Sunsundegui’s 72-seater

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The front overhang allows the coach to pull up safely at the roadside. GARETH EVANS

Gareth Evans test drives Volvo’s high capacity 72-seater coach, the Sunsundegui SB3-bodied Volvo B8R

High capacity school contract coaches may lack the ‘glamour’ of a premium tourer, but they’re important workhorses. It’s not uncommon for operators to have at least one in their fleet. Perhaps less commonplace are new high capacity vehicles – cascaded mid-life coaches, converted to 70-seaters tend to predominate. That’s not to say there isn’t a market for a new high capacity motor of course – particularly at time of tightening emissions regulations, and hence the anticipated demand for more modern, compliant vehicles.

In conjunction with its Spanish bodybuilder partner Sunsundegui, Volvo Bus UK & Ireland has gone out of its way to develop a coach with the needs of operators firmly in mind – while retaining the safety features and proven driveline of Volvo, with all the benefits that brings.

On first impressions, the SB3 [wlm_nonmember][…]

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[/wlm_nonmember][wlm_ismember]looks as though it has a larger front overhang but it is in fact the same as the SC5 midi coach, which I drove a couple of years ago. Perhaps it looks squeezed because of its length at the rear.

Present on the day of CBW’s test drive were two friendly members of the Volvo Bus team, Richard Mann, Regional Sales Manager – South East and Norman Thomas, Sales Engineering Manager.

Explaining the origin of the coach, the introduction for the UK market of which was announced at the FIAA Madrid show in 2015, Norman said: “The SB3 was an existing product in continental Europe for Sunsundegui. It is an interurban bus/coach of the type that are commonplace with our friends in other countries – complete with its low height and small luggage capacity.”

Richard took up the story: “We’ve tried to keep the height as low as possible. When the product was in development, James Hyde, our Retail Sales Director organised for Sunsundegui staff to talk to operators of 70-seaters. Feedback was that they wanted the length to be as short as possible and to keep the height down as some schools are not easy to get in and out of – and there is not always room to turn around.”

Asked what he envisages is the market for the SB3, Richard replied: “An operator who undertakes school contracts and swimming, sports runs as well as private hire school day trips. We’re targeting it at operators who want a smart high capacity coach, who may already operate Volvos in their fleet. I also feel the forthcoming Ultra Low Emission Zone and Clean Air Zones will drive demand for new 70-seaters as to date, such vehicles have tended to be conversions. With trees no longer being trimmed as much as they once were in some areas, that too is a consideration – it can be particularly difficult for tall vehicles to reach some schools.

Current operators of the SB3 feature well-known and respected names, including: Mortons of Basingtoke; Hodges of Sandhurst; Don’s of Dunmow; Hills Coaches of Wolverhampton; Doig’s of Glasgow; Fernhill Luxury Travel of Bracknell; Marbill Coach Services of Beith; and AAA Coaches of Kirknewton.

Seen from the front steps, the seats are to 2+3 configuration after the first row. This coach, a stock vehicle, includes the optional luggage racks and service sets. GARETH EVANS

Entry to the coach is welcoming for younger members of society – the gently-spaced steps are child-friendly. Four steps lead up to the level of the driver, followed by two into the main saloon, which has a flat floor until almost the very back.

“The two front nearside and all five seats on the back row are full-size adult seats,” explained Richard. “Again, the feedback from operators was that teachers don’t like the small, child-size seats.”

The seats themselves are a familiar product – from Buckingham. The seats are fairly basic but leather headrest inserts lift them. Three-point belts are external, so should help with ease of maintenance.

Wheelarches protrude approximately five to six inches into the saloon, but that helps to keep the overall height down.

The radiators, which are located almost at the foot of the sidewalls do not quite touch the floor, meaning there is a narrow gap, which will inevitably act as a dirt magnet that is not easy to clean with routine brushing and mopping.

Standard stock vehicles come with luggage racks, service sets and leather inserts on the seats. However, the coach can be ordered without them. In my opinion, no racks would make the coach look decidedly utilitarian.

Richard said one operator wanted racks but not the service sets as it was one less thing for the children to play with and potentially damage.

Other optional features on the SB3 include Alcoa Dura-Bright alloys, a six-camera CCTV system, WiFi and carpets to gangways and all entrances.

“It was not possible for this coach to gain Whole Vehicle Type Approval (WVTA) as the seats are too small to meet dimensional requirements. Therefore, it’s been certified under National Small Series Type Approval (NSSTA) which permits some variances to WVTA, explained Norman.

“As a result of that, it takes it out of the category for needing a range of safety systems, including lane departure, AEBS and so on. However, with safety being a well-known cornerstone of all Volvo products, we have specified it on the SB3 as standard.”

On that note, safety systems can be found aplenty – including EBS (Electronic Braking System), featuring ABS and ASR functions (Antilock and Antislip); ESP(Electronic Stability Programme); Collision Warning, Emergency Braking system (CWEB); and Lane Keeping Support system (LKS).

Outside, several of the vulnerable body panels, such as the corner pillars, can be replaced with ease as they’re fixed with screws, helping to minimise downtime. The body panels themselves are helpfully broken down into smaller, manageable sizes, including the damage-prone corner pillars.

The fuel filler is located between the front axle and door, while the AdBlue top-up is immediately behind the rear axle – both can be found on the nearside.

The front entrance door is electric and the rear emergency exit door is manual. The emergency door is located on the offside, just forward of the rear axle.

Climate control is provided by a roof-mounted Eberspächer AC 353 Gen 4 Type I unit with automatic control. It has a 24kW cooling capacity and a 38kW heating capacity.

Out on the road
After I’d jumped in the comfortable pneumatic ISRI driver’s seat, Norman said: “The instrument cluster is designed to display only relevant information, minimising distraction and helping the driver stay focused and alert.”

The Actia reversing camera, which is located on the left-hand corner of the binnacle, is integrated into the body which leads to reduced clutter and greater robustness.

Richard explained: “We’ve tried to minimise buttons as coaches like this tend not to have a regular driver. From a driver’s point of view, we’ve kept it as coach-like as possible – including features such as a powered driver’s blind and electronically adjusted mirrors.”

Indeed, I found the controls were highly intuitive. The binnacle is certainly well laid out for drivers of all ages and physical shapes. There is no need to bend down awkwardly for the tachograph for example – it’s conveniently located in the top right-hand corner. The door close button is on left-hand side of binnacle, enabling the driver to be facing the door and mirrors as they press the button. Also, the handbrake is at a nice height, tucked between the seat and shelf below the cab window.

I was pleased to see no gullwing on the offside as it helps aid manoeuvrability in a vehicle designed to work in relatively confined spaces. Instead, the mirror, can flip backwards if met by a timber truck, for example – a neat idea. Another helpful feature for certain times of the year is that the signal window is heated.

The gear selection could not be easier – press buttons 1, 2, 3, D, N and R – again, in a convenient location. I also noted the small bin between the driver’s seat and step, which could be useful for departing passengers to place their rubbish.

The engine bay is well laid out – oil and water can be topped up wtih the utmost east. GARETH EVANS

Norman drove the coach out of the yard initially as we headed around the industrial estate near Coventry airport. I experienced the ride ‘on the cushions’ at the rear. The ride was comfortable – and noise was what one would expect, but it was at a level still possible to hold a civilised conversation.

After a brief photo stop, I got behind the wheel. The indicators made a pleasant clicking noise. We headed along the A45 towards Birmingham airport, then headed down the M42 to Knowle, on the eastern edge of Solihull, before heading back towards Coventry, via Warwick. This enabled me to experience a rang of road types – including the sort of rural A and B-roads, motorway and urban environment a coach like this may find itself in. It was a pleasure to drive – the steering was just nice.

As we cruised along the A45 between Coventry and the NEC, Norman asked how I was getting on with it. I replied that it was nice and smooth – no wind noise was apparent. It pulled away comfortably from the lights at the roundabout over the A45/ A46 junction. It did not feel like it had a massive bank of power behind it, but then on a coach of this type, do you really need it? Such a vehicle is not going to be heavily loaded, packed to the brim with 10 days’ worth of luggage as a touring coach could be. It had no problem pulling away promptly.

Reminiscing, Norman perhaps rightly said: “If you go back to the days of the B10M, if you had a 320hp engine like this coach has, you were king of the castle, but now that’s considered to be the entry point.”

I liked how the coach handled – it was so comfortable to drive. The steering wheel was a good size and it just was right in terms of feel – not too light, but far from heavy. Helped by the responsive retarder, I was able to bring the coach to a smooth halt at roundabouts. Crawling in queuing traffic, the coach moved steadily – there was no juddering while it decided which gear to select.

The SB3 coped with ease along Warwick’s narrow streets – it swung round the islands without any fuss. It was time for another a quick photo stop in the town centre. According to Norman, the spot is a school bus pick-up and set-down point, so it was an appropriate location for pictures. The coach entrance hung over the pavement. I was struck about how close the bottom step was to the surface of the pavement – in a good way – and how easy the steps would be for even a small child to climb.

After shooting more photos and video at Volvo’s Warwick offices, I gained further experience of just how manoeuvrable the coach was. Aided by the reversing camera, all-round visibility from the driving seat, helped by the mirrors and the effortless steering system, I completed a three-point turn in text book fashion, with no shunting required. After picking up Norman, who was on hand to watch me back, we returned to the dealership in Coventry.

CBW verdict
The SB3 is an attractive product for a whole range of reasons. It’s accessible – the steps would be easy for little feet to climb; the seats are comfortable and looks smart; and despite being low-height, there is no shortage of space inside.

For operators with particular requirements, bespoke options are available.

In operational terms, it boasts a trusty Volvo driveline, with all the benefits that brings – including parts, residual value and driver and engineer familiarity.

Simple controls lend the coach to a ‘floating’ vehicle, rather than being allocated coach with a regular driver. Highly manoeuvrable and modern in appearance, it makes for an attractive offering for school group private hires or contracts.

Furthermore, with the new academic year upon us, stock vehicles are available from Volvo’s Coventry dealership with either blue or red upholstery.

Watch the test drive below