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June 21 2017
By Tim Deakin

Tim is the Senior Journalist at routeONE magazine is also the title’s chief test driver, with considerable vehicle knowledge


Mellor turns onto Electric Avenue with Orion E

Mellor Coachcraft took the industry by surprise when it broke news of the Orion E zero-emission minibus. It’s a full low-floor model that carries up to 16 passengers and Mellor has high hopes for it

The Orion E is a zero-emission minibus that seats up to 16 passengers

Mellor scored a notable first when its 16-seat, battery-powered Orion E minibus debuted at April’s CV Show in Birmingham.

Part of the wider coachbuilt Orion range, the zero-emission minibus is based on the same Fiat Ducato chassis as its sisters, but Mellor and its partner Emoss have devised a clever package that converts an ex-factory Ducato into a vehicle that produces no tailpipe emissions.

While the Orion E has a price premium over a diesel model, it’s actually a simple vehicle to drive and operate, says Mellor Managing Director John Randerson.

“The Orion E doesn’t require major expenditure on charging infrastructure. We can supply a wall-mounted charger, but it can also be plugged into a standard workshop 415v three-phase socket.”

To permit charging via a workshop supply, Mellor supplies a cable with the Orion E. The wall unit is £700, but it can be configured to function only at times when electricity prices are at their lowest; it also permits monitoring of energy consumption.

Much development has gone into the Orion, and the demonstrator has undergone a great deal of development and testing to refine it into the finished product that it now is.

John reports that Mellor is ready to take orders, and that a number of chassis are held at its Scarborough plant for this purpose. Meanwhile eight, powerpacks are on order. The first few will be fitted to Ducato chassis at Emoss’s Netherlands plant, but after that, work will be done by Mellor at Rochdale.

It’s a brave first step for Mellor into the world of battery power. John kindly made the Orion E prototype available last week for a routeone test drive.

Rear air suspension means that the ramp’s angle of attack is very shallow

Build

One of the Orion range’s selling points is its excellent access. That comes as a result of a fully low floor thanks to the front-wheel drive layout, and it’s something that continues with the Orion E.

The only difference in the Orion E’s saloon when compared with its diesel counterparts is at the extreme rear.

Here, two ‘cupboards’ are present on the prototype, one in each corner; they hold batteries, and John says that production models will come with a more visually pleasing arrangement of GRP ‘towers’.

Batteries for traction power are split 50/50 between the front and rear for weight distribution purposes, with those at the front underneath the cab floor.

As a result, the smaller battery that powers things such as lights, fans and other non-traction items is relocated to an area immediately to the left of the door. It is charged when the bus is plugged in, and also during the operating day from the traction batteries.

In a bid to keep things simple, the charging socket is below the signalling window in the same place as a diesel filler would be. Under the bonnet is electrical control equipment and the on-board charger, along with a filler for the electric motor coolant.

The prototype Orion E is based on a Euro 5 Ducato. Production versions will use Euro 6 chassis, and so the lower frontal styling will be somewhat different.

Passenger access

With a full low-floor, access to the Orion E is naturally good, and it’s no different to a diesel model. At the front is a sliding plug door that is rapid in operation, and within the frame is a manually-operated wheelchair ramp.

Prototype has Rescroft seats and extensive tracking but others available

The prototype Orion E has a further entry at the rear for wheelchair users, although this is not a mandatory part of the specification and a ‘closed’ rear along with an offside emergency exit can be chosen instead.

It is at the rear where wheelchair access is best. A large hinged inboard ramp extends from the twin barn doors, and when combined with lowering air suspension, it gives a shallow angle of attack.

Additionally, a winch can be fixed into the central row of tracking to load bariatric wheelchairs.

All seats in the Orion E prototype can be removed quickly, with the exception of two over each rear wheel arch. They have very substantial hinge mechanisms, and combined with tip-up bases, they fold up tight to the side walls.

Passenger comfort

The prototype has Rescroft CT-Lite high-backed seats with three-point belts, but examples from other manufacturers are available including Kiel on non-tracked flooring.

Twin full-length strips provide lighting and they are complemented by small bulbs in the side walls a small distance above the floor. The latter provide useful illumination when securing wheelchairs.

An electrically-powered heating system is provided by Eberspacher. It feeds hot air to the cab and saloon, although with the potential of selling the Orion E to Scandinavia, Mellor will also offer a diesel-fired auxiliary heater as an option.

The charging system allows for the heater to run when the Orion E is plugged in and air-conditioning will be added as an option along with double-glazing. Otherwise, four opening windows are fitted. Ride quality in the Orion E is good, and passengers benefit further from the lack of drivetrain noise and vibration that comes with electric power.

Few obvious cab differences to diesel, except for display on the A-pillar

Driver comfort

Space is modest in the cab, but there is a reasonable amount of storage for either the driver’s bag or wheelchair restraints next to the door.

The standard Ducato heater and ventilation controls are retained, while a signalling window lifts to allow ventilation.

Mirrors adjust electrically via a small control on a fascia to the driver’s right.

It is adjacent to a bank of switches added by Mellor that control body equipment such as the door and lights, along with the one-piece powered sunblind.

Visibility in the mirrors is good, but the A-pillars on the Ducato are wide, particularly at the bottom, creating a blind spot there when combined with the mirrors.

Drive selection is via the same rotary switch used in larger vehicles with the ZF AS-Tronic gearbox and the factory-fit ratchet handbrake is retained.

On the offside A-pillar is a screen that displays information related to the driveline, including speed, energy consumption and motor coolant temperature, along with state of charge. It is a useful tool, but it may distract some drivers.

Performance

A key factor for the Orion E is how the driving experience stands up to its diesel counterparts’, and the answer is that it does so exceedingly well.

It is an easy vehicle to become accustomed to, and it retains the key arrangement of a diesel. Once the run position is selected, forward can be selected with the brake pedal depressed and the Orion E moves away in the same manner as a diesel would.

Under the bonnet are control units and charger; batteries are below cab

What is noticeable is that the accelerator requires more of a prod in the electric minibus, and the prototype will roll back on an incline if the driver does not use the handbrake or keep the accelerator slightly depressed.

Production buses on chassis used at Euro 6 will have a hill hold device to prevent that.

Progress is made rapidly under normal driving conditions, and acceleration is at a uniform rate regardless of road speed.

There is much more power in reserve, however, despite Mellor having already reduced the motor’s peak setting more than once during testing. It can deliver a maximum of 158kW and 2,500Nm of torque.

As a result, the minibus stormed up a steep hill near Rochdale while still accelerating, and if full power is called for on a flat road, either from stationary or when already moving, the Orion E gains speed very rapidly.

Motor noise is almost non-existent, but the driveline makes itself more known when slowing. The regenerative function engages as soon as the accelerator is eased, and there is a clear whine when energy is being returned to the batteries.

Mellor and Emoss have done a lot of work to get the regeneration to work at its most effective. It easily slows the vehicle down to around 10mph, although it can be a little abrupt in operation.

Below 10mph it is necessary to give the foundation brakes a prod, but a skilled driver will be able to make a very smooth stop with little practice, which will be welcome.

The energy consumption display demonstrates that vehicle handling will have a major influence on the Orion E’s range, and it will be important to ensure that drivers are trained on getting the best from it before letting them loose.

Charge state, energy consumption and motor temperature on display

Verdict

The Orion E is a remarkable minibus. Mellor, with help from supplier Emoss, has done a very good job of packaging a fine electric driveline into a compact vehicle with no effect on the passenger environment.

Both parties have also incorporated a driving and passenger experience that is superior to a diesel’s.

While the prototype’s regenerative function has not yet been perfected, John explains that all parameters of the propulsion package can be customised via laptop to suit the buyer.

That includes level of regeneration, maximum power and maximum road speed, and while the 72kW/h of energy storage fitted as standard gives a range of 100 miles, that too can be altered to suit at the build stage.

“With a 100-mile range, the Orion E can carry 16 passengers, but if an operator could accept a lower range, then it would be possible to add one or two to the capacity.

“Things such as these are what we can look at, and similarly if a lower passenger capacity was needed then it would be possible to add more batteries and extend the range.

“We never rule anything out. When the Orion range was launched in 2010, we said it would only ever be a 16-seat diesel. Now, we have a 16-seat electric-powered model and a 22-seat diesel. We continue to challenge ourselves to get more from the same pot.”

With a 64-amp supply, the Orion E can be fully charged in 105 minutes. When connected to 32- or 16-amp supply that period extends commensurately to a maximum of seven hours, but even on work involving higher mileages, the quickest of those charging times may be able to be accommodated during the day.

The Orion E comes with a five-year battery warranty and three years’ coverage of the driveline and body, all administered by Mellor.



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