Back to front engines for the global bus market?

Will MAN turn the tide back to front-mounted engines with its new Airobus? FRANK BEETON favours the possibility…

In a world that has increasingly adopted rear-engined designs as the norm, the long-standing preference of South African bus operators for front-engined ladderframe bus chassis has often been seen as a “problem” by global manufacturers.

Volvo sold its last B7F front-engined chassis in the local market back in 2005. Since then, it has offered only rear-engined and mid underfloor engine models to local buyers. Mercedes-Benz, MAN (including Volkswagen), Scania, Iveco and VDL have continued with their front-engined models, but there has always been a nagging concern that the relatively low global demand for this configuration would eventually lead to more brands following Volvo’s example.

MAN’s strategy of continuing to develop, manufacture and aggressively market its front-engined Lion’s Explorer range of rigid and articulated commuter buses in South Africa has flown largely in the face of this conventional thinking – but now appears to be generating some unexpected rewards.

At the recent AutoExpo 2012 show held in Delhi, MAN’s now wholly-owned Indian operation, MAN Force Motors Pvt Limited, exhibited its new Airobus 12 metre commuter coach, and – surprise, surprise – it had a front mounted engine!

What’s more, MAN Force Motors’ national bus sales head, Ranajit Mukherjee, reportedly acknowledged that the Airobus had been inspired by the success of Lion’s Explorer in SA – and pictures of the launch vehicle revealed some similarities in the front-end styling of the two products. The chassis for this model is built on MAN Force Motors’ Pune assembly line alongside the CLA truck models familiar to South African operators. The specification includes a 165 kW (220 hp) D083 6,9-litre Euro 3-compliant engine, ZF Force six-speed manual transmission, Voith retarder, full air brakes with ABS, and full air suspension. Bodywork is provided by the Azad Group of Bangalore, and includes up to 45 Pinnacle-Vogel reclining seats, mobile and laptop charging points, and air conditioning. Climate control systems sourced from Eberspaecher Sutrak, Thermo King or Denso can be specified, and Airobus’s flat floor design allows for a luggage storage capacity of nearly 10 m³.

It will be interesting to see if the Lion’s Explorer/Airobus concepts find homes in any of the other geographic areas where MAN has an established footprint.

It’s easy to imagine that the appeal of technically uncomplicated front-engined bus chassis would improve substantially if a major global manufacturer was to declare its unequivocal long-term commitment to this design philosophy.

MAN’s potential, through the Volkswagen Group, to promote this configuration in its own brand catalogue, as well as in the product ranges offered by Volkswagen and even Scania, could be pivotal in ensuring its widespread success.

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