The front engine Intercity bus segment can be classified predominantly into three sub segments namely Economy, Value and Deluxe, while the Economy segment is the Non AC segment, the other two AC segments are segmented based on the comfort, safety feature and distance of operation. The market size of this Intercity segment is around 5000 units (during the best of CV sales days), and the majority of them are Economy segment. With the total Industry volume skewed towards west and south, the volume remains almost same and no major change is seen for the past five years.
Key Buying Factors
Its always been a tough call when it comes to Intercity long distance bus application. Key segment characters are operation for long distance continuously and hence the application demands, higher uptime, faster turn around time, nil enroute breakdown, passenger comfort etc. These key buying factors are considered paramount while deciding the suitable bus/coach for long distance passenger application. Enroute breakdown is considered as a big problem, as it leaves the passengers stranded in the odd hours and also takes time to arrange alternative bus. This also leaves a bad remark on the operator and takes a huge toll in his reputation and subsequently in his earnings. There were days, when buses used to run only in night and serviced during day time. But now inorder to maximum utilise the permits, and considering the traffic density, buses are operated in day time as well. From a humble average distance of 500 to 600 kms operation 15 years back, today the average distance travelled by buses are more than 900 Kms with a peak route of Bangalore to Jodhpur covering a distance of 2000 kms in 34 hours. Its now common to see increased number of buses in operation distance of 1000 kms.
Ashok Leyland and Tata, earlier
Tata was the first to bring a 12m bus chassis LPO 1616 during 2005 – 2006, and for ages it’s was only Ashok Leyland and Tata in this segment. Eicher’s attempts to crack, one of the largest bus market in the world were all limited to selling few buses in the private (excluding some major orders from Parveen travels, Chennai for staff bus application) and acquiring some major orders from APSRTC, GSRTC etc. They were primarily used in Sub-Urban mofussil routes. Ashok Leyland is the market leader in this segment and continuously worked on the product by offering various features like engine driven Air conditioner, retarder, full air suspension, Automated transmission. Tata was offering near equivalent products like LPO 1612, LPO 1616 in BS II and LPO 1612, LPO 1618 in BS III, but choice and product range was limited. Ashok Leyland in the BS II 12M range had four engine options two each for Non AC and two each for AC, 113hp, 164hp and 177hp, 205 hp respectively. In BS III offered three variants with 160hp, 180hp and 225hp.
Ashok Leyland and BharatBenz, Now
Practically, the premium 12M 225hp didn’t have any competition from Tata and was ruling for any ultra long distance application and where ever faster turnaround is required. MAN was the only manufacturer to offer a near equivalent spec’d variant with AiroBus, but didn’t take off for various reasons. Now Ashok Leyland will be having more fingers in its basket to take a share, and unlike the past the attempt is more serious. BharatBenz has successfully cracked the value trucks segment in India and is now more of a native brand. Now BharatBenz wanted to crack the Indian bus market as well and has launched OF 1623, a front engine 12m bus chassis, intended for Intercity application. Let us understand if BharatBenz can retain the its brand value or will have a tough time to get establish, like its elder brand Mercedes Benz.
Engine and driveline
Ashok Leyland 12M, 225hp variant – ALPSV 4/157, was the early bus chassis apart from Volvo buses, to offer Common rail engines in BS III platform, and the same is carried forward to BS IV as well, with the addition of SCR to meet BS IV norms. We have seen this engine performing quite well across all terrains and have proven beyond doubt on the reliability front. This 5.8 litre, two valve engine carries the same dimensions (104mm X 113mm) of original Hino W06D naturally aspirated engine, but Ashok Leyland engine R&D, has worked extensively like strengthening the block, added piston cooling nozzle, reworked head, completely redesigned air intake and fuel system and its now more appropriate to call it as ‘H’ Series engine. This ‘H’ series engine currently develops a power of 221 hp @ 2400 rpm and a torque of 800 Nm between 1400 to 2100 rpm. The engine is quite refined and smooth even beyond 1900 rpm and this makes the driver to continuously operate at the peak power, ensuring higher average speed and increasing turn around time as well.
BharatBenz 1623 is powered by a 6.4 litre OM 906 engine (102mm x 130mm) developing a power of 235 hp @ 2200 rpm and a torque of 850 Nm between 1200 to 1600 rpm. This is a modern 3 valve mill with unit pumps and is completely different from the traditional engines what India has seen in the past. The unit injectors basically combines high-pressure pump and the injection nozzle in to a single assembly. The high pressure is built up by the activation of the pump plunger of the Unit Injector by the engine camshaft via a rocker arm. The advantage of the Unit Injector System is that there is no high-pressure line between the high-pressure pump and the injection nozzle. This means that the system can build up extremely high injection pressures upto 1800 bar. The injection nozzle operates with a rapid-switching solenoid valve which is operated electronically and it can produce a pilot injection which reduces engine noise. As explained, this engine is a modern and advanced engine in comparison with the ‘H’ series engine from Ashok Leyland. This is the selling point of ‘BharatBenz’, and the trucks with this engine have lived up or exceeded the expectation, making BharatBenz is native brand for Indian truckers.
Complete range of BharatBenz trucks and buses are available with only SCR while Ashok Leyland is promoting iEGR claiming lesser overall operating cost. In case of this comparison, both 12M and 1623 are currently available only with SCR. 1623 has a higher SCR tank of 52L and hence requirement to fill frequency Diesel Exhaust Fluid is comparatively less, 12M the capacity is 40L.
Both 12M and 1623 are driven by 6 speed gear overdrive gearbox with matching single speed hypoid rear axle ratios. While Ashok Leyland gearbox is borrowed from ZF as 6S 850, BharatBenz uses its own gear box G85. 12M has a single plate 380mm dia, diaphram type, booster assisted clutch and 1623 uses a little larger 395mm dia, single plate diaphram type, booster assisted clutch. Both the gearboxes are made of Aluminium clutch housing, which ensures better heat dissipation. 12M is currently available only with Manual transmission and will be offered with ‘Leymatic’ AMT in near future as well. 1623 doesn’t have any option of moving to AMT in near future.
Frame and Chassis
Both 12M and 1623 uses a constant frame width, uniform section chassis. They are neither joggled nor has a step like the one developed by Veera. Veera has showcased a front engine bus – ‘Samrat’, which actually has a step chassis, which facilitates, what we call as ‘Belly dicky’. The space between frame and bus floor is higher and ensure higher underfloor luggage space. Fuel tank capacity of both 12M and 1623 is near equivalent at around 350L (for 1623 its 380L) and is placed in almost the same location, on the right side in the wheel base.
This location is more conventional and unlike in MAN 1623 front engine chassis, where in the fuel tank is neatly tucked inside in between the frame side members, there by freeing up the space in the wheel base area. This space is effectively used for luggage area as well. (Though we understand technical challenge here is the Electromagnetic retarder as against hydraulic retarder in MAN). Due to these conventional chassis layout, the luggage space is limited to wheel base and rear over hang in both the chassis.
BharatBenz has claimed that the use of alligator type cross member which provides higher rigidity and strength. Both the chassis don’t have any additional flitch. Leading dimensions of 1623 shows that it has a wider track and a shorter wheel base than 12M, and this leads to smaller turning circle diameter of 19.6m Vs 21m of 12M.
12M and 1623 both comes dual circuit, S cam operated, drum brakes all around. They are also available with additional braking features like exhaust brakes and electromagnetic retarder. In case of 1623, apart from this, engine brakes also does the duty.
While retarder is an optional feature in 1623, its standard in 12M. The brake lining width of 12M is 7″ at front and 8″ at rear, BharatBenz has a 8″ at both front and rear. Linings are made of Non-asbestos materials.
Driver work area
Both offer only mechanically adjustable driver seats which three way adjustable with seat belts. Additionally 1623 steering column can be tiltable as against the fixed 12M steering column. 12M uses linkages and 1623 changes speed with a cable ( one for select and other for shift) .
In both cases the effort for the driver is almost same and no visible difference. Since 12M and 1623 are available as a chassis and hence there are case to case variation in reaching the driver controls, with respect to different body builders.
Suspension, Wheel and Tyres
Suspension setup is nearly same, both the chassis are offered with pneumatic suspension with two bellows in front and four at rear, with anti roll bar and hydraulic shock absorbers. Though they may look alike, 1623 scores high in terms of suspension comfort. What BharatBenz calls it as ‘Glider suspension’ and Yes it glides the passenger in comfort.
While Ashok Leyland offers front air suspension as option, in case of 1623 its a standard feature. Going forward, the talking point and the USP of the 1623 will definitely be the suspension. Also not to mention, since the front air suspension is a standard feature, the informed passenger may feel a better travel comfort, when they travel in BharatBenz 1623.
295 / 80 R 22.5 is now a standard fitment and both are available with the same specification tyres. Neither of them offer alloy wheels as option.
While coming to service aspect its obvious that, 12M scores better than 1623. The tradition of “making more of chassis” from Ashok Leyland is visible in 12M. Since 12M is in the field for quite sometime and body is built across India by various STU’s and private body builders, Ashok Leyland has got a pool of data in terms of service and repair and so the chassis aggregates are placed and positioned in such a way that they can be easily approachable and serviced.
Incase of BharatBenz, the air filter location, air intake pipe location, gearbox service and removal, Intercooler position, exhaust pipe routing are all either located or routed in a way that it requires attention during body building and during service. Many body builders ruin the owing experience of bus just because they aren’t used to or understand the service aspect of major aggregates in a bus. Even major body builders have had failures in this in past when new chassis are inducted and this will be a note of caution to BharatBenz currently.
Engine oil service of 12M is at 40,000 Kms (sump capacity 18L) and in case of 1623 its at 50,000 Kms (sump capacity 26L) and subsequently at 100,000 Kms.
Ashok Leyland 12M is a tried and tested bus chassis and has given the best returns to operators, in terms of reliability, durability and resale value. Ashok Leyland has also worked in the chassis and have given enough options like Leymatic AMT and not to mention, it is a bread winner for Ashok Leyland. But with BharatBenz now squarely targeting the 12M, it has a serious competition. BharatBenz has also laid the foundation pretty strong, and the early sales figures of the 1623 chassis is the result of it. Its understood that BharatBenz has pilot produced little over 100 chassis and is first liquidating them, to get enough feedback from Customer before going for mass production. Unlike the truck industry the volume of Bus industry is limited and the segment where BharatBenz is targeting, Deluxe front engine AC segment is little over 1500 units per annum . So major mistakes will ensure they don’t get second chance to prove themselves in the market. Mercedes Benz SHD coach is in the same status as of now. So its not a surprise that BharatBenz is double cautious and is in no hurry.
In case of Ashok Leyland it will still be a wait and watch and its not a panic situation. The competition from 1623 is more healthy in terms of specification rather than price front. Sale price of 12M and 1623 is around Rs. 25 lks to Rs. 27 lks depending on the Customer and no of units of purchase. Though 12M has gained enough reputation, it still has lots of improvements to be done interms of suspension, improving overall passenger comfort. Also if BharatBenz driveline delivers min 15% to 20% life better than 12M, there is a high chance, that for any ultra long distance routes where the annual mileage is exceeding 2.5 lks Kms, there may be a sway towards 1623 in future. Though this scenario is too early, and we may need enough samples to prove that the driveline deliverables are higher.
Like in the past, the litmus for any Intercity bus or coach will be Mumbai – Bangalore route. This route is one of toughest route for operators as the competition is very high but still the demand is also high. Turn around Time is the highest rated Key user Factor and the annual mileage of the buses in this route will be close to 3 lks Kms, even with 85% availability. Its this route, which told India that Volvo B7R driveline, rather engine gives a life of min 1 million Kms and still has enough juice after major overhaul. So we will need to wait another 12 TO 24 months, to understand how the 1623 driveline behaves and that will be a time for Ashok Leyland to do some changes in the product,if they think 1623, as a competitor.
With inputs from Raj Bharat