherwise Pulse is a truck chassis with a passenger-carrying body.

Surprisingly the demonstration vehicle also includes a height adjustment control unit in the cab for the rear air suspension, as found on goods vehicles; the front axle rides on springs. All homologation of the chassis has been carried out by MAN in the UK, and it has since been rolled out to the European market. It has full M3 type approval.

Born in 12 months

From initial discussions to roll-out of the first vehicle took less than a year, says Ian McLean, MAN’s Head of Bus and Coach in the UK, with the first chassis having been delivered to Nu-Track in January 2014.

“This represents an opportunity to step into a market MAN could satisfy,” he explains, adding that the homologation process was a learning curve, but one that is now paying dividends. He foresees respectable demand for Pulse; Nu-Track says it can build four per week.

Pulse goes straight to Euro 6, and its 10-tonne TGL chassis has various engine options. Standard is the four-cylinder 4.6-litre D0834 rated at 180bhp, although 150bhp and 220bhp outputs are also available.

Operators who require even more power can specify the six-cylinder D0836 at 250bhp, although this is likely to account for a tiny proportion of sales. In all cases, drive is through MAN’s six-speed TipMatic automated transmission, a rebadged ZF AS-Tronic Lite. Five axle ratios are available to suit all applications.

Building the first vehicle has been an enjoyable challenge, says John McLeister, Nu-Track Operations Director. “Our relationship with MAN has started well and we will be working to develop it,” he explains, adding that Pulse is the first of four debut models to be announced by Nu-Track in 2014. The next will be an all-new low-floor bus.

“We carried out market research and found a gap in the market created by the end of Vario. By injecting Pulse into that gap, we will help keep the sector alive,” he says.

Mr McLeister continues by explaining how when developing Pulse, Nu-Track aimed to emulate the size of Vario-based bodies as closely as possible. It is 2.35m wide, which he describes as its “most significant” dimension, and has come about thanks to customer demands for manoeuvrability and versatility.

Pulse as displayed in Antrim is 8.62m long, allowing 33 seats. Where a rear-mounted lift is specified up to 10 wheelchairs can be carried. Construction is of lightweight alloy, and all maintenance points are easily reachable.

Although in truck form the TGL’s engine is accessed by tilting its cab, in Pulse there is a large removable cover next to the driver. All engine work is carried out from within the bus.

Evolving market

In its initial form, Pulse is aimed squarely at the Northern Irish school bus market, which may generate a potential 40-50 sales per annum.

That early focus will quickly expand to include other areas. Nu-Track has already taken orders for Pulse, but will not reveal any further details.

A wheelchair-accessible model isn’t yet completed, but Nu-Track says it is the next development. In accessible form Pulse will include a rear lift, mounted either internally or beneath the floor, and tracked seating.

Both MAN and Nu-Track anticipate subsequent development of a higher-specification coach version. A coach would need to offer under-floor luggage space, and the bodybuilder plans to include a large rear boot.

Side lockers would pose more difficulty; the Euro 6 TGL’s exhaust occupies a substantial portion of the space traditionally used for lockers.

Although the Northern Irish school transport sector has traditionally been Nu-Track’s bread and butter, it and MAN say they will be targeting UK mainland demand for a simple, cost-effective midibus. A 12-tonne version of Pulse will meet that demand, with uprated axle loadings to allow 40 seats. “We’re well down the line with that,” says Mr MacLean. “That’s where we see a market.”

To help its bid to crack the mainland market, Nu-Track is in the process of recruiting a sales manager for London and the south-east. During August it will stage three road shows, in Glasgow, London and Manchester, where operators will be welcome to come and see the new model for themselves.

Riding impressions

Nu-Track provided the opportunity to ride on its Pulse demonstrator, although it was keen to stress that the interior isn’t yet the finished article and will be improved on production vehicles.

The 33 Rescroft seats appear durable and hard-wearing, and have three-point belts. For a bus designed principally for education needs, legroom is understandably restricted for adults.

The rear air suspension helps mitigate against front-engined buses’ traditional harsh ride when lightly loaded, and for a vehicle of its type Pulse handles bumps well.

Its TipMatic gearbox shifts quickly and smoothly, and the driver benefits from a well-appointed cab area, although access is a little awkward around the engine hump.

Something which will require attention if Pulse is to become a realistic challenger in the midicoach market is engine noise. While noise may not be a prime consideration in short-distance school and mobility applications, the four-cylinder D0834 makes itself known to all aboard throughout the journey.

Performance is good, although not spectacular, and the driver has a good view, both through the large windscreen and through two deep side windows. The one-piece plug door is rapid in operation and the three equal-height steps are easily negotiated. A full CCTV system, including a forward-facing camera, is fitted as an option.

Nu-Track can offer a variety of options, and with MAN truck chassis being common in the UK, parts availability will be excellent, says Mr McLean. Not only does this apply to driveline and chassis components but to several elements of the front of the body, which is shared with the TGL’s lorry cab. MAN is also able to offer a full range of finance, repair and maintenance and warranty options.

It’s won’t meet every demand, but with an unladen weight of 6,080kg, Pulse looks set to be a strong contender in certain niche markets. It complements the existing Atego-based Merlyn well, but is considerably lighter.