Review: Bonluck CityStar Articulated

By: Matt Wood


Matt Wood ticks driving a bendy bus off his bucket list as he tests Bonluck’s 18m CityStar articulated.

You would reckon that seeing as I test drive all sorts of vehicles for a living there wouldn’t be a great deal to push me outside my comfort zone. You’d even think that driving anything from 4x4 to road trains would make me a bit cocky, maybe even a bit ho-hum about it all.

But I recently found myself staring at a vehicle that I’d never driven before, one that did push me out of my comfort zone and, yes I’m rather ashamed to admit it now, I was actually squirming a bit about driving a bendy-bus.

BUZZ JUNKIE

Some people jump out of planes for a buzz, or off bridges and buildings, but for me I drive a bus. The bus in question was a gleaming new articulated Bonluck CityStar that had just been delivered to Brisbane Bus Lines (BBL) and was at that point the only one on the road in Australia. Having driven countless articulated vehicles in the past, the bendy was a new one for me. Semi-trailers have a prime mover that pulls a trailer but modern bendies have all running gear in the rear carriage. The main part of the bus and the driver’s compartment is actually a passive compartment that’s being pushed along by the trailer. Pretty weird, huh?

Bendy Matt Wood

The new Chinese manufactured Bonluck arrival is taking over from BBL’s old fleet of 10 Volvo B10M-based, Fuji-bodied bendies that are now ticking over 28 years old. These were originally built in Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The Volvos use the old style configuration of prime mover and trailer with the engine and driveline powering the front carriage of the bus and the rear carriage acting as a passive trailer.

The Fujis are also fitted with self-tracking rear axles to reduce the cut in of the rear carriage when cornering.

The rear corners of these buses bear the scars of close encounters with signs, trees and other pesky obstacles.

ARTIC UPGRADE

BBL owner Ian Mitchell met me at the company’s Enoggera depot, along with Bus and Coach Sales Australia’s (BCSA) Athol McKinnon to show me around the new Bonluck artic and of course, to go for a drive.

Mitchell explains that the existing fleet of bendies are used for school runs, given that the B10Ms are getting a bit long in the tooth — it’s now time to upgrade.

The low-floor CityStar may seem ideal for the primary school runs that BBL are using it for, but low-floor actually wasn’t a priority for the company. It just happens that nobody actually manufactures a raised-floor artic.

After three years of shopping, Mitchell finally settled on the Bonluck, and at the time of writing, had another on the way.

McKinnon points out this is the first bendy that BCSA has sold in Australia, although Bonluck has to date manufactured around 600 of these for the global market and are already delivering complete knock-down CityStar kits to Europe and South America.

There’s even a triple carriage twin artic 28m model available in China.

Mitchell’s reasons for going with the artics mainly revolve around seating capacity and driver availability.

"Using artics means less cost to the business as a whole and saves us seven drivers over 10 buses," Mitchell says.

This particular Bonluck can seat up to 75, however subsequent vehicles will be looking at a seating capacity of 77 with the addition of more seating in the turntable area.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) friendly bus has a kneel function if required and there’s 850mm clearance between the front wheel arches to allow easy wheel chair access.

Given the amount of space inside the bendy, the vehicle will undoubtedly come in handy for rail replacement work as well. The 900mm wide seats mean that the bus can seat 105 students sitting three abreast.

SPANNING THE LINK

A massive CAN-Bus spans the 18m long bus and connects the drivetrain with the driver and controls. The CAN-Bus runs through the German-sourced Hubner turntable that links the two carriages together.

Hubner also manufactures floor plates and turntables for rail and tram applications.

Bendy Bend

The front end uses an air-suspended I-beam axle. All axles are ZF with braking duties taken care of by Wabco with ABS as standard.

At the back of the bus lies a United Kingdom-sourced 9-litre Cummins ISLe5 which uses selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to satisfy ADR80/03 emissions.

The Cummins is rated at 340hp (250kW) and feeds power to a 6-speed Allison T390R retarder equipped automatic transmission.

The three of us climb aboard the Bonluck with Mitchell taking the wheel for the first stretch out to Brisbane’s Ferny Grove.

The two Eberspacher air-conditioning units help cool down the interior as we wind our way along one of the school routes this bus will be used on.

After getting a run down from Mitchell on the bendy’s handling characteristics, it was my turn to jump behind the wheel.

DISTANT DRUMS

One of the great things about the engine being so far away from the driver’s seat is that the whole drivetrain is very quiet.

Of course that may be a different story if you happen to be sitting in the back seats, but at the front of the bus the drivetrain was background music rather than noise and vibration.

Bendyengine

There are four exterior cameras around the bus and the default display is always on the rear door of the vehicle.

The screen that displays the camera view is mounted above the driver’s head which is both awkward and difficult to see in direct sunlight.

McKinnon tells me BCSA are aware of this and are in the process of relocating the screen to a more user friendly level.

All footage from the cameras is stored on two hard drives to assist in security and safety.

Power from the Cummins feeds on smoothly and the Allison loses some of its whiny rawness down the back of the bus. There is some wind noise and turbulence around the front bi-fold door, along with a squeak or two but the sheer length of the vehicle seems to subdue any rumble and vibration through the frame.

NATURE OF THE BEAST

One startling thing was the handling characteristics of the beast. A rear-engine bendy gives a whole new meaning to the word understeer. This wasn’t really noticeable at urban speeds under 70km/h, but above this it was certainly something that needed to be factored into when cornering.

However, I don’t feel this is necessarily a criticism of this particular brand of bus. I reckon this is more a symptom of the vehicle configuration, especially when empty. The bendy configuration means there’s a significant amount of weight behind the rear axle and this is pushing a relatively light carriage along at speed.

I think most drivers will adjust quickly because the first thing that’s pushed out over the white line, when it does understeer on a left-hand bend, is the driver’s compartment.

The cut in of the rear carriage wasn’t as severe as I thought it was going to be — only about a wheel width — on most corners as we wound our way along a route that took us out of the leafy climes and big blocks of Samford Village.

No doubt the close proximity of the turntable to the drive wheels helps reduce the amount of road the bendy needs to corner safely.

MOVING BACKWARD

A wrong turn in a housing estate gave me the perfect opportunity to check out how the bendy handles going backwards, and it proved to be very easy indeed.

The rear carriage is quite short but the drive wheels drag the rest of the bus backwards making it handle quite positively. It was like backing a 6x4 trailer with an SUV only on a grand scale.

The Bonluck is quite agile and many of the turns I made in one move, would have been a two or three point manoeuvre in a 12m coach.

Visibility from the driver’s seat was quite good and the basic controls were easy to read.

One handy addition is a blower control for the driver.

Often the cockpit of a bus is the warmest place, being totally encased in glass. The fan boost control gives that bit of extra cooling capacity for the driver.

FIT AND FINISH

One area where Bonluck is improving is fit and finish. I’ve been guilty in the past of being critical of the finish of some Chinese manufactured buses but Bonluck is improving.

The dash area is still bland, yet for the most part remains functional, and this bus has more a sense of being manufactured, rather than just assembled. Even seemingly small things, such as the location of the AdBlue tank, in relation to the fuel tank, makes a big difference to the day to day operation of a vehicle — and on the Bonluck they are right next to each other.

Driving the CityStar wasn’t an adrenaline fuelled adventure, but understeer aside, it was surprisingly easy to handle. Plus, I got to tick driving a bendy bus off my bucket list.

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