Volvo’s new integral flagship

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After a launch following seven years of development, Jonathan Taylor tests Volvo’s new 9900 premium coach

It is many years since I last travelled (as a teenager) to Gothenburg. But here I am, in Volvo’s home city, wondering what has changed in the succeeding decades. With CBW’s editorial department temporarily a bit short of staff over the May bank holiday weekend, it seemed right that I should pick up the Volvo vehicle-launch baton and make the trip. The development of a new range of premium coaches is an important event, and this range has been seven years in the making.

The launch event at the Volvo Truck Experience site just outside Gothenburg started with an introductory speech by Håkan Agnevall, President of Volvo Buses, emphasising Volvo’s guiding principles and the effort that has gone in to the making of these important new vehicles. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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A promotional video was followed by the dramatic ‘reveal.’ The curtains opened, the lights flashed, the music played and Volvo showed off three vehicles, two of its new 9700s (not for the UK) and one from the 9900 range. The UK will be getting the 13.9m 57-seater and 13.1m 53-seater triple-axle 9900s with first deliveries to customers scheduled for late January 2019, after a full launch at the UK’s EuroBus Expo show at the end of October. The show will see new information revealed on market specification, pricing and available options.

The 9900 will replace the 9700 in the UK and Ireland market, with no current plans to bring the new 9700 across.

Over dinner afterwards, Ulf Magnusson, the Senior Vice President of Volvo Buses Europe, asked what I thought of the vehicles.

Well, design is a matter of taste and everyone reacts differently to new styling, so I am not sure my view counts for anything, but I think the styles are strong, modern and friendly. The real acid test of styling is, does it make you want get on and ride in the vehicle? This styling absolutely does, so I think customers (and therefore operators) will be very satisfied. More of that later.

Ulf explained that he started in his current role five years ago. The development project for this new range was already two years into its life and his very first decision, in week one, was to sign off on the headlight design for the coaches. If the arrow-shape LED lights look familiar, they should – they come from the truck division and give the coaches a strong and recognisable Volvo family brand at the front. That’s important given the qualities of care (read safety and environmental credentials), vision and quality which Volvo wants associated in customer minds with its products.

At the sharp end of the product range – business and profits – there is only any point in having one of these premium coaches if passengers are prepared to pay premium rates to ride in them. In financial matters I follow Warren Buffet’s advice on assets, to buy them if they appreciate and to lease them if they depreciate. Vehicles depreciate so I was keen to meet Kathy Pajari from Volvo Financial Services to talk leasing figures.

Kathy confirmed that pure leasing finance deals are growing rapidly as a proportion of the finance market for coaches (as opposed to outright ownership or part ownership financing models). This makes sense to me. We worked through some example figures to cover as many of the fixed and variable costs as possible which are involved in running one of these assets, and it was clear to me that the 9900 can make operators a healthy profit if matched to the right customers, based on the Swedish financing figures we had to work with. UK figures are of course bound to differ, but it is reasonable to assume the same outcome can be achieved.

The question here is does the new Volvo 9900 series deliver that premium value to attract customers who will pay those premium prices?

The Passenger’s World
Volvo has done some extensive customer surveying across six European countries to discover what passengers and drivers really feel and want. Some of the results are telling. Drivers want happy passengers more than anything else (well done drivers!), and they want to drive a premium vehicle. Passengers want legroom, fast WiFi and, the younger they are, the more privacy they want and would be prepared to pay for. There is demand for more legroom at a price. There is probably demand for individual seat pricing depending on its configuration and location in the coach.

Surprisingly, the survey had not (from what we were told) asked, ‘what do you think of this design or that design’ or whether it mattered.

My feeling is that it does matter. It is great to be travelling in a top quality good-looking vehicle, whether it is your own or the one your group has chosen to hire. When the coach turns up to collect your group, you want to go ‘wow’ as it arrives, and then climb aboard what is now ‘our’ coach, past a friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming driver.

It has to start with styling. Dan Frykholm (and his design team) is the man responsible for creating the new look.

Dan gave a fascinating talk using a cleverly lit model of the new coach to explain his thinking. The bits that really matter to the prospective passenger are the front and sides. The front takes Volvo truck headlights and integrates them into a strong but friendly ‘face’ that is both aerodynamic and safety-oriented.

In a nod to the Volvo Truck and Bus ‘arrow’ LED headlights, the side of the 9900 features a dramatic z style shoulder line which emphasises power, a forward stance and the ‘theatre’ seating arrangement inside as well as giving a unique, good-looking and instantly recognisable brand characteristic to the coach.

At the rear ‘business’ end of the coach, the design team has put more emphasis on a powerful style hinting at what is in the engine bay. Volvo trademark vertical lights complete the look. It works.

Inside, first impressions also count. As you enter the front door great care has been taken not only to provide a premium entrance but design it so that everything falls to hand (or foot) naturally. This is especially important when the vehicle is kneeling for older passengers. The division between driver and passenger spaces is clear. This Volvo provides a smart, elegant and well thought out entrance.

The 9900 version I sat in had seats that even I could use. I am just under 6’5” tall and in the past have managed to go round an entire EuroBus Expo show unable to sit comfortably in any of the show vehicles, but this one allowed me to sit properly with space in front of my knees. A big plus, as the passenger survey shows.

Our test vehicle had a rather dark interior for my taste (there are lots of alternative trim options), but the seats were comfortable and even I could have managed a long trip in them. Ulf told me they are unique to Volvo and the result of a partnership between Volvo and the German seat manufacturer Kiel. I loved them.

The seats slide to adjust the configuration. The overhead controls are neat, nothing protrudes. Subtle ambient lighting calms the interior at night. Lighting towards the front is controlled so it does not create reflections for the driver. The air-conditioning system has been the subject of intense and successful development with Eberspacher to maintain an interior temperature of 20˚C when it is up to -40˚C outside (expected in Scandinavia) or 20˚C inside when it is +40˚C or more outside (perhaps in the Middle East or South America). The temperature is now evenly distributed so that all passengers are comfortable wherever they are seated – the end of shouting to the driver “it may be warm up front but it’s freezing back here.”

All told this really is a well-designed vehicle in which the driver will indeed have happy passengers.

The Driver’s World
So how are things for the driver? After all, he or she is the lynchpin of the experience for passengers.

I had the opportunity to drive the 9900 round the private test track and the stand-out driver features are low noise levels, great visibility, reliable power, and the latest very smooth I-Shift series F 12-speed transmission (with better lubrication to improve fuel consumption and component lifespan). The quietness of the vehicle did throw up a problem. The interior suffered from squeaks and creaks as the long body on the pre-production vehicle flexed slightly over the varying test surfaces. The prototype vehicle I drove has been used for extremely gruelling test work so it is perhaps not surprising. This needs to be sorted out for the production vehicles and Volvo is aware of that.

The driver’s screen is deep, giving a great view out from the superb driver’s cockpit and seat. The front door contains a ‘kerb view’ panel to spot pedestrians and cyclists in the blind area. This kerb panel also blends nicely into the whole side flank design of the 9900.

The big news item for this launch is the new Volvo Dynamic Steering (VDS) system which provides assisted self-centering and requires a claimed 70% Iess effort on roundabouts (for example). Volvo had set up a simulator to help you feel the difference between steering with and without VDS. It is a nice piece of tech and is going to reduce driver strain and tiredness on long trips. It will possibly improve long-term spine/back health for drivers.
There is a Driver Alert Support system to detect driver drowsiness and give warnings by acoustic signal and instrument panel icon (it’s a coffee cup icon!).

Behind the black faux ‘grille’ which hides radar equipment, the driver and front passengers are now better protected from frontal or three-quarter impacts by a new stainless steel structure which has increased impact energy absorbance in that zone by a claimed 50% over previous models. It is designed to stop an impact vehicle penetrating the interior of the coach. This reduces the possibility of fire resulting from the impact and provides much better driver and guide leg/knee protection.

There are spacious luggage compartments. Of course, they still involve the driver handling heavy items at a bad back angle. One day someone will come up with a much better way of dealing with the loading and unloading of luggage, but I couldn’t see anything new on the 9900 in this department for the driver.

Overall I think that drivers will feel proud to pilot this coach. It feels as though you are driving something special and with happy passengers the driver’s job gets so much easier and more enjoyable.

Extra Volvo 9900 Tech
As you would expect, the engineers at Volvo have been busy. Instead of presenting you with a comprehensive list of the innovations, I will just mention a few items and you can see the main tech spec in the facts and figures box.

This 9900 vehicle sits higher (at 3.85m) than the current 9700 UK model, so passengers get an even better view, but the centre of gravity is now lower by 4.5cm compared to the older model. This has been achieved in part by using a lighter roof structure which is now a one-piece composite material element instead of the previous steel roof, saving 230kg high above the axles and improving handling.

With claimed improvements in aerodynamics and kerb weight – although I could not find anyone who could give me the drag coefficient number for the 9900 – Volvo believes that the new coach will achieve similar or better fuel economy to its predecessor despite being taller and longer.

As speed increases above 80kph the chassis lowers to improve stability and fuel efficiency. All chassis and body components are not given their anti-corrosion treatment until every necessary hole has been drilled. The vehicles are being built to tighter tolerances.

Much work has been done to improve the durability of the too-often failing items in doors, hatch and wiper mechanisms.

The vehicles have what Volvo is calling a Safety Zone system. This allows operators to pre-define maximum coach speeds in chosen zones, perhaps in city centres or where speed limits change from country to country across the continent. This tech has several possible uses.

Making life easier for the operator
With this vehicle Volvo is launching Volvo Care in which it is bringing together the sales, service/aftercare and finance functions to provide the cost guarantees I talked about at the beginning – so that operators can fix the asset side of the business and get on with the most important jobs of finding, keeping and satisfying the travel demands of their passenger clients.

I was told there will be a Volvo Care builder web tool available later this year.

Assuming that some squeaks and rattles do not make it through to the final production products, I could happily sit and thoroughly enjoy the ride in the new Volvo 9900. I am sure that drivers are going to enjoy driving, and be proud to drive, this vehicle. Passengers will say ‘wow’ when it arrives to collect them.

Ulf told me Volvo wanted to create the ultimate coach. That’s a great target to aim for. With the Volvo 9900 it looks like the bar has been raised again. That is all to the good, because as its customer surveys have shown, the ultimate customer is becoming ever more demanding, and the population demographics point to a continuing market for luxury coach travel.