Cutting-edge lowered floor technology, fuel efficient V6 engine, and a lightweight yet strong and durable composite body structure make the Frontrunner the greenest alternative to electric and the most technologically advanced purpose-built cutaway available in the market today. Paul LaRose – President / CEO
Since its development in 2016, the purpose-built, low-floor Frontrunner minibus has raised the bar in every aspect of passenger transportation. Its divergent design incorporates numerous advancements in technology, engineering, and construction representing the most innovative, durable, and comfortable low-floor minibus available in its class.
While not historically known as a bus manufacturer, New England Wheels (NEW) has been setting the standard in Mobility Transportation for over 35 years. From its inception in 1988, NEW was a leader in structural van modifications for the mobility industry, incorporating numerous best-in-class innovations including its Municipal Transporter and the introduction of a composite floor in a van. In August of 2019. NEW divested its structural van conversion business to focus exclusively on the further development and manufacture of its disruptive Frontrunner low floor bus.
The Frontrunner Is Born
With the introduction of the RAM Promaster 3500 chassis in 2016, Paul LaRose, President and CEO of New England Wheels, saw an opportunity to develop a true purpose-built flat floor, cutaway sized minibus. Unencumbered by the drive shaft of a rear-wheel drive vehicle, the front wheel drive Promaster 3500 offered no such obstruction and the vision for the Frontrunner was conceived. With a 9,350 GVWR, nearly 2,000 pounds lighter than a traditional high floor cutaway, the design would need to incorporate advanced technology and out-of-the-box thinking to maximize payload while achieving strength, durability, and comfort.
With these goals in mind, LaRose assembled a team ready for the task. It included engineers with heavy-duty transit bus experience as well as an accomplished automotive engineer from General Motors. The design of the Frontrunner required a radical departure from traditional bus building, leading NEW to challenge and re-examine conventional thinking and construction methodologies relative to weight, durability, and structural design.
“The decades old methodology – of building high-floor cutaways with steel cage structures – produces vehicles that are heavy, fuel inefficient and notorious for their poor, noisy ride quality and premature corrosion,” LaRose said. Desiring to further advance the merits of the low floor, the Frontrunner design team had three criteria from which all design elements would be measured. It had to be lightweight, strong, and durable.
With respect to weight, the team evaluated the latest advancements in high alloy structural steel and chose Nucor steel with its high strength-to-weight ratio. The Frontrunner is the first and only bus in its class to incorporate a purpose-built chassis manufactured in the U.S. utilizing American-made Nucor steel. Characterized by having a strength-to-weight ratio four times that of cold rolled steel, its ability to flex under load makes for a more comfortable ride and is far less likely to crack than traditional cold rolled steel that becomes stiff and brittle as its gauge is thickened. NEW’s innovative approach was to remove the frame rails of the cutaway completely, replacing them with a purpose-built low-floor structure. The new lowered floor chassis fits precisely in the openings of the original frame rails, another industry first, transforming a cutaway into a purpose-built low floor mini-bus.
To address the corrosion issue that plagues the cutaway bus market, the Frontrunner lowered floor chassis incorporates a “hot-dipped” galvanization process considered to be the most superior form of corrosion resistance available, yet another industry first. The Frontrunner’s entire low floor chassis is dipped into an 800-degree bath of molten zinc. At that temperature, the pores of the steel open and are permeated with zinc. This unique process allows the treated steel to self-heal. If an object abrades the steel, the zinc in the pores of the steel will self-heal as the zinc is exposed to the air. This process makes undercoating unnecessary on the Frontrunner.
The Frontrunner’s fully composite bus structure, awarded three patents for its strong yet lightweight design, incorporates pultruded beams in the composite side wall panels for impact protection and additional strength around the windows and main bus door. Pultruded beams are a composite material yielding the same strength as traditional steel, with only 25 percent of the weight. It is corrosion free and is frequently used in high strength-to-weight applications, including bridge structures. Its ability to bend but not break adds to its strength and durability. The modified sandwich panel wall construction also has a high R-value – keeping the bus cool in hot weather, and warm in cold weather.
NEW was also the first to introduce a fully composite sub-floor in a low floor cutaway sized bus. Guaranteed for life against water penetration, rotting, swelling, and mildew, the sub-floor is another example of a component that meets the criteria for strength, weight, and durability. “It is generally accepted that, regardless of traditional undercoating, plywood sub-floors rot over time,” LaRose added.
The fully composite subfloor in the Frontrunner is guaranteed for the life of the vehicle.
Designed and built from the ground up, with passenger comfort and utility in mind, the full four-corner air suspension available on the Frontrunner is the first and only suspension of its type in the cutaway class. The heavy-duty suspension was designed to accommodate a 12,000 pound GVWR bus and has been fine-tuned through the careful selection of its air bags and adjustable, heavy-duty shock absorbers for a superior, comfortable ride. Its next generation ECAS (Electronically Controlled Air Suspension) system lowers the nose of the bus at highway speeds for improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. The full kneeling system lowers to 9.75 inches, offering the lowest step-in height and ramp angle in the industry. In an emergency, the bus is designed to be driven in the kneeled position. It automatically raises to its 12.75-inch ride height at 5 miles per hour.
The Frontrunner’s simple and easy to use fold-out ramp also offers the lowest ramp angle in its class, exceeding a ratio of 6:1. At 63 inches long as measured from the door edge, the ramp angle far exceeds the current standard of 4:1. Rated at 800 pounds, the ramp is robust enough for even the heaviest of passengers and powered chairs. To achieve this rating, the ramp was required to hold three times its rated weight or 2,400 pounds. Designed to be virtually bullet proof with only one serviceable part, the ramp stows vertically inside the bus, eliminating damage by penetrating road debris commonly associated with in-floor style ramps. It also dramatically increases the vehicle’s usable floor space, making maneuverability of wheelchairs easy and unencumbered with no uneven floor transitions in the entry way.
The vehicle accomodates eight ambulatory passengers with three wheelchairs, or up to 14 ambulatory passengers plus the driver.
“Everybody gets in and out together, and the wheelchair occupants ride in the front of the bus,” LaRose said. “You don’t have to remove any wheelchairs for ambulatory or non-ambulatory people to get out. It’s roomy and spacious, and it’s flexible.”
The ramp is available in manual and fully electric configurations.
The Frontrunner is the only bus in its class to actually undergo the new rigorous Altoona Pass/Fail Test.
“Until 2016 the Altoona test was done as a formality to satisfy federal funding requirements, producing a published report detailing the results without deference to performance or the exposure of structural issues,” LaRose said.
That all changed in 2016 when Altoona became a more stringent pass/fail test. Tested as a five-year/150,000-mile bus, the Frontrunner earned an unprecedented score of 91 percent. While this new test allowed for 125 hours of unscheduled down time, the Frontrunner was down for only one hour for a non-critical bolt failure. In effect, the Frontrunner proved at Altoona that a lightweight, fuel-efficient minibus could be durable – and validated NEW’s design goals for fuel efficiency, strength, and durability.
While these individual elements all singularly represent next-generation design, engineering, and construction advances over the decades old approach to cutaway bus building, it is the sum of these parts that makes the Frontrunner so transformative in the cutaway class of buses.
The Frontrunner Making a Difference
Having been successfully Altoona Tested and being fully compliant with the FTA’s Buy America Requirements, the Frontrunner is sold through a nationwide dealer network to transit agencies across the United States and Canada. LaRose noted that with ridership down due to COVID, agencies across the country are turning to the Frontrunner as a smaller, more efficient, and cost-effective alternative to larger transit buses. The Frontrunner is the only cutaway-sized bus built in the true likeness and functionality of a larger transit bus and is seeing service in both fixed route and demand response applications throughout the country.
New England Wheels has also delivered over 100 Frontrunners to various Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities across the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. The vehicle is gaining popularity among senior living facilities, particularly those where the residents have input into the transportation decision-making process.
Due to its growing market penetration and the ongoing supply chain shortages from other manufacturers, customers who might typically have bought a traditional high-step cutaway are looking at the low-floor Frontrunner.
“We welcome those new customers because we are confident that once they own a Frontrunner, they won’t go back,” LaRose said.
Going Green – and What’s Next?
With the rise in gas prices, LaRose noted that the Frontrunner is the “greenest alternative” to a fully electric vehicle available in its size class. The combination of fuel efficiency, higher residual value, lower maintenance costs, and superior efficiency make it an attractive proven alternative to an emerging but nascent electric bus market. Compared to a traditional cutaway with often unreliable and maintenance-heavy wheelchair lifts, the Frontrunner represents a cost-effective solution to customers across multiple industry sectors.
New England Wheels has made a strategic and measured decision to not bring an electrified Frontrunner to market before it can achieve real-world range of 250+ miles on a single charge across all climate conditions. While the lightweight composite bus structure and chassis of the Frontrunner lends itself to increased range based on weight savings alone, LaRose also noted that “current electric technology and charging infrastructures are simply not developed enough for New England Wheels to achieve its goals for an electrified Frontrunner.”
LaRose remarked that an electrified Frontrunner would be a complete ground-up electric bus. He believes this approach avoids unnecessary compromises in battery placement, weight, ride quality, and aerodynamic efficiency that designers and manufacturers of internal combustion engine retrofits must make. While LaRose would not say exactly when he expects the EV Frontrunner to be available, or how far along they are in its development, he did offer that it would be available in two size classes, have the lowest coefficient of drag in the industry, be a true purpose-built, fully electric cutaway-sized bus, and achieve its goal of 250+ miles of useable range.