The I-Bus is uniquely built on the Isuzu truck driv­e­train and chas­sis, mak­ing it a very strong bus. Tech­ni­cal Writer Paul Aldridge tests it out

The I-Bus 500 Se­ries is de­signed to go where oth­ers don’t dare

ABC (Australia) - - CONTENTS - WORDS & IM­AGES PAUL ALDRIDGE

Isuzu Trucks has been a leader in the Aus­tralian truck mar­ket for 28 years and to­day about one in every four new trucks sold in Aus­tralia car­ries the Isuzu name. In terms of buses, the I-Bus is a rel­a­tively new con­cept to the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Uniquely, it is built on the Isuzu truck driv­e­train and chas­sis, mak­ing it a very strong bus.

I met with I-Bus Aus­tralia sales con­sul­tant Craig Mar­shall to learn more about this ve­hi­cle and give the 500 Se­ries a drive my­self to see just how th­ese tough work­horses han­dle.

“I-Bus is ba­si­cally Bris­bane Isuzu, a fran­chise of Isuzu Trucks; there are 53 Isuzu deal­ers around the coun­try that are in­di­vid­u­ally owned and op­er­ated,” he says.

“The I-Bus side of the busi­ness only be­gan about two years ago and the com­pany just keeps grow­ing; we are cur­rently build­ing and ex­pand­ing a new show­room here at Burpen­gary to meet the growth.

“We have three branches across Bris­bane. All of the buses are sold out of this branch, but ser­vic­ing is car­ried out at any of our branches.”

Each bus is built on an Isuzu truck chas­sis. The con­ver­sion is then done, giv­ing the buses all the strength and re­li­a­bil­ity of the Isuzu prod­uct.

“Ev­ery­body knows Isuzu trucks and how good they are. With the front-mounted en­gines, they run cooler. For ru­ral op­er­a­tors, a ma­jor ad­van­tage is the dis­tri­bu­tion of more weight over the front wheels, elim­i­nat­ing op­er­a­tional is­sues that com­monly hap­pen with rear-en­gine ve­hi­cles in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions.”

UNCHARTERED TER­RAIN

There are eight dif­fer­ent mod­els in the I-Bus range. They are gen­er­ally used for school bus runs and pre­dom­i­nantly in coun­try ar­eas be­cause the front-mounted en­gines make them per­fect for dirt roads and hilly ter­rains.

“We have four-wheel drive mod­els that are be­ing used to drive on beaches, do school bus runs out in the rough coun­try, and they also do char­ter work,” Mar­shall says.

“Th­ese 4WD mod­els range from 20- 40 seats; the larger model is an Isuzu FTS800, which is a 14-tonne GVM. Th­ese larger mod­els use the same chas­sis as the ru­ral fire trucks so they are very, very strong as they some­times need to be able to go where ve­hi­cles nor­mally wouldn’t go.”

The unique build process sees the Isuzu chas­sis com­pleted here then leave Aus­tralia, travel to Malaysia, and come back.

“The first part of the process is that we pre­pare the chas­sis – this part takes about a week – then the chas­sis is shipped over­seas to Qual­ity Bus and Coach in Malaysia. This takes about a week and a half,” Mar­shall says. “They com­plete their end of the work and ship back so we can do all the Aus­tralian al­ter­ations and ad­di­tions that are needed, like the bull­bars and UHF ra­dios or any other cus­tomer re­quire­ments.

“Pre-de­liv­ery is done and then it’s ready to be shipped to the cus­tomer. This whole process takes around three to four months for some­thing we haven’t got on the shelf.”

“Qual­ity Bus and Coach have been build­ing buses for a long time; they do ex­cel­lent body work. They work on Sca­nias and Volvos and lots of dif­fer­ent buses, so they’re very ex­pe­ri­enced. When the owner wanted to cre­ate I-Bus, they did lots of home­work and Qual­ity Bus and Coach were the best fit”.

For the dis­tance trav­elled, the build time was bet­ter than ex­pected, jus­ti­fy­ing the process as well re­fined and work­ing suc­cess­fully.

“Ba­si­cally the Isuzu chas­sis un­der­neath is pretty much bul­let­proof, there­fore when the cus­tomer pur­chases an I-Bus they are get­ting re­li­a­bil­ity, easy ac­cess to parts and a great ser­vic­ing net­work Aus­tralia-wide,” Mar­shall says.

“Un­der­neath you have the ben­e­fits of a truck chas­sis; some have been stretched or al­tered, but that part is done in Aus­tralia by our engi­neer­ing divi­sion be­fore it leaves. When we send a chas­sis, we know ex­actly what it’s go­ing to come back as.

“If a wheel­base has to be stretched 500mm, it’s all done here be­fore it leaves and we have full con­trol over the chas­sis qual­ity.”

No Isuzu ve­hi­cle uses AdBlue at this time, though emis­sions re­quire­ments are achieved through a DPD (diesel par­tic­u­late dif­fuser).

“It’s like a big fil­ter sys­tem that traps all the soot and when it gets to a cer­tain level it burns it into ash,” Mar­shall says. “The fil­ter needs to be cleaned only every 100,000km and we also use ex­haust gas re­cir­cu­la­tion [EGR]. As a lot of our buses are used in re­mote coun­try ar­eas, a driver doesn’t want to be look­ing for an AdBlue pump or op­er­a­tors need­ing to have their own.

“Since 2008 we have been us­ing this tech­nol­ogy; many com­pa­nies are just get­ting into it now but Isuzu were ahead of the game.”

THE TEST DRIVE

The I-Bus 500 test drive ve­hi­cle was fit­ted out as a stan­dard school bus model. It’s made to be tough but the fin­ish was higher qual­ity than I ex­pected.

We drove around sub­ur­ban Burpen­gary to have the bus in a reg­u­lar school route en­vi­ron­ment, even though this model is de­signed to han­dle much more rugged ter­rain. I would have loved to give it a tough drive to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence all that this work­horse is built to ne­go­ti­ate.

The 500 is made to carry a heavy load so I an­tic­i­pated the un­loaded bus to be a bit stiff on the road, yet han­dling around cor­ners and road man­ners were pleas­ant and smooth.

When the cus­tomer pur­chases an I-Bus they get re­li­a­bil­ity, easy ac­cess to parts and a great ser­vic­ing net­work

The au­to­mated man­ual knows just what gear to be in, and I can see why I-Bus says most cus­tomers are lean­ing to this as the pre­ferred op­tion. I don’t know why you would go for a man­ual when this trans­mis­sion changes in­tu­itively like it does – with the op­tion of the man­ual over­ride.

Glass vis­i­bil­ity area for the driver is gen­er­ous. With the front-mounted en­gine I ex­pected cabin noise to be higher than it was. I found some hills and could feel that it cer­tainly tack­les them ef­fort­lessly with plenty of power from the 5.2-litre 4-cylin­der en­gine and 200+hp.

Although the brak­ing sys­tem worked ef­fort­lessly when un­loaded, again you can feel all the ben­e­fit of the tough Isuzu driv­e­train and chas­sis. Steer­ing is light but you still get a good amount of con­trol and road feel from the steer­ing wheel. I thought the drive might be more truck-like how­ever I was pleas­antly sur­prised with the ease of the drive.

Over­all I could find no neg­a­tives. This is an easy-to-drive, pow­er­ful ve­hi­cle and I think I-Bus is def­i­nitely onto a win­ner for a unique bus built specif­i­cally to tackle what the harsh Aussie out­back can throw at it!

HOME­GROWN FEA­TURES

It’s al­ways good to see a com­pany us­ing lo­cal sup­pli­ers and ser­vice, so some com­po­nents are home­grown and most cus­tomers will def­i­nitely see that as a pos­i­tive fea­ture.

Bris­bane Isuzu com­pletes all the pre-de­liv­ery, in­clud­ing pick­ing the ve­hi­cle up from the docks.

Coach Works at Aca­cia Ridge un­der­takes some of the mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Al­ter­na­tors all come from a lo­cal source – Rapid Rewind­ing, which places big 140-180-amp al­ter­na­tors be­fore they leave. The Thermo King units on the buses need the more-pow­er­ful al­ter­na­tors, and Rapid Rewind­ing builds them lo­cally.

Airbag Man in Bren­dale does a lot of the air sys­tems for the smaller trucks that don’t come stan­dard with air. Sim­i­larly, the I-Bus 450 and the 300 chas­sis don’t come with air; they are pro­vided with com­pres­sors to run air bags and doors.

“Th­ese mod­i­fi­ca­tions are also now be­ing done be­fore they leave as it is much eas­ier to ac­cess at that stage,” Mar­shall says. “The smaller ones have helper air bags. The orig­i­nal truck sus­pen­sion is still un­der there but ob­vi­ously on some trucks that

can be quite harsh so we add the helper air bags.

“We have a coun­try pack avail­able on our five-ton­ners where we put a pair of driver-ad­justable air bags on the front axle so, say they are com­ing to a washout that’s fairly rough, they can push a but­ton on the dash­board and raise the front un­til they have passed the is­sue.

“It’s just the op­tion of a bit of ex­tra clear­ance in tricky sit­u­a­tions; this has been a new fea­ture we have de­signed in the last few months.”

The lights are also from lo­cal sup­pli­ers, as are the bull­bars, with Mar­shall say­ing lo­cal sup­plier Ul­ti­mate Bull­bars at Narangba “does a great-qual­ity, air bag-com­pat­i­ble, high-strength, beau­ti­ful bull­bar”.

Th­ese have to be tai­lor-made be­cause the buses are wide.

The buses all have their orig­i­nal truck air-con­di­tion­ing along with the Thermo King sys­tems. There­fore, if a driver is driv­ing alone, they can use the ex­ist­ing truck air-con or switch to the larger sys­tem when pas­sen­gers are on board.

“We know the Thermo King prod­uct when it comes to truck re­frig­er­a­tion and we know they have great ser­vic­ing agents for our cus­tomers,” Mar­shall says.

The Isuzu chas­sis has the ca­pac­ity to take a se­cond com­pres­sor. A space is left be­side the en­gine for this as it could also be used for truck re­frig­er­a­tion, so noth­ing has to be moved to have this added.

We de­velop the ve­hi­cles to en­sure they suit harsh con­di­tions

GO­ING THE EX­TRA MILE

Mar­shall men­tions the brand’s fo­cus on cus­tomer ser­vice, say­ing it’s all about pro­vid­ing the qual­ity and the backup cus­tomers re­quire, and Bris­bane Isuzu has been one of the largest deal­ers in Aus­tralia for a num­ber of years now.

“The par­ent com­pany has been around for a long time and all of th­ese prom­ises and core val­ues are things that we have as part of our daily busi­ness op­er­a­tions,” he says.

“They also play a large part in why we have a lot of long-term staff.

“In terms of qual­ity as­sur­ance, I have three buses I am pick­ing up from the docks; they will come here al­ready fully pre-de­liv­ered. We then thor­oughly check them over again.

“This process has al­ready been done but we find a fresh set of eyes do­ing the pre-de­liv­ery a se­cond time, top to bot­tom, en­sur­ing what we are de­liv­er­ing to our cus­tomers is per­fect.

“When we de­liver, we know that our cus­tomers won’t call us and tell us ‘I just found some­thing’.

“We elim­i­nate that pos­si­bil­ity with the se­cond check.”

That cus­tomer ser­vice ex­tends to Mar­shall’s own line of duty.

“It’s all about the cus­tomer. If there is an is­sue, it gets sorted.

“Re­cently, a bus needed to be de­liv­ered ur­gently to Wodonga. If you prom­ise a de­liv­ery, you de­liver the goods.

“I drove it down to the cus­tomer my­self. I drove for 11 hours the first day, stopped with fam­ily at Syd­ney, then did seven-anda-half hours’ driv­ing the next day be­cause I took a de­tour to drop off a man­ual to a cus­tomer in Crook­well.

“That’s how I spent my long week­end, driv­ing for three days, but that’s what you have to do to de­liver what you say you will,” he says em­phat­i­cally.

Mar­shall adds that as cus­tomers use the buses, Isuzu gets feed­back to adapt and con­tin­u­ally de­velop its prod­uct.

“Our con­di­tions in Aus­tralia are dif­fer­ent to any­where else in the world so we are con­stantly de­vel­op­ing the ve­hi­cles to en­sure they suit the harsh con­di­tions they are used in,” he says.

“Price-wise, we are mid-line on the Aus­tralian mar­ket – not the dear­est but not the cheap­est. The Isuzu chas­sis has out­sold oth­ers on the Aus­tralian mar­ket for around 28 years.

“Gen­er­ally one in four trucks rolling out of deal­er­ships is an Isuzu.

“Some­times the price out the gate doesn’t re­ally mat­ter – it comes down to the run­ning costs of the ve­hi­cle, life­time econ­omy, and re­sale value.

“Cus­tomers look at the whole-of-life costs, and some­times the cheaper al­ter­na­tives end up not be­ing the cheap­est over the life­time of the bus,” Mar­shall con­cludes.

Clock­wise from above: Re­gional folk may be see­ing much more of this rear end on their roads; Isuzu’s truck driv­e­line and chas­sis has suc­cess­fully trans­lated to bus man­u­fac­tur­ing; This bus is made for heavy loads

Top and above: I-Bus and Isuzu have struck the right bal­ance with the 500 Se­ries; The driver’s workspace is quiet and has high vis­bil­ity

Top and above: Stu­dents are in for a treat with this school bus model

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