i-City in the country

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Image: CRAIG GEORGE

Bus Service Manager at OTS of Falmouth, Craig George, shares the Ilesbus experience as he takes the new i-City low-floor Sprinter into service for the first time

As has been reported in these pages recently, there are strange things happening in the deepest South West, where Cornish operators are investing heavily to support the new Transport for Cornwall network. Ensuring the next round of investment is spent wisely is the very reason why I find myself eagerly awaiting the sound of tyres approaching our yard on a cold February morning.
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Sure enough, the sound of an approaching bus at 0800hrs prompt soon reveals the beaming face of Leon Fear from Ilesbus UK delivering his most recent model to us for a week of trials. The model in question is the Ilesbus i-City: a low-floor service bus conversion based on the most recent Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 516CDi.

This is a model I’ve been keen to try, especially now more manufacturers are taking advantage of this excellent Mercedes-Benz platform to blur the lines between a minibus and a real low-floor service bus. Ilesbus can build the i-City in two configurations: 17 seated plus 9 standees, or 20 seated plus 7 standees. The latter is made possible by the installation of a 50 cm extension to the rear, creating room for an additional row of seats.

After the usual jolly conversation with Leon, where he was kind enough not to speak of the first week of the Six Nations, he familiarises me with the controls and features of this striking little bus before handing me the keys and telling us to ‘use it and abuse it’ – and that is exactly what we did!

Prestigious influence
I say striking as the small collection of my colleagues gathered around it are immediately impressed: from drivers to directors, there are raised eyebrows and positively inclined hums all round! The first thing y

our eye is drawn to is the flamboyant external design: the stylised lower line of the heavily tinted windows is accented with brushed aluminium trim and kicks up toward the coach-like rear end. The exterior styling is very similar to the Vegas luxury minicoach from the Ilesbus range and it certainly brings some panache to the service bus sector.

It isn’t just the outside that benefits from prestigious influence. It is the case that many manufacturers bringing low-floor Sprinter-based vehicles to the market have cut their teeth on executive touring vehicles where the clients are demanding and there is an eye for detail. Ilesbus is such a manufacturer, and this is very apparent when stepping aboard: the quality is immediately obvious and a closer inspection reveals a very neat fit and finish.

Perhaps most impressive is the very flexible approach to the specification taken by Ilesbus UK. “You can have one however you want it,” Leon proudly tells us. He has a clear desire to deliver exactly what the customer wants, with a plethora of bumper mouldings, window tints, interior floor and seat trims and even various designs of rear end available. Although there is potential for only the most modest of boot space for driver paraphernalia, an opening boot panel is fitted to allow for quick and easy lightbulb replacement.

The saloon of the demonstrator vehicle is finished with wood-effect flooring, blue sidewalls and yellow grab rails. All surfaces – including shrouds to neatly hide the destination displays – are finished with wipe-clean

textured surfaces and thus a good balance between an executive feel and practicality is struck. This ethos extends to the GRL GS172 type seats, which are most comfortable indeed and finished in a blue weave which looks to be hard-wearing. The seat backs are trimmed with a soft material, but the GRL range also allows for a moulded hard back to be specified.

There are 13 forward-facing seats fitted with three-point belts in the raised portion of the saloon and four tip-ups in the low-floor area. In the 20-seat variant, this increases to 16 seats in the raised portion. There is also a small luggage area alongside the driver, neatly partitioned from the saloon by a shallow metal shield painted to match the grab rails to which it is secured. There are four hard-wired stop bell pushes located on stanchions in the saloon. It is noteworthy that these are a common generic unit and not type-specific.

The attention-to-detail extends to the neat ceiling mouldings, whic

h incorporate four LED strips running from front to rear: all four are capable of showing a blue night light, whilst the centremost pair also produce a brighter white light, which is helpful in counteracting the optional heavy tint applied to the windows of this particular vehicle, but a lighter tint can be supplied by Ilesbus if you prefer. Blue LED strip lighting is also fitted along the saloon-facing side of the cab area step edging, which creates an effective and impressive step light when the saloon doors are opened.

The entry doors are of a twin plug arrangement, with the forward leaf neatly opening before – and closing after – the rear leaf to create a perfect seal, with no wind noise at any speed. Even more impressively for this kind of arrangement is that the lowest point of the doors did not strike any of the raised Kassel kerbs in our area, despite the impressively low step height. Mounted above the doors is a neat LED light unit, which conveniently lights the outside surroundings when the doors are opened. This is certainly a neat feature when passengers are alighting in to an unlit rural area for example.

Driver’s eye view

Moving to the driver’s area, the quality of finish is consistent with the saloon. The cab surround matches both the grab rails and the luggage pen and a neat assault screen or Covid screen is tailored to fit the vehicle very well and is made from a very substantial thickness of clear acrylic. There is an adequate opening allowing access to a very handy coin-tray, which proved hugely popular with other drivers when used in service.

The body control switches have been very neatly added to the tidy Sprinter dash. The removal of the gear lever to the steering column has enabled Ilesbus to fit a bank of switches to the lower portion of the dash, just ahead and above the driver’s left knee. At first sight this seems a bit low but when driving it was found to be most ergonomic, with the switches falling perfectly at the fingertips when resting the ball of your hand on your knee.

Switches mounted here match the Mercedes-Benz factory switchgear and control the interior lighting, destination display, bell mute and entry door, and the panel also contains ramp interlock and door open warning lights.

The controls for the Spheros saloon air-conditioning and electric saloon heating unit are mounted within easy reach of the driver being in the centre of the dash, between two handy storage bins.

The rest of the cab features are pure new-generation Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. I am not the first to extoll the virtues of the W907-shape Sprinter on these pages, but for those of you who have yet to experience it, there are some real highlights. The small steering wheel is adjustable for height and rake and contains various controls for both the in-dash menus and the Mercedes-Benz infotainment system. The dash binnacle contains both the speedometer and rev-counter with a small LCD display for various chassis information and vehicle settings. A larger display for the MBUX infotainment system sits in the centre of the dash in a tab-like module and allows touch-screen access to navigation, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and other vehicle function settings. This is a premium quality system carried over from the Mercedes-Benz car range, which complements the driving experience.

Car-like feel
Driving the Ilesbus i-City was never going to be anything less than a pleasure, thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis. Unlike some more traditional buses, the Sprinter offers a car-like driving experience and for those of us of humble origins, it is fair to say that driving the Sprinter can easily be more pleasurable than driving your car.

Although the Sprinter range will soon benefit from the fitment of the OM654 engine, the proven 2.1-litre Mercedes-Benz OM651 engine in this vehicle helps to create a very quiet cabin and saloon, yet provides enough power to launch the i-City at a pace similar to a cat that has been scolded! Naturally, the i-City won’t be driven as such in normal use, but the suitability of such an engine in a bus should not be underestimated; it’s plenty enough to take advantage of gaps in traffic and romp up the steepest hills without batting an eyelid.

On the most rigorous routes around suburbs littered with potholes and speed cushions through to rutted country lanes, the fixtures and fittings in the saloon remained silent – not a squeak or rattle was to be heard. The factory steel suspension does a good job of ironing out the worst of neglected road surfaces, but drivers familiar with air suspension and vehicles with a wider track will benefit from some type training to raise awareness of speed cushions.

Some low-floor conversions can leave very little ground clearance, but the i-City ably navigated the tallest examples on our network with room to spare. With that in mind, I also took the opportunity to examine the underside of the i-City and found plenty of sturdy protection for the transfer box and propshaft throughout the length of the lowered section. There are two angled protection plates to deflect obstructions away from the propshaft. This is a very neat solution as it protects the most vulnerable parts without the need to introduce plates or structure that increases the overall likelihood of embarrassing and unwanted scrapes from underneath.

Manoeuvring the i-City around the scattering of obstructions in narrow housing estates and other tight places is a breeze, not just thanks to the slender body, but also to the excellent Mercedes-Benz electronic power steering system utilised in the current Sprinter range. This system makes steering pleasantly light yet responsive and allows the introduction of cross-wind assist and attention assist features.

Positive response
Whilst operating in service with us, the i-City attracted positive feedback from our customers. Most praise came for the seating, which was found to be very comfortable. They also commented positively on the quiet saloon and interior lighting. My colleagues, who covered around 500 miles on a variety of local bus services in the i-City, were united in their praise for the handling and premium feel of the vehicle. They found it a relaxing driving experience, citing the quiet cabin and lack of unwanted rattles and squeaks as well as the ergonomic nature of the controls.

With fuel consumption and environmental impact becoming ever more of a consideration, I took the opportunity to calculate fuel consumption figures over three days of real-world operation. The i-City was utilised on a network of intensive local bus services with a high stopping frequency, low average speeds and steep gradients. As such, our calculated average fuel consumption of 18.3mpg is most impressive and on one day of inter-urban rural work the i-City returned 20.1mpg. When compared to compact variants of more traditional incumbents in the market for stage-carriage vehicles, these figures should focus the minds of many operators. Let us not ignore the fact there is also an opportunity to make savings that could well justify the continuation of marginal services in the face of rising costs and low passenger numbers.

The days of low-floor buses of this size being the preserve of local authorities and airport car hire lots is becoming a thing of the past. On the demand side, operators are introducing size-appropriate vehicles to reduce operating costs on marginal services and offer competitive bids for supported services. On the supply side, the capability of this class of vehicle is becoming clear as various manufacturers offer conversions and coachbuilt options that take the Sprinter into the mainstream stage carriage market.

The emergence of a 20-seat plus 7 standee option in the Ilesbus i-City range means that greater seated capacity can be achieved without the width of the standard Sprinter body being compromised, whilst the 17-seat variant brings welcome competition to the existing market.
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