Voyager sets alternative course

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Nothing else looks like it – in a good way. KEN MANN

Two decades on from the sale of the first UK-specification UNVI LoGo, the distinctive Spanish coachbuilder appears to be going from strength to strength. Ken Mann wonders what the latest version of its Voyager midi brings to a crowded marketplace, and asks the crucial question: can it deliver?

‘Avant-garde’ might be one way of describing the styling of UNVI’s Voyager midi coach. ‘Over-wrought’ is, perhaps, another label the assessors of aesthetics could select. ‘Distinctive’ seems like the middle ground.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The latter description is territory that in this instance comes without any implied tone of faint praise. Bold – even disruptive among the ‘me too’ entries to this now burgeoning segment – but neither offensively so nor in any way holding back on individuality. To focus entirely upon the form of an automotive product conceived primarily for enterprising function and financial gain would be to miss the point, of course. ‘Different’ isn’t a qualification on its own. But bear with me on the style topic – there is practical context in, and under, this particular skin.

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Those swept-back A-posts, separated projector front light units and ever so slight tumblehome of the side glass (the term vehicle designers use when discussing a side panel’s top inward curvature towards the edge of a roof panel) bring a look like no other. It is unmistakeable. And that pavement appeal, when used as a marketing tool alongside other business values, can be money in a coach operator’s bank account.

Arriving at the premises of one of UNVI’s UK agents – Coachtraders in Bathgate, near Edinburgh – to take up the helm of a mine-for-the-day 30-seat (plus driver) Voyager GT in a tasteful hue of metallic Mercedes-Benz Graphite Grey, I’m struck by the imposing visual size of this midi when seen at close quarters in the metal and GRP.

At the impressive specification of the test vehicle (more in a moment) it clearly states its purpose as a smaller-group luxury tourer or corporate transfers chariot. The adornment of the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star will seal the deal in the minds of badge-conscious buyers. Expectations will be high; conversely, that makes the Voyager GT’s task all the more challenging. It must unequivocally convince against tough opposition.

This test is as much a commentary on changed market trends as it is about vehicle specifics. In that light, my pre-drive exchanges with UNVI representatives gave some useful back story to the rapidly evolving midi-coach category.

The market

The Voyager GT, as its nomenclature suggests, cuts a certain dash, even in the coach park at the M74 Hamilton Services. KEN MANN

Once inside UNVI’s northernmost sales hub, I’m greeted by Coachtraders Director Gordon Robertson and UNVI Bus & Coach UK & Ireland Sales Manager David McKinless.

It’s an ideal opportunity to explore in some detail UNVI market presence, operator trends and that Voyager individuality before heading out onto the road.

“We (as UNVI Bus & Coach Ltd in the UK and Ireland) specialise in a very niche sector – small and midi coaches – though UNVI as a group does a lot more with buses that we don’t get involved in here,” David said by way of introduction. “There is no reason why we couldn’t; it’s just that our energies are focused on that niche – and doing it well.”

It’s 10 years since the setting-up of UNVI Bus & Coach Ltd, replacing a previous import arrangement. That point was pretty much in the eye of the financial storm which slammed into world commerce just a year before, with lengthy turmoil to follow in its wake. These were challenging times and, as evinced, the fittest tend to survive.

“Interesting times – and here we are,” David agrees, in matter of fact fashion. Sales figures have gone as well as the two men would expect. Knocking on the door of 130 Voyager units have found homes in the island nations the business serves.

“As an organisation, we’ve always been realistic with how many we can sell into the market,” David continued. “We’ve seen companies come and we’ve seen companies go, so you have to be realistic; these are the ebbs and flows that are beyond our control.

“Whether Brexit, or something else, it can be difficult to forecast (volumes) but we’re still here to tell the tale. I think 10 years ago it was probably ourselves, Plaxton and Optare. Now there are so many, manufacturing from Turkey, and so on.”

As a man at the front end of a sales process, Gordon Robertson is well placed to understand the nuts and bolts of the purchase decision and that, while every manufacturer will present pros and cons against a purchaser’s business and operational plan, there are no real ‘duffer’ products out there. That, at its core, makes the midi market such a highly competitive landscape. “It’s extremely crowded now,” Gordon succinctly told me.

There is no direct reference to Chinese products, but undoubtedly most manufacturers/importers will have seen defections, lured by attractive pricing and immediate availability.

Whether that equals adequate balance sheet performance and acceptable residual value is down to an operator’s business model. The issue of product brand collateral – the aforementioned style differentiation and a pavement wow factor – may be consequential when selling coaching services to select client segments.

Transition to Atego

Distinctive looks extend to details like the maker’s badge graphics. KEN MANN

Another factor that has led to more non-western European competitors is the retiral of the old Mercedes-Benz Vario chassis, once the darling platform among major British and continental midibus and midicoach players for its operational flexibility and robust reliability.

“We built a lot of vehicles on the Vario chassis four or five years ago,” David explained. “It disappeared and there was a delay before we got the next chassis (from the bigger Atego light truck base).”

That delay proved a windfall for others, notably the opportunistic Chinese (it’s difficult not to mention Yutong) and a headache of variable intensity and length for some of the western Europeans who build on truck chassis. The Asian incomers made much of producing vehicles with rear-engine ‘proper’ coach credentials.

David insists UNVI wasn’t – and isn’t – one of the losers, however: “Our sales remained stable. We build on truck chassis and we do that for a reason. The reason is that you go to your local Mercedes dealer for convenient service and when you come to sell it somebody will buy it – and it does 17mpg.

“Now that won’t suit everybody. Some people will say ‘it’s a truck chassis’ and ‘I want a proper coach.’ The problem in our market is that a little ‘proper coach’ is doing much the same fuel consumption as a full-size coach, it’s costing similar to a full-size coach, its overall running costs are similar to a full-size coach. So why not go and buy a full-size coach? Why buy a smaller one – all you’ve saved is a few pieces of glass and aluminium.”

Then again, when something new enters the market, operators may simply want to give it a go, if the initial pricing is attractive.

Bigger in the boot
There is another advantage David and Gordon might legitimately mention – not exclusively about the Voyager but across the board in the general truck chassis/midi debate – and that’s luggage space for a given body length.

Swept-back A-pillar design seen here; the electric péage window is a good size. KEN MANN

The golf excursion/golf tour market is a good example. Trips might be just down the road, to farther flung parts of the UK or all the way to Europe. That means capacity, calling for a big rear boot with flat load area of the type a front-engine vehicle can supply. Underfloor accommodation for luggage in short, rear-engine coaches often requires careful model selection against likely operator deployment.

“A lot of our repeat customers – for example St. Andrews Executive Travel, who are involved in the golf market – have stuck by UNVI almost from the time it was first brought into the UK,” Gordon added. “If you are catering for American golfers coming into the UK, they carry large cases and full club sets. It proves a point; it is one of the main factors and it suits the purpose.”

The balance point of purchase price, longer-term investment security and customer support arises. “There is always going to be a number of operators who go for the cheapest,” admitted David. “That’s life.”

It appears neither he nor Gordon lose sleep over that proposition. “We’re not trying to sell as many vehicles as we can,” David continued. “We need to book our build slots at the factory, we need to see how many ferry slots we can get. We need a level at which we can sustain ourselves – and we do look for more – but it is overall quality before quantity.”

In big coaches, some manufacturers have driven campaigns at a point in time to beat competitor pricing. It’s just business, of course, perhaps designed as a means of acquiring market presence, but it is also a potential irritant for purchasers in terms of residuals. Does it happen in the fiercely contested midi market? “Not that I can detect,” advised David. “I don’t think we’ve ever suffered that. Again, it’s about that balance I mentioned.”

One way of achieving more sales is to take virtually anything in part exchange. That can put lots of new wheels on the road but then there is the detritus of coach models past – or just past it – to shift, depreciating all the while. UNVI plainly eschews that modus operandi.

Operator appeal
Moving on to the specific subject of this test, the Voyager GT, I asked David what type of operator is attracted to it.

“It’s a mix of all sorts of people,” he indicated. It sounded like he was hedging his interview bets but listening to his longer than expected reply put necessary explanatory flesh on the bones.

Neatly incorporated lighting units and surrounds, including daytime running lights, are easily replaced in the event of damage. KEN MANN

He added: “The Vario chassis was bought by the person who was looking for as many seats as was possible; 33 seats for doing fairly basic contracts. When we came along with the GT (Atego chassis, at 8.97m) it changed. It had a big boot – we didn’t fill it (the extra space) with seats. We found that we were finding new customers.

“When we went to the drawing board with this we said, okay, we’ve already got the UNVI Touring at 10m with 41 seats, so our job was to go as close as possible to the Vario: don’t go big, we said, because we can go bigger with this heavier chassis, instead keep the dimensions and principles the same as the Vario.

“We listened to the dealers. London said they wanted 30 seats and a massive boot. Gordon said he needed two versions; a 34-seat and a 30-seat. We realised we were going after two markets.

“As a stock specification what we tend to do now is an auto, big engine, fancy with a big boot. We can also build a manual with half leather, simple with a smaller engine, and with a smaller boot which is more for contract-type work. So, it’s aimed at two different operator segments. In London, for example, it would be auto with that big boot, on and off Heathrow/Gatwick, that kind of market – air crew transfers, etc.

“It’s not all about the man looking for 33 seats to carry school kids, what the Vario, when it was born, was meant to do (though new Voyagers are bought for school contracts).”

Gordon interjects: “To give you one experience we’ve had in the last few weeks, we sold a new Voyager at 34 seats to a customer. He traded in a 2011, 33-seat Plaxton Beaver which was used on contract work. He was originally looking at a higher spec (than the Beaver) second-hand vehicle. But he obviously thought about it after seeing the new Voyager that was here.

“It had the 34 all-leather seats – so he felt he could do more types of work with that; bums-on-seats contract work but also quality work. He wasn’t too concerned about the size of the boot (it’s obviously smaller when more seats are optioned). The customers we sell to, doing tour work in Edinburgh for example, are concerned about boot space, so they tend to have a maximum of 30 seats.

“The bread and butter stuff, if you like, is important to an operator – like school excursions. But they also want a vehicle that can cover that bread and butter alongside better quality work.”

Bottom line
Cutting to the chase, why buy? David continues: “It’s less expensive to buy (than competitor rear-engine vehicles) and it’s a Mercedes-Benz. So whole life costs and residuals are good. You can go to your local Mercedes dealer to have it serviced. And it’ll do 17/18mpg. Those are the reasons operators take their first look.

“In addition to that, you’ve got the big boot (with 30 seats) because we don’t put the engine there. Economy with practicality. We’re not deluding ourselves that you would jump in a little rear-engined vehicle and say that the Voyager is a lot nicer to drive. That’s not what Voyagers are primarily about. They are about practical economics.”

He is equally up front about costs: “The one you’re going to see is a net £144,000,” he informed. “But if you took a manual gearbox and half-leather, you’d be starting off at £133,000. But that still isn’t what some might call ‘poverty spec.’”

We turned back to the style question. Just how big a factor is it in the purchase decision? “It is a factor,” David admitted. “We launched the Voyager in 2015. There was a desire in our factory to do composite panelling so that you can replace accident damaged front panels instead of the whole of the front bumper, and it was designed in such a way that you could do that, but it didn’t look good. We got the feedback from the first showing – it wasn’t very good; before that we didn’t know styling mattered that much.”

No longer is the midi pigeonholed to a menu of contract jobbing. A recipe of forced air ventilation, non-adjustable upright seating, hopper windows and internal noise levels akin to a high mileage vintage washing machine at full chat, won’t do. Operators have raised the bar as fresh market opportunities have emerged.

David again: “There was always going to be a jump from the Vario to the Atego replacement – but that’s what people wanted. This one (30-seats, remember) has 800kg (4.5m3) of luggage allowance on a 10.5-tonne chassis. It’s not just the space thing; you won’t overload it.”

Coffee consumed and debating done, it was time to get behind the wheel for a thorough measure of the substance behind that idiosyncratic style. Has this luxury tourer version of the Voyager genre earned the right to those letters after its name – as a genuine ‘Gran Turismo’?

Chassis and driveline

Driving position comfortable with generally good ergonomics. KEN MANN

The test coach came with the Mercedes-Benz OM 936 7.7-litre turbocharged and intercooled straight six-cylinder engine for motive power, naturally with Euro VI certification. The four-cylinder engine is a 5.1-litre, the OM 934.

Rated here at 238 hp (1,000 Nm of torque between 1,200 rpm and 1,600 rpm) and pulling a gross vehicle weight of 10.5 tonnes for a length of 8.9 m, the on-paper statistics suggested it wasn’t going to be short of poke. That suggestion proved accurate in practice.

Our route comprised short sections of motorway cruising but mainly A-roads in West Lothian and neighbouring North Lanarkshire, typical of the type of road any touring midi would call home soil.

The A71 and local feeder roads featured prominently. Undulating surfaces with occasionally awkward cambers, sweeping bends with hidden sight lines, steep downhill gradients ending in tight, narrowing corners and an uphill slog or two were memorable for the way in which the coach performed more in the manner of a larger machine. In other words, with surprising aplomb.

I say ‘surprising’ for two main reasons. Let’s take the chassis first. The Atego truck platform is an excellent base. Unsurprisingly, it comes with parabolic front springs. Full air suspension is fitted to the Voyager’s rear end with an anti-roll stabiliser.

Parabolics can often produce a bouncy sensation on roads like those I’ve described. Things can get a bit busy when the going gets persistently rough. However, any restlessness was well damped, even in the lightly laden (just David and me) state of the test where much less progressive spring deviation might be expected.

Not in the realm of big coach suppleness, perhaps – the wheelbase is 4,820 mm on eight-stud wheels, after all – though the rear tracked very smoothly. Nevertheless, you can completely forget any thoughts of the jolt that might have had you wince in the truck-based midi market of only a decade ago. Things have indeed moved on.

It’s also worth re-iterating David’s candid views on the combination of customer use flexibility, pricing and boot space for a given length. The front-engined modified truck chassis brings its dividends to the balance sheet on those credentials.

Noise, gearbox and brakes

The saloon is certainly a pleasing environment in luxury tourer specification. KEN MANN

One thing that surprised me was the lack of noise and vibration caused by the front-mounted engine position. Sitting low and between the driver and courier seats in a configuration that puts the plug entrance door aft of the nearside front wheel, noise and lost space come to mind as potential bugbears.

The decibel level didn’t prove intrusive. With David riding shotgun, we were able to continue our conversations without difficulty. Yes, there was more noise in the front section than in a rear-engine vehicle. But it was well supressed, so a courier in the middle of a guided tour wouldn’t need to raise their voice on the Bosch Professional Line PA, part of the same supplier’s audio system.

There is an upside to the flat space between driver and courier. It can be used for the inevitable paperwork that needs to be close at hand when arriving at the gates of a stately home, a ferry terminal or an international border crossing (midis do go abroad; shortly after test, I saw one registered in Italy heading north from Glasgow).

One other benefit in the front of this luxury layout version is that the courier feels less suspended in an entrance stair well, surrounded by low glass, and more accommodated as part of the group, the passenger entrance being behind the courier seat.

The gearbox is the six-ratio PowerShift 3 automatic from the Daimler group. It goes about its business without undue interruption, finishing in a relatively long-legged cruise on the limiter (tested on short sections of the M74 and M8).

In economy mode, it’s a lazy ‘box with slower gear swapping but with that larger engine and torque output it would likely be a friendly partner when pottering on a scenic road.

Braking was smooth, the ABS-equipped discs coping well with all usual needs and the exhaust brake taking some of the strain off the service items quite progressively, without any unwelcome suddenness in its intervention. Allied to power steering that had plenty of feel for type, it was a positive experience.

The driver isn’t short of devices to take a look backwards. There is a reversing camera but for forward movement UNVI has supplied two overhanging units comprising distance and blind-spot mirrors and on the driver’s cab door, a lower mounted mirror for an overtake final check. They provided an adequate view when used in unison.

Switchgear appeared of high quality and all, including the electrically operated windscreen blind and plug door, placed within easy reach. I managed 18 mpg on testing roads, according to the digital readout. You could expect not far off that figure with a full load on a mix of running.

Body construction is steel, anti-corrosion treated, with GRP panels for front, rear and roof body sections. The R.66 regulatory rollover requirements are fully met.

Passenger amenities
If you are relaxing behind the driver/courier team, then the news is good. The mid-nearside entry is convenient. There is a big coach airiness to the saloon. The seats in the test model were UNVI’s Platinum type; the test model sported grey genuine leather with light-coloured quilted centre panels and the Mercedes-Benz star in silver stitching on headrests.

Lap and diagonal belts, folding armrests to the gangway side (which is fully carpeted), footrests, twin USB ports per seat pair, roof and lower side panels trimmed in soft-touch suede and full-draw curtains across the bonded double-glazed side windows and rear window all feature. A new modular rack system for lighter luggage carried within the saloon incorporates on its underside adjustable air flow vents, reading lights and a host/hostess call button.

Air conditioning is via Hispacold, its roof-mounted unit (there is separate cab air con) giving a vehicle height of 3.23 m. The Bosch in-coach entertainment offered excellent audio listening quality. Lastly, in long list of thoughtful touches, there’s even a small fridge – for those cool summer drinks en route.

Pricing and conclusions

Controls and major switchgear are easy to reach and the instrument panel well designed. KEN MANN

The Voyager GT is a reminder of just how far the midi coach – especially the truck chassis midi-coach – has travelled in its development. This is a convincing market player, not just for its aesthetic originality but, to use a phrase, for the sum of its parts. At £144,000 plus VAT, it’s temptingly below a typical rear-engine midi coach sticker price.

Nicely finished, it is easily serviced at a Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle dealer near to you, making it a ‘safe hands’ choice. A current reputation for decent build quality and the flexibility of its configurations – ordered as a luxury 30-seat tourer on the one hand, or a contract workhorse seating up to 34 on the other – creates interesting fleet options.

For the purposes of, say, the owner-managed operator, one with diversified business opportunities, that equates to useful commonality of the base vehicle and good potential for containment of costs. Commonality of fleet image, with the previously mentioned pavement appeal, should not be underestimated, either. It gives the impression of cohesive professional business planning instead of a mere ‘we need a vehicle, anything will do’ approach.

Across several vital considerations, this is indeed a package that delivers. It’s not quite all things to all operators, as David admitted without any hint of apology; some will always want a rear engine. But it could be a close call in terms of the available flexibility of seating options and pricing. Oh, and don’t forget that ‘distinctive’ appeal to the customer’s customer.