Future-Proofed

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Continuing our review of the PSVAR-compliant coaches currently on the market, Richard Sharman takes an exclusive first look at the new Volvo 9700

It’s a brave new world – we have just reached the penultimate phase of the end to coronavirus restrictions. A brave new world needs a coach that is equipped to tackle anything, from the school run to a week on tour in Scotland, and a weekend of rail replacement or express services in between. Could Volvo’s new 9700 be the answer?

The B10M of the 21st century?

If you are an ‘old school’ coach operator and I mentioned Volvo to you, the response I would more than likely get would be that the B58 and the B10M were reliable, go anywhere coaches that really earned Volvo its reputation, and of course you would be right. There are many B10Ms that are still out earning their daily keep in 2021. But we are in the 21st century and technology has moved on at a great pace. The B11R is Volvo’s powerhouse now, with 430bhp as standard and 460hp available as an option. Today, it can be found in everything from the luxury Volvo 9900 to the Plaxton Panorama, Sunsundegui SC7 and many more. It has, naturally, been selected to power the 9700. The tried and tested Volvo D11K six-cylinder engine uses Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR), which takes place in the engine, then a liquid-reductant is injected into the exhaust stream which goes into exhaust a­ er treatment system, which combines a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF), Diesel Oxidation Catalyst (DOC), Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) and Ammonia Slip Catalyst (ASC) to reduce Carbon Monoxide (CO), Hydrocarbons (HC) and Particulate Matter (PM). All this is protected by a ‑ re suppression system as standard.

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Aerodynamic styling

The 9700 shares the same frontal styling cues as the rest of the Volvo coach family and takes its headlight cluster from the Volvo Trucks FH model. Coach styling these days tends to either be pin sharp and aggressive or soft and subtle, and I think the 9700 falls into the latter category. It has a purposeful but also friendly look about it. That frontal styling also serves an aerodynamic purpose. Its design has resulted in a noticeable lack of wind noise around the front of the coach, which is impressive. Volvo has also opted for more prominent vehicle badging to the front and rear of the coach. Moving to the nearside of the 9700, the dark-tinted bonded glazing curves down to meet the entry door glass which improves passenger vision but also assists the driver on angled junctions. Two full-sized locker doors are to the nearside with a half locker above the well-hidden Dhollandia wheelchair lift, which is in its own locker. The offside of the 9700 has one full-sized locker and two half-sized doors either side of the powered continental door. One further locker is provided behind the o side rear wheel, ideal for an allocated driver to store cleaning equipment. Aerodynamics also play into the rear styling of the vehicle. The roof line continues over the rear window to form a small spoiler, whilst built in detectors on the rear pillars reduce the wake of the vehicle. These are smartly integrated into the rear light clusters. The large boot lid is light weight and features two air vents for the engine, allowing good air ow. A reversing camera is installed as standard above the boot lid, whilst the rear window is mounted quite high up. For ease of repair, the rear bumper comprises two corner panels and a large centre section, all with reversing sensors.

 Next level

Designed in Scandinavia, specified in the UK and built in Wroclaw, Poland, Volvo has proved that a PSVAR-compliant vehicle doesn’t have to feel like one. The 9700 does feel like a touring coach, and the additional nearside door for wheelchair access blends into the interior, to the point where you wouldn’t know it was there. The theatre-style floor of the previous 9700 model has gone, but has been retained for the top of the range 9900. The 9700 now has a di­fferent feel about it. The overhead racks appear to be quite low down, although there is plenty of room to get in and out of the seats, whilst the comfortable Volvo Level 2 seats are high-backed. This means that the passenger bene‑ ts from having the passenger service units closer to them, meaning that ventilation from the vents is much more e­ffective at reaching them. The fabric used in the Level 2 seats feels extremely durable, whilst the leather used is very so . USB ports are fitted behind the fold down tables, and even the wheelchair passenger has been thought of with rack-mounted USB ports over the wheelchair space. Passengers sat at the front, and some seats at the back will find the USB ports under their seats. Three-point seatbelts are fitted as standard, and a nice touch is a ‘ping pong’ sound – as well as a visual notification – when the entry door is shut and the handbrake is released to remind passengers to put their seatbelts on. Volvo’s own demountable toilet cubicle unit is used, which is sunken and at the centre of the coach on the o­ side next to the continental door. Removal of this unit allows the coach to be up-seated to 55, with Volvo providing the additional seats and panels under the coach when it is delivered. The luggage capacity of the 9700 is 8.65m3 . This has been achieved by creating a neat unit for the wheelchair li with a separate access door. Low interior noise is another feature of the 9700. The B11R engine has been surrounded by noise insulation, making for a quiet travelling environment. The Hanover destination equipment has not impacted on the interior of the 9700. Due to the way the windscreen has been designed, the front unit ‑ ts nicely on a sturdy bar within the curvature in the centre. The rear display appears as a box in the centre of the rear window, but this has the cream coloured plastic trim around it as on the rear window surrounds. The side destination display is mounted in the side wall. Volvo has confirmed that operators requiring a full width rear destination display could be accommodated.

Accessibility

The 9700 is fitted with a Dhollandia DHCH103.03 cassette lift, with a maximum 350kg lift capacity. This lift is equipped with a single-piece platform to eliminate as many moving parts as possible and reduce maintenance needs. Its solid lift arm construction incorporates two lift cylinders for stability. The removable control unit can be attached to the li once its locker door is open. Operation of the lift can be seen on the YouTube video that accompanies this feature, but it is swift in operation and all the driver has to do is lift the two handrails. Orange LED warning lights are fitted to the side of the lift. Exterior lighting above the li can be specified. Two sets of seats on NMI quick release tracking are required to be removed for a wheelchair passenger to board.


Driver’s environment

Getting behind the wheel of the 9700 feels special – the cab seems to wrap around you, giving the driver a nice working environment. A happy driver equals better customer service. Volvo is, of course, known for safety. So the first thing you notice from the comfortable, Bosch microphone-equipped ISRI seat is how good the all-round vision is. The A-pillar is not intrusive and is quite a way from you, while the cab window is angled down towards the front of the vehicle increasing vision further. At first glance the handbrake looks like it is mounted in an awkward place, quite low down on the o­ side just beneath your knee, at an angle, however – as I was to find out on the drive – it was perfectly positioned. The broms brake is mounted separately, even lower down. The Volvo AT2412F I-Shift fully automated 12-speed gearbox unit is mounted on the le of the driver’s seat, which doesn’t get in the way as it sits lower down than the seat cushion. All switchgear is easily to hand, with the Volvo digital tachograph, Bosch head unit/ CCTV screen, light switches and door controls to the left­ of the dashboard, along with the excellent unit for the demister and the saloon heating and cooling. It actually has rotating dials, which are simple and effective in use. Modern coaches could do with more systems like this – it allows the driver to easily adjust the demisters without having to ‘faff’ with complicated digital displays. Headlight controls, safety systems, the Hanover DRS destination controller and master switch are to the right, with the controls for the powered driver’s sun blind and cab window conveniently located next to each other at an angle under the cab window. The driver also benefits from a USB port in the same area. Given the possibility that this vehicle may be used on express services, there is an option for a driver protection screen to be specified. The example tested was fitted with a large 500mm steering wheel, but all other vehicles will be delivered with the more familiar 450mm wheel. In terms of driver’s storage, there is a compartment below the cab window, with another on top of the dash and two aircraft­ – style units over the first two rows of seats on either side. If the vehicle is used on express services, it can be ordered so that there is a space for ticket machine equipment. A deep dash-mounted fridge is also a welcome standard feature, whatever the 9700 is being used for.

On the roads of Warwickshire

By mid-afternoon it was time to get the Volvo 9700 out on the road, and I had the privilege of taking the vehicle for its first UK press test drive. The weather was forecast to be sunny, but of course it was a mix of sharp showers and sunny spells. Luckily, Volvo’s modern showroom in Coventry meant that the 9700 was under cover during the deluge of rain whilst I filmed all the features of the vehicle, which can be viewed on our YouTube channel. This was to be my first time driving a coach fitted with Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS) – which the 9700 has as standard. As I departed the showroom, the first thing I came to was a roundabout, the first test of VDS – and I can tell you that it works. VDS does not steer the coach for you, but it does return to zero and detect/correct all minor deviations from the desired course ahead at a rate of 2,000 times per second. This is impressive as it means the driver is not having to constantly compensate for high winds. But be aware that it takes a few minutes to get used to it! When you are driving in the correct fashion, i.e. with your hands at ten to two and shuffling the steering wheel on roundabouts, the VDS means that you have to be on the ball and move quicker as the system corrects the steering. That said, I soon got used to it and found the steering a great improvement with VDS in operation as it also suppresses road irregularities such as the large potholes encountered on the A46 dual carriageway. They hardly register on the steering wheel, and the vehicle continues straight on the road ahead, giving passengers a smoother ride. Out on the road, at speed, it is also comforting to know that if you were involved in a collision, the 9700 is fitted as standard with Front Impact Protection (FIPS), Front Under-Run Protection (FUPS), Drivers Knee Impact Protection (KIPS) and a whole host of other safety features. Before leaving the showroom I looked underneath the front of the vehicle, and it certainly does have significant protection bars and crumple zones fitted, which are shown well in my video of the 9700. Heading towards the M40, on the limiter, the 9700 felt stable as I passed slower moving HGVs. The rev counter was registering well within the green economy zone at 1,300rpm in 12th gear, and the turbo barely registered on the gauge. David Porter, Sales Manager and Phil Fletcher, Sales Development Manager joined me on the test drive and found the ride as a passenger very comfortable. As we crossed over the M40 and headed for sunny Stratford-upon-Avon I had become much more accustomed to the VDS and was finding that it was improving the driving experience. Dropping down the hill into Stratford, it was time to test the vehicle’s steering column-mounted retarder. It held the 9700 at exactly 50mph, the legal limit for this single-lane A road. It certainly is a useful feature that drivers can use to help reduce fuel consumption. Heading for Anne Hathaway’s Cottage for some images of the 9700, we found that the access road through the housing estate had been closed. But there was no panic as the 9700, despite being 13.1m long, is highly manoeuvrable. Closely parked cars and narrow roads were no issue. Having failed to reach the cottage, we decided to head for the Leisure Centre coach park, which takes you through the town centre. I can confirm the 9700 is a head turner, with pedestrians and local bus drivers taking a good look as we slowly made our way around town. Arriving at the empty coach park we found that a Covid-19 test centre had been set up nearby, which was deserted. Pictures obtained, it was time to film a trip over Clopton Bridge and around Riverside. The return to the yard was made up the Warwick Road towards the M40 and A46, a good chance to test out the 9700 on some of the hills and sweeping bends it others. The I-Shift gearbox certainly delivers the power when it’s needed, and it does it quietly – in fact it is impressive just how quiet the 9700 is. Arriving back at the showroom I left the vehicle feeling refreshed, and not like I had been driving it for the last two hours.

In conclusion

The 9700 retails at £285,000 for the full PSVAR specification version, and around £9,000- £10,000 less for a standard or PSVAR-ready model. This price includes a three-year 600,000km body and chassis warranty with Volvo Action Service 24/7 roadside assistance. The 9700 should do well in the UK market. It looks and feels very much like a premium touring coach, but it has all the tools needed to be a future-proofed purchase.

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