Completing the range

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Both automatic and manual versions of the vehicles provided plenty of acceleration. JAMES DAY

James Day test drives MAN’s new light commercial vehicle, the TGE, which is looking to break into the van and minibus market over the next few years

MAN brought a number of its new TGE vans to the Rockingham Motor Speedway circuit for a ride and drive event, giving many members of the press, builders and customers a first opportunity to drive their new entry into a market for smaller vehicles. The company is well-known for its range of trucks, coaches and buses and has taken the decision to produce smaller vehicles in addition to its heavy duty range.

As well as offering an opportunity to drive various guises of the TGE, a discounted rate was available for those wishing to make orders at the event.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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MAN Managing Director, Thomas Hemmerich, opened the day. He described the company’s status as part of the wider VW Group as the enabler which has helped it to complete its product range with the new light commercial vehicle. MAN Truck & Bus’ overall offering now ranges from three tonnes to 250 tonnes.

Thomas said: “The huge difference between the MAN approach and the competition is that we come from a completely different business angle.

“We are not passenger car producers developing into the commercial vehicle world. We started from commercial vehicles and have developed down into the van market, which is going to become increasingly important.

“There is a driver shortage for heavy and extra-heavy vehicles which is becoming more and more of an issue around the world. Therefore this downgrading enables our customers to move away from heavier vehicles depending on availability.”

Aftersales is the difference

With the MAN TGE being built on the same chassis as the new VW Crafter, and constructed on the same production line, you could be forgiven for asking why you should not purchase the Crafter instead. What does MAN offer to give the vehicle a unique selling point?

Of course, the styling of the vehicles is different and the question of which vehicle looks better is down to individual taste, but from what was said at the event, both by MAN staff and several attendees, the advantage of the TGE seems to be in aftersales support.

Thomas Hemmerich highlighted this selling point during his introduction. He outlined his own experience trying to get an oil change on a car at 1630hrs on a Friday afternoon, only to find the garage closed, and implied that operators of vans made by manufacturers better known for personal cars may have similar issues. In contrast, MAN has an extensive dealer network of 65 service locations across the country. Their opening hours average at 16 hours per day, six days per week, alongside a 24/7, 365 day roadside assistance service, which aims to put vehicles back on the road instead of bringing back to dealerships needlessly.

“The truck or bus has to be on the road 24/7, and here we have a competitive advantage,” he stated.

“In our genes is the thought that we must support our customers 24/7 to keep their MAN on the road to enable them to provide their service. We are commercial vehicle specialists and understand the business and, for us, the most important task is to keep the customers on the road.

“To sell a product is one step in the chain. During the whole life cycle of the product, the aftersales service support is key, and you will only buy the product again if you are happy with its whole life cycle. This is crucial for us, and we are convinced that it gives us a competitive advantage.”

State-of-the-art manufacturing

Stuart Beeton, Head of Van at MAN Truck & Bus, provided details on the brand new manufacturing facility which is constructing the TGE – the VW Crafter factory in Wrzesnia, Poland.

VW invested in the facility after its agreement with Mercedes-Benz to produce light commercial vehicles on the Sprinter production line came to an end. As a result, the company has redesigned the Crafter van from the ground up, and the TGE is utilising this as its base vehicle.

The new production facility represents an €800m investment, and Stuart said it is the size of 300 football pitches (around 540 acres). Not only that, but the facility’s site offers an enormous amount of expansion space – enough to double production if required.

Despite the size of the facility and the investment involved, it took just 28 months to complete the factory after building commenced on a greenfield site.

“By 2020, Wrzesnia will have the capacity to produce around 100,000 units per year, with the MAN TGE representing 20% of this figure,” he said.

A gradual rollout is underway for the TGE, as it is with the new Crafter. Current availability includes front- and all-wheel drive panel vans, front-wheel drive chassis cabs and front-wheel drive chassis crew cabs. Rear wheel drive panel vans and chassis cabs are expected in the middle of 2018, while the all-wheel drive chassis cab is expected this November. The all-wheel drive chassis crew cab has a release date of March 2018, with the rear-wheel drive version expected in mid 2018. A factory-built minibus is unlikely before the van range has been rolled out.

Retail prices start from £23,990 for a 3-tonne panel van, with 3.5-tonne vehicles retailing for £26,490. This includes a three year unlimited mileage manufacturer’s warranty. There is a possibility for residual value guarantees where required, along with more tailored maintenance packages.

Stuart also added some more detail on the MAN aftersales offering: “In the case of a TGE breakdown or incident, it will be a dedicated MAN technician in a TGE himself who will come out to get the vehicle moving again.

“We treat light commercial vehicles in the same way as heavy commercial vehicles, and our truck repair and maintenance contracts provide operators with a 97% first time MOT pass rate.”

Test drive

Two circuits were available for test drives – the outer circular track and a more windy inner circuit, helping to test how the vehicles performed at a variety of speeds. I was able to drive both a 140hp manual and a 177hp automatic version of the TGE, with the latter being a longer wheelbase version which I would expect is more likely to be used by minibus convertors in the future.

Each vehicle offered plenty of power in its drive. The manual performed well through its entire six gear range, while the automatic offered plenty of acceleration to get itself up to speed when I put my foot down. It’s fair to say that both vehicles drive like personal cars, despite their size.

One of the striking things about the test drive was how quiet the vehicles were from within the cab. The noise from the vehicle’s reworked Audi engine has been isolated well, and there was no need for either myself or the MAN staff member riding beside me to raise our voices at any point. There was also no noticeable vibration when the vehicle was in motion or idle.

The ride is also very comfortable and stable, which was clear when I was taken out in a 102hp version of the TGE to get some photos from the passenger side. I was not struggling to hold the camera steady.

Emergency maneuvers

As part of the test drive, attendees had the opportunity to drive one of the vans on Rockingham’s skid pan. This helped to demonstrate the braking and stability systems which the vehicles can offer.

In addition to demonstrating these systems, the skid pan test was an opportunity for drivers to improve their skills, thanks to the excellent instruction offered by MAN.

The first test took place on wet skid tiles, and I was told to accelerate to around 30mph before applying the brakes, as I would have done if I wanted to carry out an emergency stop. With the tiles effectively simulating heavy braking on a frozen road, this was both to demonstrate the steering granted by the TGE’s anti-lock brakes, and to dispel a common misconception that these systems make vehicles stop sooner. If you were in any doubt, they don’t – the vehicle travelled in excess of 90 metres after the brakes were applied, and that was not because of any problems with the TGE’s stopping distance. However, the anti-lock brakes prevent the wheels from locking in place, which allows the driver to steer around obstacles even when the vehicle is struggling to stop.

The second test involved a moving section of road, which activated as the rear wheels passed over it, kicking out the rear of the vehicle and simulating loss of control of the back wheels. The test demonstrated the Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) available on the TGE, which makes it easier for a driver to regain control in such a situation. The test was undertaken at a speed of 25mph.

It is still vital that the driver reacts in the correct way, or the system will be of no benefit whatsoever. I have to admit that I was not certain of how to react in the simulated situation myself until I was told by the instructor – focus on the direction you want to go, keep looking in that direction and steer the vehicle towards that point, without applying the brakes. Thanks to this instruction and the quality of the ESP, the van I was driving barely strayed from the direction it was travelling, even with the rear end violently kicked out.

Sidewall assist

One of three optional driver assistance systems demonstrated at the event was sidewall assist, which aims to prevent drivers accidentally swiping the side of the van against walls, obstacles or other vehicles. This also served as a replacement for a reversing camera on the demonstrator I tested, which tracked rear obstacles but did not display a video feed.

We were asked to drive the van through a slalom of parked vehicles, getting as close to them as we could without making contact.

The sensors worked well as you might expect, with the usual sonar-style alert tones which get closer together as the van nears an obstacle. However for me the most impressive thing about it was the dashboard display. It clearly demonstrated which side of the vehicle the obstacle was on, whether it was towards the front or rear and how close it was. It was even able to track and display several obstacles at once and, importantly, it was shown to clearly pick up on nearby pedestrians, not just large vehicles. Obstacles were displayed around the outline of a van by solid lines, which moved closer to the van outline and changed from white to amber to red as the vehicle closed in.

Often, drivers will find that the solid ‘imminent contact’ tone from a reversing sensor kicks in when there is still lot of space behind the vehicle. Sometimes this is helpful and ensures there is sufficient space for parking vehciles to get out of their space. Other times, it can be a source of irritation causing the driver to get back into the vehicle and reverse a few more feet.

By contrast, the rear sensor on the TGE is very well tuned. When I reversed the vehicle to park it against a concrete barrier, it left less than a foot of space behind the van. This could be extremely helpful for when vehicles need to be parked tightly together in a depot overnight, though it will be important to provide some brief training to drivers who are used to more lenient systems.

Automated parking

A system which ties into the sidewall assist is the TGE’s automatic parking. It uses the sidewall assist to detect a space which it can parallel park the vehicle into, and then takes over the steering, with the driver switching between first gear and reverse (presumably drive and reverse in automatic versions of the TGE) and controlling speed with the clutch or brake.

The system parks the vehicle perfectly in spaces which less confident drivers would not attempt. For this reason I think it is ideal for volunteer drivers who are less used to driving minibus-size vehicles. However, it can be quite confusing and fiddly to use on the first couple of attempts and is best to practice in a safe place first before using it in anger for the first time. Once the driver has got to grips with it, parking is made effortless.

The system could be difficult to use in some areas. This is because of how the vehicle detects the parking space – it needs to drive past it entirely, before reversing in. It makes perfect sense that this is how the system would work, as it guarantees that the space is big enough before attempting to park the TGE within it, but it’s easy to imagine how, on a busy high street with queuing traffic, the vehicle behind could move into the roadspace which the minibus needs to reverse into.

In quieter areas though, the system certainly has the potential to speed up parking considerably, and again would be extremely helpful when a fleet of TGEs are packed together within a depot.

Trailer assist

The last system demonstrated at the event was a trailer assist system, which could be useful for minibuses which require a trailer to carry additional luggage.

This system does make use of a reversing camera and gives control of the steering to the vehicle, which the driver fine-tunes with what is effectively a small joystick on the right hand side of the cab. A display shows the angle which the TGE is attempting to reverse the trailer, and the driver can nudge the stick left or right to make small adjustments to its trajectory.

Again, the system takes a couple of attempts to get used to, but is useful because the technology prevents the driver from accidentally jackknifing. The wide view offered by the reversing camera also makes it very easy to track any potential hazards, such as inattentive pedestrians.[/wlm_ismember]