Volvo B11R Review

By: Gary Worrall


Volvo wowed the crowds at the recent BusVic show with its revised B11R chassis, encouraging Gary Worrall to take it for a run to the Blue Mountains

Volvo B11R Review
The Volvo B11R

Volvo is one of the leading lights of the urban bus scene, supplying low-floor chassis to virtually every major capital city transit system, but the Swedish brand is not the same force in the tour and long distance coach markets.

However, that could be about to change with the release of the latest version of the B11R three-axle coach into Australia, complete with a steerable lazy axle, Volvo wants to put the opposition in a spin.

Using the BusVic conference and expo as the launch pad for the new version, Volvo not only turned up with the usual buggy kits for static display, but also had a finished model, wearing a body by Brisbane's Coach Design, to take potential customers for a test drive.

ABC elected to wait until after the show, when the B11R could be taken for a full-scale test, to see just how much work has gone into refining the touring chassis.

 WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get

After testing a number of their body designs on various chassis it is clear Coach Design put plenty of effort into getting the body right and the latest offering is no different.

Coach Design boss Chryss Jamieson has plenty of runs on the board, and bodies on the road, with well thought out designs that are both practical and comfortable.

In keeping with his other designs, Jamieson created a smooth body for the new Volvo, eliminating sharp edges in favour of gently rounded corners to help propel the coach through the air with minimum effort.

Although customers can specify otherwise, Coach Design offer flush-fitting doors and windows, not just for their aerodynamic 'cleanliness', but also to reduce internal wind noise and improve passenger ride comfort.

The front screen is a multiple piece unit, complete with a central upright, although it does create a minor dose of split vision Jamieson points out the reduced repair cost of only removing the damaged section rather than a full screen.

Despite their role in load bearing and structural integrity, the A-pillars are remarkably thin, combining with the low-mount external mirrors to ensure minimal intrusion on the driver's peripheral vision.

In keeping with its design role as a tour coach, the body features luggage through bins, allowing access from both sides, with Jamieson providing full carpeting that not only protects passenger property but also helps soundproof the main salon.

There is also extensive use of sealing foam to keep the bins dust and water free, an important attribute for a coach that could be used in regional areas.

Further aft is one of the big selling points of the B11R, the steerable lazy axle, which almost is a contradiction in terms, it is hardly fair to describe the axle as lazy when it plays a big part in making the B11R so manoeuvrable.

While the twin-tyre drive axle is familiar, the rearmost axle is possibly unchartered for most operators, not only is there electronically controlled air suspension for load sharing but the axle also provides a rear-steer function, but more on that later.

The rear compartment houses the engine and transmission, which is laid out with typically Swedish thoroughness, everything is in its place and there is a place for everything.

The inline six cylinder motor presents its front cover, complete with pulley drives, to the driver when the engine compartment is opened, allowing easy access to the radiator header catch tank, oil dipstick and the air filter indicator for pre-trip inspections.

Flanking this are the radiator and air-conditioning units, with belt drives run from the crankshaft pulley. The only hidden component is the I-shift transmission, which is accessed from underneath in a workshop.

Volvo went with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) as the means of controlling exhaust emissions to both Euro 5 and the EEV (enhanced environmentally friendly vehicle) standards, which means as well as diesel tanks there is also an AdBlue filler, although with dosage rates of around 4 percent of diesel consumption it is a long time between top-ups.

The overall fit and finish is good, with tight, even, panel gaps and even paint distribution across the panels, while the doors and windows all seal tight and there were no shakes or rattles from the lift doors.

Salon Quality

With the standard Volvo driving position as the starting point, the Coach Design interior offers plenty of comfort for long distance passengers, with good leg room between seat rows, even for tall passengers.

The driver's station is spacious, without eating into passenger accommodation, giving plenty of head, leg and shoulder room, while the air-suspended seat is broad of base and shoulder, making it a comfortable place to spend a five hour driving shift.

The only oddment is the I-Shift controller, which is mounted, similarly to Volvo trucks, on the driver's seat left arm rest.

In the truck this is not a problem, as you enter from the right, however Volvo overcame this issue by the simple expedient of having the whole armrest tilt up and out of the way.

The instrument panel is easy to read, with large dials for engine and road speed, with smaller units for temperature, air and turbocharger pressures and fuel and AdBlue levels, all flanking a central LCD multi-function screen for other engine and body information readout, such as gear position, trip computer and warning lamps.

The dash panel sits low, ensuring the driver a clear field of view, yet is easy to read with only a quick glance down required to update the driver on all major operating systems and their health.

The coach body uses a single front door only, with the saloon accessed by a short flight of steps up from the entry vestibule, although Coach Design install a banister rail to ensure safe entry and exit under all conditions.

The floor is non-slip material right through to the back row of seats, making it easy to clean even on dusty or muddy routes.

The internal fit and finish is excellent, with no loose carpet or vinyl, and all edges secured under kick-strips for safety, while the doors and windows seal tight to eliminate dust and draughts from the passenger area.

Running free

Volvo has put plenty of effort into the current family of engines, with the D11 offered in both bus and truck applications, and this is reflected in the overall smoothness of the powertrain.

Engine start-up brings a slight 'thrum' through the chassis, although it is neither intrusive or offensive, instead it gives the coach a feeling of restrained power, ready to launch into action at the driver's command.

This is not really a surprise given the 302kW and 1,950Nmon tap, especially with peak torque available between 950rpm and 1,400rpm, so that even from idle close to 1,000Nm is pushing the 18-tonne gross mass.

As a subscriber to the maxim "I don't care what the question is, the answer is always 'More Power'", this is a good thing, it may seem over-powered but for timetable operators this equates to faster acceleration and therefore lower average trip times, and greater certainty in keeping to trip schedules.

For tour operators, where average speed is less of an issue, but gross weights, including pulling trailers, tend to be higher, the abundance of torque translates into better and smoother acceleration and fewer gearshifts, all of which mean increased passenger comfort, which generally also translates into repeat business.

The final part of the power equation is high torque at lower revs also means lower overall fuel burn, as the driver is not having to 'row' the coach along with constant gear changes to keep the engine in its 'sweet spot'. Instead it can lug from low revs in the single gear, so clutch wear is also reduced, meaning longer component life.

The 12-speed AT2612D automated manual transmission (AMT) is a smooth shifting unit, which comes with a hill start aid, an important feature on AMTs, where the clutch is controlled by computers.

Although increasingly common on trucks, AMTs are still uncommon in coach applications, and drivers need to understand there is not a torque converter, so the transmission cannot be 'pre-loaded' at traffic lights, as the computer will sense the throttle application and attempt to engage the clutch, however with the brakes still applied this creates clutch drag and premature wear.

The hill start aid eliminates this by maintaining brake pressure after the pedal is released, giving the driver time to gently bring the revs up, with the brakes releasing in synchronisation with the clutch engagement for smooth take-offs.

The downside to AMTs, and this is not just the I-Shift, is the programming that encourages using the highest possible gear for the road speed, so that gears will be held for longer than a human driver might use.

The prodigious torque of the B11R eliminates this problem, although a manual override available, especially for steep climbs and descents, allowing the driver to select and hold a gear.

There is also a second 'ace in the hole' available for steep descents, such coming down the Blue Mountains, in the form of the Volvo Engine Brake (VEB), which combines the retarder and engine brake with the all-wheel disc brakes and the I-Shift.

This allows the driver to select a desired road speed, and the various systems work together to select the best combination of braking power and gears to maintain this speed, allowing the driver to concentrate on steering and road position.

This aside, the B11R offers tremendous stopping power in all driving situations, with the EBS 5 system controlling the ABS, ASR and ESP systems, while the VEB will automatically provide peak braking performance in emergency stopping situations.

While this is impressive, the B11R has a final trick to win the hearts of drivers, in the form of the steerable lazy axle, drastically reducing turning circles and improving restricted space manoeuvrability.

The axle counter-steers, so that left turns see the rear swing right, pushing the rear of the bus faster, with just a few degrees of steering at the rear making a massive difference to the required turning space.

The B11R uses electronically-controlled airbags on all axles, providing not only a luxuriant and compliant ride for passengers, but it also allows the driver to shift weight onto the drive axle in low grip situations, to prevent the coach getting 'hung' on obstacles.

Verdict

The B11R offers a blend of European driving dynamics and traditional Volvo safety and braking excellence, with a healthy dollop of power on tap to keep drivers smiling.

There are no real downsides to this unit, it does everything that is asked of it, and remains fuss-free the whole time.

Some operators might be put off by the thought of the AMT, but it is worth trying, to see the full benefits the integrated driveline can offer.

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