On the buses, ding, ding!

Moving to Wales in October 2010 was a MASSIVE decision, though I’m not sure it really felt like it at the time. We were both increasingly frazzled thank to work but especially location. So, we opted for a new start in a pretty place.

It has been a challenge though. It took us ages to work out the language – not just the actual Welsh language (we sadly must concede that we haven’t learnt enough of that) but pronunciations. How do you pronounce Ysbyty Ystwyth, Llanrhystud or Pontrhydfendigaid? (Usbutty ustwuth, clan(it’s hard to type the correct way to pronounce LL)-rust-id, pont-rid-fendy-guide)

My master stroke was to get involved with a local community transport group. It was a chance to volunteer my new spare time but also a superb way to meet local people, get to the bottom of pronunciations and find where these places are! I haven’t regretted getting involved, even though it eats up much more time than I first expected (largely because I ended up on the management committee).

Of course, it also meant I got to drive new and exciting vehicles, so here’s a run down of the two buses that the community transport group owns outright.

They both date from 2005 and share a bodyshell – a Volkswagen LT and a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Both have less than 65,000 miles on the clock too, so they’ve had gentle lives.

Can I handle the brute power of these mighty German machines?

Can I handle the brute power of these mighty German machines?

The Merc has a four-cylinder engine, the LT a warbling five-pot. They look similar because this was a joint development between Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen and were even built in the same factories – though engines and transmissions hailed from each manufacturer respectively. That’s why the Sprinter – a facelift version – has a dashboard mounted gearchange while the LT uses the older floor-mounted design.

The engines are punchy enough, though with this much weight to shift, you can forget about traffic light grand prix, though that’s largely due to the nearest set of traffic lights being more than 12 miles away. That’s a shame though as the low gearing means you can surprise rabbits for initial getaway. You’ll need to change gear well before the speedo needle gets as far as 10mph though. Mr Rabbit just keeps going. Rabbit pie is off the menu.

Handling is good though, if you compare it with an Austin A35 Countryman. With a worn steering box. Grip is good thanks to the downforce generated by 15 or 16 passenger seats, and a tail-lift in the case of the Sprinter, though one doesn’t push the limits. The passengers tend to grumble.

The ride certainly can make them grumble. It’s a bit firm and crashy. That live rear axle is not set-up for refinement.

But they cruise nicely. A speed limiter set to 62mph might sound a bit boring, but then the legal speed limit around here is 50mph for a minibus. Only on the rare occasion that we travel as far as Carmarthen do we get to legally do 60mph on a dual carriageway. Legally, we can do 70mph on the motorway, but there isn’t one and even if there was, there’s a speed limiter set to 62. How odd.

It’s incredible how different these two buses actually feel to drive. The smaller Mercedes engine at least benefits from a sizeable turbocharger, though it’s one that spools up readily, making the one bolted to my Citroen BX feel like a relic from another age. The LT has that five-cylinder grumble that I do admire. but it doesn’t pull so well below 2000rpm. It’s more akin to the BX in that you really have to keep it within a sweet spot to get the best out of it. You might think that’s not too important, but it’s very hilly around here, and keeping the power coming while remaining smooth is important. The Mercedes wins here.

The clunky dash-mounted gearchange lets it down though. The LT’s gearchange is nothing special either – you can actually feel things meshing and it’s akin to operating an abucus with a long stick. So, the Mercedes wins again, even with its sometimes-unpleasant action.

With engine and transmission done, the differences become that much less. The switchgear is largely the same and the brakes and handling identical. Even with the differences considered, there’s not much between them. I guess I shouldn’t really have favourites, as I could be called upon to drive either of them as work dictates. So, I shall go for the traditional conclusion of the absolute cop out. I like both of them. Well, it is true. Mind you, I tend to like almost everything with wheels (Nissan Figaro apart perhaps…)

Perhaps one day I’ll get to do a head-to-head test with the Volkswagen Crafters and Peugeot Boxer that also make up our fleet. If this one hasn’t made you fall asleep that is…

3 thoughts on “On the buses, ding, ding!

  1. Not tried the VW, but those Sprinter’s really do have amazing handling! Great for doing naughty young people things in car parks too!

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