By Doug Jack
September was a very good month for VDL Bus & Coach, the largest constituent in the VDL Group. VDL Group has around 70 subsidiaries broadly concentrated on metalworking, machinery and components, and bus and coach manufacture.
The Netherlands-based company with headquarters in Eindhoven recently launched a new range of Futura luxury coaches, and the Citea CLF 120 won the coveted Bus of the Year from nominations by the leading trade journalists in 17 European countries.
VDL Bus & Coach manufactures chassis as well as complete integral buses and coaches. The division also builds some bodywork on competitive chassis, although in declining numbers. DAF Trucks, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Paccar, acquired the chassis business and continues to supply engines and other components for most of the range, although VDL midibuses use smaller Cummins engines.
VDL Bus and Coach also owns the Bova, Berkhof, Jonckheere and Kusters minibus brands. Strategically, VDL plans to create one brand to replace those it inherited from the other companies without damage to their value and customer loyalty. It takes time, but VDL completed a major step in the process with its launch of the new coach range in September.
The Bova factory had for many years built the integral Futura range, available in various lengths and heights for interurban, touring and full luxury applications. One of the popular characteristics of that model was the relatively low unladen weight, which contributes to good fuel economy.
Magiq made easier
About 10 years ago, Bova introduced its high-level coach family of vehicles, Magiq, in which a tremendous effort went toward easing its production. On previous models, employees sometimes had to work in uncomfortable positions, such as hands above their heads, or doubled up on the floor in an awkward position.
Bova built Magiq in six separate major sub assemblies. One contained the entire powder-coated underframe for protection against corrosion, which was fully fitted with wiring, piping and all the powertrain components. Another station built the two main sides with panelling, glazing, interior trim and all other accessories. Similarly, the separately built roof included the panelling, trim, insulation, air conditioning and overhead racks. Workers assembled the front and rear on separate sub-assemblies. At a very late stage in the production process, they married up these six major units and bolted them together, leaving only a few final tasks such as the installation of seats.
Bova would be the first to admit that this novel method of manufacturing caused a number of problems, but it eventually resolved the issues.
Recently the old Futura range was starting to show its age, which a declining market share in Western Europe reflected.
Futura builds anew
The engineering team at VDL decided against developing a new range of coaches from the proverbial clean slate. There is a growing tendency in Europe towards evolution of design, rather than taking the risk of building totally new products.
The VDL team looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the Magiq range and set a target of building a luxury coach slightly over 42 feet on two axles, and weighing less than 13 tons. The group decided to keep the labor saving assembly methods of the Magiq — truly perfected by this time. The engineers also decided to continue using composite sandwich panels for the roof for their savings in weight.
By adopting a stainless steel underframe and structure that complies with European rollover legislation they saved even more weight.
VDL named the coach for the popular Futura. Once it gradually replaces the previous Futura Classic and the model runs out, VDL will introduce the entire family over a period of up to 24 months, offering various interior floor heights, overall heights and overall lengths.
Left hand drive is now available, with right hand drive following in about one year. The full range should be available by the time the next round of European Euro 6 emission legislation comes into force.
The launch begins with the Futura FHD2-129, built to a height of 11 feet 9 inches, or 12 feet 2 inches over the air conditioning unit. Other models will feature overall heights of 11 feet 3 inches, 12 feet 6 inches and 13 feet 2 inches double deck.
A Paccar DAF 9.2-liter 360bhp is the standard power unit. Customers requiring higher power can specify a 12.9-liter Paccar unit, which develops up to 460bhp, but comes at the expense of maximum passenger capacity.
Depending on the model and the application, VDL offers the new Futura with manual, automated and fully automatic gearboxes.
Automated systems are proving popular in coaches in Europe because they are less expensive than fully automatic gearboxes. But they offer more ratios and therefore contribute to good fuel economy, also less wear on clutches than traditional manual boxes. ZF supplies the independent front suspension, steering and rear axle.
Significant improvements have made the interior very comfortable and inviting. VDL has made extensive use of new materials and lighting ambience. The new Futura features a very accessible entrance and flat floor throughout.
Customers might object to the application of large VDL badges on the front and rear faces, where a carrier might want to apply its own fleet name.
Citea for transit
VDL announced at the same time it will now sell all its city buses as Citea models, including the Ambassador midibus, which has proved very popular in the Netherlands and sold in some neighbouring countries.
It has a maximum gross weight of around 14.4 tons but can still carry as many passengers as most full size heavy duty transit buses. Therefore, the savings on fuel consumption are significant.
The Citea CLF is also available as a full size transit bus with a full low-floor layout at slightly over 40 feet, as well as optional low entry models on two and three axles up to 45 feet.
The Citea makes extensive use of composites for the floor, ceiling and main side panels to help reduce weight. Earlier this year, seventeen international journalists met in Bucharest, Romania and tested five of the latest European city bus models. They looked at all aspects, such as driver and passenger comfort, ride and handling, safety, and accessibility of components. They judged Citea the winner during the Hanover Show in September.
The largest order for the Citea is 520 units from RAT Dubai. The buses have a number of special features to cope with the very high temperatures in the Gulf State, including very powerful air conditioning and a separate compartment for women and children. Another substantial order has come from TEC, the principal operator in the French-speaking region of Belgium. The Bus of the Year accolade is likely to give a further boost to sales.
The VAL Group also has a substantial majority shareholding in APTS, the company that builds the Phileas Bus Rapid Transit vehicle. The largest fleet of these impressive vehicles is currently running in Istanbul. Phileas also makes notable use of composites to keep the weight down.
VDL manufactures buses and coaches principally in the Netherlands, but also has the Jonckheere factory at Roeselare in Belgium. Because manufacturing in these countries is so expensive, it’s important to minimize labor and material costs while maintaining quality standards.
While VAL does outsource some components from lower cost countries, the company remains committed to its home countries and now has a very modern product range. The company has set itself the ambitious target of raising its position from its current sixth place in Europe to third place.
Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.