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MiniPlus Article
August 14 2017
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Mellor goes forth with its zero-emission Orion E

Mellor Coachcraft stole a march on the rest of the industry when it unveiled its zero-emission Orion E at the CV Show in April. It’s the first in its class. We find out what it’s like when put through its paces

100-mile range promised for battery-powered Mellor Orion E minibus

Part of Mellor’s coachbuilt Orion range, the battery-powered Orion E is based on the same Fiat Ducato chassis as its diesel sisters, but Mellor and its partner Emoss have devised a clever package that has created the first zero-emission minibus in its category.

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

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

To permit charging via a 415v 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 consumption.

Much development has gone into the Orion E, and the demonstrator has been through a great deal of testing to refine it into the now-finished product.

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 by Emoss in the Netherlands, but after that, work will be done at Rochdale.

Same great access

One of the Orion range’s selling points is its accessibility, which is excellent thanks to the front-wheel drive, low-floor layout. That continues with the Orion E.

There is a further ‘barn door’ at the rear, although this is not a mandatory part of the specification and a closed layout along with an offside emergency exit can be chosen.

With the rear doors, it is there where wheelchair access is best. A hinged inboard ramp extends from the opening, and when combined with lowering air suspension, it gives a shallow angle of attack. Additionally, a winch can be fixed into the central tracking row 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.

The only difference inside the Orion E 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 different arrangement for the GRP ‘towers’.

Demonstrator has 16 tracked Rescroft seats, but other combos available

Traction batteries are split equally between the front and rear for weight distribution, with those at the front beneath the cab.

As a result, the smaller battery that powers 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 from the traction batteries.

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

Comfort all round

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, complemented by bulbs in the side walls a small distance above the floor to provide 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 Orion E available in Scandinavia, Mellor will also offer a diesel-fired auxiliary heater.

The charging system allows for the electric 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.

Space is modest in the cab, but there is a reasonable amount of storage for a bag and 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 Mellor’s standard bank of switches that control equipment such as the door and lights, along with the one-piece powered sunblind.

Cab is identical to that of a diesel and visibility for driver is largely good

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 a rotary switch and the OEM 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 the state of charge.

Get up and go

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

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

The accelerator requires more of a prod in the electric minibus. The prototype will roll back on an incline if the driver does not use the handbrake or keep the accelerator slightly depressed, but production buses on later chassis will have a hill hold device to prevent that.

Progress is made rapidly under normal driving conditions. Acceleration is at a uniform rate regardless of road speed and there is much power in reserve, despite Mellor having reduced the motor’s peak setting more than once during testing. As is, it delivers a maximum of 158kW and 2,500Nm of torque.

As a result, the minibus stormed up a steep hill near Rochdale, 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. Regeneration engages as soon as the accelerator is released, 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.

Air suspension at rear allows a very shallow angle of attack for the ramp

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.

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.

‘A remarkable minibus’

The Orion E is a remarkable minibus. Mellor, with help from Emoss, has done a fine job of packaging an electric driveline into a compact vehicle without impacting 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 is not yet perfected, John explains that all parameters of the propulsion package can be customised via laptop to suit the buyer.

That includes the 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.

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

“Things such as these can be looked at, and similarly if a lower passenger capacity was acceptable then it would be possible to add more batteries.

“We never rule anything out. When the Orion 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 as well. 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, 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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