By Doug Jack
Toward the end of April, Volvo Buses held a major briefing event for its important customers and the European trade press in its home city of Gothenburg, Sweden, to drive and ride on a wide selection of the latest products at its extensive test facility in nearby Hallerad.
Like all the main western European manufacturers, Volvo’s bus and coach activities are small in volume compared with its much larger truck operations. In addition to its own brand, Volvo also owns Renault Trucks and is a major manufacturer of construction equipment.
Volvo Buses is a global manufacturer, with subsidiaries in Brazil, Mexico and India, as well as Nova Bus in North America. There are important joint ventures with SAIC in Shanghai and with Eicher in India. Some of the models built in Brazil, China, India and Mexico are virtually the same as those currently built in Sweden, but Volvo has also developed vehicles in some of those countries that are adapted to local market conditions.
The Volvo Group makes all its own engines and many of its gearboxes and axles. The main exception is its sourcing of fully automatic gearboxes and drop center rear axles for low-floor city buses from specialists like ZF and Voith.
The main manufacturers are reluctant to publish actual production figures because of European competition issues, but we know that Volvo delivered nearly 10,700 chassis and complete buses and coaches in 2012. This was down about 2,000 units from the previous year because of difficult trading in a number of important markets.
In Europe, Volvo offers complete city, interurban and luxury coaches with all production concentrated in a modern factory in Wroclaw, Poland. The company also offers a range of chassis, largely derived from those complete vehicles. Volvo is trying to work with a reduced number of bodybuilding partners to cut costs and benefit from economies of scale.
The complete city bus range centers on the 7900 family in solo and articulated versions with a full low-floor layout. These include models with Volvo’s own well established parallel hybrid system with more than 700 units running in around 20 countries. Many are double-decker bodied in Northern Ireland by Wrightbus. Later this year, Volvo will add an articulated hybrid single-deck bus to the range.
The complete interurban family is based on the 8900, with either two or three axles. Like the 8900, the floor in the front half of the bus is only one step above the ground. Alternatively, there may be level floor around 33 inches above the ground for limited under-floor luggage capacity.
Both the 7900 and 8900 models are relatively new and feature an ingenious mix of steel and aluminum in their structures, which helps to reduce weight and improve fuel economy.
The complete European coach range includes the 9500, the lower-height multipurpose 9700 model and the unusual 9900. The 9900’s floor gradually ramps toward the rear, offering theatre-style seating and better forward visibility for passengers.
Volvo has reengineered the entire European range in preparation for Euro 6 emission limits, which take effect January 2014 throughout the European Union. While there are currently six or seven engine sizes and a wide variety of power ratings available across the extensive range, Volvo has taken the opportunity to rationalize to only three all-new engines and a more limited number of power ratings. The benefits include economies of scale, lower weight, and savings in fuel consumption.
It will also help simplify production of complete vehicles and chassis, reducing parts count and also bringing benefits in service support. Euro 4 and Euro 5 engines will remain available for those markets that are not going to switch to the latest Euro 6 standard.
The smallest of the three engines will be the 5.1-liter 240bhp D5K. This will be standard in all the hybrid buses and also in double-decker chassis for the UK and Irish markets. This will replace a current 9-liter unit, with Volvo claiming that the new engine will save weight and fuel. Some observers question whether it will be strong enough for service in some of our more hilly cities.
The second new engine is the 7.7-liter D8K, which will replace current 7- and 9-liter Euro 5 engines and will be available with optional power outputs of 280, 320 and 350bhp. The D8K unit will be standard in single-deck city buses and the interurban range, as well as the 9500 coach.
The largest of the three new engines will be the 10.8-liter D11K, with power ratings of 380, 430 and 460bhp. These will be available principally in the 9700 and 9900 coaches, as well as chassis derivatives.
Volvo has an ambitious hybrid development program to extend the percentage of mileage in all-electric mode. The latest project in Gothenburg features three standard single-deck hybrid city buses modified to what Volvo calls “plug-in.”
That is slightly misleading. The bus actually parks beneath a gantry at each end of a route with a fixed overhead electrical charging system. A pantograph on the roof rises to make contact for a fast five minute charge to the onboard batteries. This enables the bus to operate up to 70 percent of the length of the route in silent all-electric mode, which is especially useful in the center of the city.
Regular recharging means smaller batteries to either save weight or increase passenger capacity. The bus can run in normal hybrid mode on any route that does not have recharging stations. The D5K engine can also run on biodiesel.
The Volvo hybrid system is now proving very reliable. Vehicle availability is as good as with standard diesel buses.
With the introduction of Euro 6, Volvo also took the opportunity to upgrade and facelift the coach range. The original classic design has been around for quite a number of years, but it’s free of fussy features that make a coach look dated. The frontal aspect has been gently restyled, with new rearview mirrors offering improved visibility. The rear wall has also been modernized, with a new aluminum engine hatch, larger rear window, a new roof spoiler that enhances aerodynamics and an integrated rearview mirror.
Volvo also offers the option of I-Coaching, a driver assistance tool which helps drivers handle the bus safely and in a more fuel-efficient manner. Coach owners can monitor drivers because they receive instant feedback when any of six driving parameters are exceeded. These are over-revving, excessive idling, harsh braking, harsh acceleration, over speeding and harsh cornering. The system can help drivers to improve their skills and increase fuel economy. The operator benefits from lower maintenance costs and satisfied passengers.
Apart from the introduction of Euro 6 engines, Volvo has introduced its new I-Start system. I-Start has batteries used only for starting the engine and consumer batteries that provide power for normal electrical consumption. This arrangement avoids the problem of being unable to start an engine because of drained batteries. There are also benefits in battery longevity, reduced weight and volume, and reduced length of power cables.