Super-sized Cheetah unveiled
Plaxton has unveiled its new Cheetah midicoach with a confidence-boosting order of 50 vehicles. The Cheetah XL, as the suffix suggests, is a good deal larger than its predecessor, now being based on the 12tonne Mercedes-Benz Atego chassis and is being promoted as a ‘midi coach with a large coach feel’.
The initial orders include ten each for Mistral, Dawsonrentals and Babcock as well as a number of leading coach operators, including Andrews of Tideswell, York Pullman and Prospect Coaches whose names appeared on the first three Cheetah XLs launched last week.
Plaxton is planning to build 70-80 Cheetah XLs this year on the back of a strong batch of initial orders. The previous Cheetah was launched in 1997 and, with a total of around 1,500 vehicles in service, was the clear leader in the midicoach field. The Vario chassis of course was not taken to Euro 6 by Mercedes so Plaxton was forced to re-think its model. However, although it investigated other chassis options, feedback from customers showed a very strong preference for a Mercedes engine.
The Cheetah XL seats up to 36 and comes with double the luggage space of its predecessor at 8 cu m. The 12tonne Atego chassis was chosen ahead of the 9tonne Atego since the latter would not have provided enough seats and payload. Plaxton was determined to produce a vehicle with at least 33 seats, based on preferences expressed by its customers, and the 12-tonne GVW gives it just over three tonnes for passengers and luggage.
The engine specified is the 177hp 5.1l engine alongside the MB PowerShift 3 automated transmission, although there are also higher rated engines within the Atego range.
Another feature which is the result of customer input is the location of the entrance door behind the front axle. Many Atego-based coaches put the door ahead of the axle, but according to Plaxton, this would have meant an awkward shape for the door and also that passengers would have to negotiate themselves around the front-mounted engine to board.
A simple in-swing door, similar to that on Plaxton’s Leopard, leads to a straight staircase giving easy access to the saloon. The slight downside is the fact that there are five steps, evenly spaced, but still potentially a bit intimidating for the less mobile passenger. Some operators at the launch event wondered about the option of a sunken aisle and fewer steps, but Plaxton believes that it may at some point have to consider installing a wheelchair lift at this door so is sticking with its current layout for the present.
A number of external panels and features echo those seen on Plaxton’s larger coaches achieving the desire to create a strong family look. From the rear, the vehicle looks quite Leopard-like, apart from the fact that there are no engine vents. The Atego cab has been retained with a separate driver’s door, and the front section including the wiper assembly is also from the original chassis. A number of the external panels are either identical or based on those used on other Plaxton coaches to increase synergies and provide potential savings in parts holding. The Mercedes three-pointed star on the front is not just a symbol of its provenance, it also provides the air intake for the de-mister.
Inside, the coach has an undeniable large-coach feel. The front seat was originally destined to be just a courier seat, but Plaxton have managed to certify this as a passenger seat with the option of an additional tip-up courier seat, providing a maximum configuration of 36 passenger seats, albeit that a passenger would have to edge around the engine lump to get into the front seat, so it is perhaps more likely that it would only be used by a group organiser or courier.
The saloon provides up to 35 recliners trimmed in moquette with optional leather inserts or full leather. A servery can be provided at the front, or at the back, in combination with a rear-mounted toilet, and open luggage racks are sited high to provide maximum passenger height.
With a front-mounted engine, noise is always a critical factor, but test drives in the launch versions offered a comfortably quiet ride with the additional noise insulation provided by Irish specialist Ventac appearing to work well.
Production of the Cheetah XL is now underway at the Plaxton factory in Scarborough, with plans to produce one to two per week throughout 2015. The Scarborough facility is also busy building vehicles across the Alexander Dennis range, producing everything apart from Enviro300 and Enviro500 buses.
ADL chief executive Colin Robertson points out that the group has invested £10million in the factory since acquiring it eight years ago. “The Scarborough factory is now at the heart of our business which has itself in that time grown threefold”.
Scarborough has undoubtedly been a valuable production asset for the group, especially given the periods of difficulty with labour relations at the group’s Falkirk factory. “Some people say I have a soft spot for Scarborough,” muses Robertson, “but those that know me better know that I don’t do soft spots”.
Plaxton currently bodies around 28 per cent of all new coaches in the UK, according to Robertson. The hiatus in its midicoach offering caused by Mercedes pulling the plug on the Vario has been unwelcome, but the new Cheetah XL is very likely to see it quickly regain its strong position in the midi sector.