BUSRide Road Test: DesignLine CNG EcoCoach

This CNG transit vehicle crisscrosses the country like a full-fledged motorcoach

By David Hubbard

Experienced bus and coach drivers are expressing amazement with the CNG fuel economy, which they report to be averaging approximately 30 cents per gallon.

DesignLine, Charlotte, NC, took its compressed natural gas (CNG) EcoCoach on the road late last year to introduce public transit agencies and private coach operators to its new commuter vehicle. The highly adaptable EcoCoach can transport transit riders and easily serve Bus Rapid Transit. The New Jersey Transit Authority has ordered 76 units of this CNG model, now in production. DesignLine builds the EcoCoach in 40- or 45-foot modular versions without altering any component or design characteristic.

While the interior of the 45-foot demo model is better suited for transit commuter service, the vehicle is nonetheless proving itself as a full-fledged motorcoach by crisscrossing the country. With a range of over 600 miles, it’s doing so at a much lower cost than a standard diesel-powered vehicle, according to DesignLine.

Following the California Bus Association Expo in Santa Barbara, CA, in early November, the company brought the vehicle to Phoenix, AZ, to meet with BUSRide and representatives from Valley Metro Regional Public Transit for a review and test drive.

Ian Macpherson, director of product engineering for DesignLine, was on hand to explain the technical aspects to David Hyink, Valley Metro’s fleets and facilities supervisor.

The group convened at the BUSRide offices and boarded the coach for a tour up the expressway and through the streets of Phoenix and on to the East Valley Maintenance Facility. For most, this was their first experience with DesignLine.

Retired New York City Transit drivers Ronald Ethridge and Kenny Grieb have been behind the wheel for DesignLine these last few months. Delivering the coach to Indianapolis, Houston, Santa Barbara and Phoenix, they have become well acquainted with this vehicle and offered their impressions after several thousand miles.

“It’s a hell of a bus,” says Grieb. “I have never driven a bus quite like this one.”

Once retired from NYC Transit, Grieb moved to Florida and started making an assortment of bus and motorcoach deliveries for the OEMs.

“I have handled a lot of buses in my 72 years, from transit buses to Van Hools, MCIs and Prevosts,” he says. “I know a good bus from a bad bus, and this DesignLine is fantastic in my book. This is a transit-type vehicle that handles extremely well.”

Grieb admits to being a little apprehensive at first about taking the EcoCoach out on the open road.

“I was a little nervous coming through the mountains in New Mexico,” he says. “This bus does not have a jake brake, but she did fine. I hit the brakes to lower it down, and it slowed without a problem. It really holds the road.”

Ronald Ethridge says this is his first experience with any type of CNG-powered bus.

“It handles beautifully in every situation and it’s very enjoyable to drive,” he says. “I can say, without hesitation, I am comfortable driving this bus anywhere it needs to go for any distance.”

Both Grieb and Ethridge expressed amazement with the CNG fuel economy, which they reported to be averaging approximately 30 cents per gallon.

Though veteran Valley Metro transit driver David Smith had only enough time for a short spin on the freeway and streets in the Mesa area, he was able to put the CNG EcoCoach through enough grinds to form an opinion.

“I have never driven a bus that handles as well as this,” he said. “This is a pleasure, for sure.”

The EcoCoach features ZF axles all around and uses an independent front suspension setup, which may explain the drivers’ positive responses to the smooth handling and stability.

Ian Macpherson, director of product engineering for DesignLine who lead development on the CNG EcoCoach, was on hand to explain the technical aspects.

“The higher roll center of the independent front suspension, along with anti-roll bars at the front and rear, improves cornering at speed,” says Macpherson.

The EcoCoach enjoys a 43-foot turning radius, two feet shorter than the length of the bus. Macpherson says for any operator needing something tighter, such as for narrow city streets, the company also offers a ZF steerable tag axle as an option.

The reinforced stainless steel chassis and aluminum body frame make for a rigid frame that is also light weight. The custom-designed extrusions bolt together rather than welding which Macpherson says allows for tighter tolerances in their manufacturing process.

The 320 HP Cummins ISL-G CNG engine fits into a very open rear compartment designed for easier access and service.
“The idea was to keep all the most serviceable components curbside, like the fuel filters, air compressor and air dryer, while keeping as much open space as possible to enable work on the engine,” says Macpherson.

The ZF Transmission runs the most up-to-date software that includes Automatic Idle Shifting (AIS). When the vehicle comes to a complete stop under certain pre-set conditions, the transmission will actually disengage the driveline to save on engine drag on the transmission torque convertor. The Vehicle Acceleration Control maintains equal performance of the engine and transmission, whether the coach is loaded with passengers or running empty.

“This helps with lowering the fuel consumption,” says Macpherson. “With the performance always identical under any circumstance, the coach uses only as much power as it actually needs at the time. In any situation, the performance of the coach will always feel the same to the driver.”

The coach features six-wheel antilock brake systems with Bendix/Knorr-Bremse disk brakes all around. Having a common brake setup on each wheel means a reduction in the number of spare parts required, like brake pads.

The EMP miniHybrid Thermal Kit mounts above the engine compartment. The fans blow through the front of the high-mounted radiator, drawing from both sides and from the top of the bus.

“This configuration allows a cleaner airflow,” say Macpherson. “The higher suction points are out of line of the spray from the tires. This keeps the radiator cleaner for longer.”

DesignLine says it gave a lot of attention to aesthetics and cosmetics inside and out.

“We put a high degree of emphasis on styling this coach,” says DesignLine Director of Sales and Marketing Steven Justice. “Most notable are the enlarged flush mounted windows that evoke a European look. It’s a little different. It expands the view and lends openness to the interior.”  BR

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