Good Luck Mr President

By: Gary Worrall


Gary Worrall ends his ‘tour of duty’ on a high note, reviewing a new coach from China, fit for any President.

Good Luck Mr President
Compared to some other seat options from Asia, the President III is as comfy as it comes, with ample leg room

Australia holds a rare place in the international bus and coach marketplace, one of the few markets where not only does East meet West, but North meets South, with virtually every global manufacturer offering at least one product for sale.

With so many manufacturers competing for a slice of a relatively small - on a global scale - market, diversity is a good thing for operators, keeping prices competitive while fit-outs and options are generally all top shelf.

One of the manufacturers looking to take a bigger share of the Australian market is Bonluck, distributed by Gold Coast-based Bus and Coach Sales Australia (BCSA).

Surfers Paradise Coaches recently took delivery of a new Bonluck President 3-axle coach and kindly allowed ABC to take it for a run ahead of its introduction to daily operations, with BCSA director Athol McKinnon along as navigator.

BOLD & THE BEAUTIFUL

Any coach with a 13,700mm wheelbase is guaranteed to be big, and the President 3-axle is no exception, sitting high and wide on the road with seating for 54 passengers above three full-width luggage bays.

While Chinese domestic models have been criticised for exhibiting 'unusual' frontal design aspects, Bonluck made the sensible choice to redesign the nose cone more in line with Western tastes.

This sees the external mirrors repositioned from their high-mounted 'deer antler' position to lower on the A-pillars, while the headlight assemblies are a bespoke teardrop design, featuring Narva lamps.

The tall front windscreen is a two-piece design, with a thin central divider, allowing individual screen components to be replaced in the event of a stone strike, without interfering with the driver's forward vision.

The slight curve to the screen also allows the A-pillar to be repositioned behind the actual corner of the body, again offering the driver an improvement in vision without creating a blind spot at T-intersections.

The downside to this is the plug door assembly attached directly to the repositioned A-pillar, so that the driver must use the external mirror to ensure there are no pedestrians lurking down the side of the coach.

The lower panels are all fibreglass, offering a combination of low tare weight and ease of repair, as individual sections can be removed and replaced as needed, without stripping the entire body.

As mentioned previously, there are three luggage through-bays, accessed by lift-up doors, which not only provide plenty of height, but the doors have a foam compression seal to prevent dust incursion, while the lips are ramped to allow bags and cases to be slid in and out without snagging on sharp edges.

Bonluck claim close to 13.5 cubic-metres of storage space, which is in keeping with the high GVM allowed by fitting the lazy axle.

The 400-litre fuel tank is mounted behind the front axle for improved weight distribution, while the rear-mounted Cummins ISM 11 engine uses exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) to achieve ADR 80/03 emission compliance, and does not need an AdBlue tank.

The engine cover is also a lift-up panel, which provides a shelter for roadside or inclement weather engine inspections as it opens to the horizontal with more than 1.8m of head room, so that only the very tallest drivers will have to crouch.

The engine bay is well laid out with good access to the key inspection points such as oil dipstick and radiator sight glass, while the drum-type air cleaner is mounted on the right making filter changes easy.

The President model had no issues with fit or finish, all panel gaps were minimal and even, all lift up panels closed tight to minimise aero drag and prevent dust and moisture from getting into the luggage bays or passenger areas.

INNER SPACE

Inside, the President is similarly well appointed, with high quality inclusions, including a Grammer air-suspended driver's seat, a JVC integrated AM/FM/CD/DVD entertainment system, complete with two power-operated fold down 15" LCD screens and multiple speakers throughout the saloon.

As with other coaches, operators can specify their own seating preference, the President 13.7m body is designed as a 54-seat unit, however Bonluck do include curtains to all saloon windows, which are tinted dark grey, and a toilet compartment in the left rear corner.

The saloon is finished with a composite floor material for long life and ease of cleaning, while the wall panels are all Formica, for the same reason.

The dash layout is good, the main switches are all easily accessed, with rocker switches for the raise and kneel functions, as well as the door opening functions, which include an RTA-mandated door interlock to prevent the bus moving while the door is open, as well as dump valves for the air suspension to allow the driver to change the weight distribution as needed.

The driver's seat is good, with plenty of fore and aft adjustment, while the steering wheel offers height and reach adjustment, allowing a comfortable driving position to be achieved easily.

Forward vision is good, the raised cockpit, courtesy of the high floor coach design, allows the driver to look well ahead down the road, which proved a real bonus on test drive, which took in plenty of tight and twisty roads.

The high mount mirrors take a little getting used to when switching from a different vehicle, but the field of view is excellent, eliminating all blind spots along the length of the body, and there is also a reverse camera mounted above the engine cover, which offers a good view of the rear to aid the driver when backing up.

As with the outside, the internal fit and finish is high quality, there are no gaps or exposed edges, and plenty of attention to detail has gone into making sure the passengers enjoy their journey.

LAUNCH CONTROL

The Surfers Paradise Coaches' version of the President uses a lazy axle to maximise GVM, in this case it can be loaded to 24,500kg, putting it squarely in the realm of heavy rigid vehicles.

The downside to this is drivers must hold an HR licence, which can limit the talent pool, as well as restricting its use on certain suburban roads, so operators need to be sure of the application before despatching the vehicle.

To keep it rolling on the road, Bonluck went straight to the top shelf of engine supplier Cummins' power ratings, selecting the 440hp version of the ISM engine family.

Just as importantly the ISM produces 2,098Nm of torque in this configuration, available at a lazy 1,200rpm, which makes for easy take-offs on even steep hills with a full load on board.

Getting all this to the ground is an Allison T450R 6-speed automatic transmission, complete with hydraulic retarder to boost braking effort and reduce reliance on the service brakes.

As well as choosing internationally recognised Cummins and Allison driveline components, Bonluck have included ZF steering, independent front axle and lazy axle, mounted in front of the drive axle, as well as Knorr Bremse disc brakes on every axle, with Wabco six-channel ABS braking.

While operators with long memories are wary of 6x2 drive applications, modern electronically controlled airbag suspensions have eliminated virtually all of these concerns, allowing the driver to shift weight onto the drive axle for maximum grip.

Like other Allison-equipped models, starting off is as simple as pushing the 'D' button on the keypad beside the instrument console, and waiting for the repeater on the dash panel to show a '1', then release the park brake and gently apply the throttle to unleash the torque curve.

Upshifts are creamy smooth, with changes barely noticeable, other than by watching the tacho needle rise and fall with each change, the coach is propelled forwards firmly but smoothly as it accelerates up to the posted limit.

The retarder works off a multi-stage wand mounted on the steering column, with the first stage sufficient for general driving, allowing the driver to adjust road speed by just opening and closing the throttle to engage the retarder.

Entering steep terrain, the second stage of the retarder is enough to control corner entry speed, with the third stage still in reserve for long downhill sections.

Similarly, the Allison auto can lock out higher gears to prevent speed overruns, with the driver needing to only push the down button on the keypad to progressively close out gears.

While the hydraulic retarder allows the driver to avoid the brake pedal in general driving, when required the service brakes provide plenty of bite to wash off speed.

The steering is equally satisfying. The ZF power-assisted unit takes the manual effort out of winding lock on and off, while providing a level of accuracy that even drivers unfamiliar with the vehicle can quickly adapt to the required inputs.

This was put to the test not long after leaving the Surfers Paradise depot, as BCSA's Athol McKinnon directed us out into the Gold Coast hinterland - prime sports car territory.

With the road winding back and forth around the eastern base of Tamborine Mountain the President III proved to be a safe and predictable drive, while the Cummins ISM made short work of the rise and fall in the road, with no problem in keeping up with the cars on the same stretch of road.

Although the road layout is good for sports cars, the high average rainfall ensures road maintenance crews are kept busy fixing potholes and fissures, which in turn was a good workout for the ZF independent front axle.

This unit kept the steer tyres in constant contact with the road surface, allowing the driver to comfortably predict where the tyres were headed, and feed in corrections in plenty of time to prevent lurching and excessive body roll.

The road was also a good final test of the soundproofing qualities of the body, which proved to be comfortably up to the task, allowing normal conversation with navigator McKinnon as he signalled the impending turns of the test route, a sort of Colin McRae Rally video game for coach drivers.

The only disappointment in the whole test was the Allison's propensity to 'clunk' into first gear on down shifts, every time the coach was coming to a stop, traffic lights and intersections and so forth, the transmission would engage first with a solid 'thud' and a lurch.

All other up and down changes were smooth and subtle, yielding no clue as to why the move into first should be so brutal, especially as it does not happen if first engaged from Neutral.

The Bonluck President is a solid, well-sorted coach, capable of carrying a full deck of passengers and their luggage in comfort and comfortably, thanks to some smart reading of the available variants by renowned suppliers like Allison, ZF and Cummins.

While operators can add and delete options as they need, any operator that elects to not use the hydraulic retarder option is only wasting money, as the initial spend to include the retarder is recouped many times over by the reduced wear and tear on the service brakes.

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