“Plaxton’s Cheetah XL has been called a ‘gem of gems’ – and that looks like a fair verdict”.
That was the summary statement from leading bus and coach magazine routeONE after they road tested a new Cheetah XL delivered recently to Berwick-upon-Tweed operator Perryman’s Buses.
The following are extracts from a comprehensive four-page feature by routeONE feature writer Tim Deakin:
“ …. the manufacturer does not pretend that the Mercedes-Benz Atego-based newcomer is a straight replacement for the Cheetah. The earlier midi had its own small coach feel but the newcomer shares more with the rest of Plaxton’s line-up in terms of construction and passenger environment.
‘Feedback from customers was that they wanted a larger vehicle,’ said Richard Matthews, ADL’s Sales Director Retail Bus and Coach, ‘and Cheetah XL allows them to carry smaller groups in big-coach luxury, while still retaining the economic benefits of a midi.’
“The Cheetah XL is ….. a premium product and one designed for a long and reliable life, with a wide variety of options available.
“One option, introduced since the launch, is a choice of engine ratings. The Cheetah XL debuted with just the 177bhp variant of the Mercedes-Benz OM 934 available, but after feedback more power has been introduced and 231bhp is now the highest setting offered.
“Among the first buyers of this variant is award-winning Berwick-upon-Tweed operator Perryman’s Buses. With it still factory-fresh, Operations Manager Roddy Perryman kindly made his 36-seat Cheetah XL available for a routeONE Test Drive.
“The Cheetah XL’s entrance door is behind the front axle, meaning that the engine doesn’t intrude into the cabin. The compact four-cylinder, 5.1-litre OM 934 sits next to the driver and is accessible from within the coach; seven clips hold down a substantial yet easily removed cover.
“The standard gearbox is the six-speed automated PowerShift 3. No others are available. The chassis rails and prop shaft mean that side luggage capacity is moderate and only available on the nearside. Locker doors are top-hinged and Plaxton’s clever handle means that keyholes are protected from road dirt.
“On the offside, space is occupied by the diesel and AdBlue tanks, exhaust and Eberspächer auxiliary heater. The boot is reasonably sized and accessible from the rear and both sides. At 8m3, total luggage capacity is double that of the former Cheetah.
“Cheetah XLs built so far have flat floors but Plaxton realises that a sunken gangway may also be required. This will be offered in the future, says Richard, while it slightly reduces theoretical luggage space, in reality the awkwardly-accessed area between the chassis rails and flat floor will seldom be used.
“The new model shares a lot with its bigger brothers the Elite and Leopard, and when viewed from the rear that commonality is particularly clear. It is a bigger coach than its predecessor in every way, and that is beneficial in some applications.
‘This size is becoming more popular but I was adamant that I would not buy the 177bhp version,’ said Roddy. ‘Groups of 30-35 passengers like the coach because it has a full-size feel. Reaction so far has been very positive and drivers are very impressed.
‘I don’t expect this to be our only Cheetah XL,’ he added.
“A swing-in Tamware door is fitted and five steps lead to the saloon. Should a sunken gangway be specified, that will reduce to four. All-round air suspension allows the entrance to be lowered, while the wheel arch does not intrude at the bottom of the door.
“Particularly strong is the provision of handrails around the door. They are numerous, and include one on the underside of the courier seat. The seat has been added at the top of the steps but does not overly intrude into available space.
“Step edges are lit in red LEDs, which illuminate when the door is open. They have been specified by Perryman’s, as have those marking the aisle. The latter are lit whenever the engine is running.
“Access to the seats is easy and sturdy handholds are fitted to each upper corner. Although reaching the solitary front seat is slightly compromised by the engine cover, it is simple enough to get to and once there the view is wonderful.”
“In the cabin is where the Cheetah XL really comes into its own. Incorporating a big coach feel so well is a triumph of design, and helped immeasurably by the model’s 2.5m width.
“Perryman’s vehicle is even more welcoming thanks to Roddy and his mother Linda’s choice of upholstery for the Brusa Extend 300 seats. They are finished in red fabric with cream real leather headrests and shoulder inserts, presenting a very ‘warm’ look.
“That colour combination extends to the remainder of the interior and the up-market feel continues with Roddy’s decision to specify wood-effect flooring throughout, although the aisle is covered in removable carpet.
“Seats have three-point belts and recline but an unusual aspect is the inclusion of seat-back USB charging sockets. Those positions which lack a seat in front have sockets in the side wall. A cab switch to disable them all is fitted.
“Entertainment comes from a Bosch Classic Line unit (shortly to be upgraded to the Professional Line), complete with an 18.5in monitor which folds down electrically. A DAB digital radio is also included as an optional fitment.
“Climate control is from a roof-mounted pod towards the rear. All cabin heat comes from the Eberspächer auxiliary unit. Mercedes-Benz does not permit the use of waste engine heat for this purpose to maintain exhaust temperature. Perimeter radiators are also available but Roddy explains that experience so far suggests that they would be superfluous.
“Also not present on the Perryman’s Cheetah XL is the optional toilet. Were it specified, it would be floor mounted at the rear nearside. A fridge, which could be installed in otherwise unused space behind the driver, is also not part of the Perryman’s specification.
“Noise levels are low for a front-engined coach and certainly below those experienced on a Vario-based vehicle.”
“Mercedes-Benz’s cab interior is retained and access is via its own door …. changes have been made to the handrail layout around the cab door since launch. They are now more numerous, meaning it is not necessary for the driver to grab the steering wheel when climbing up or down. Steps are wide enough but a very large storage compartment attached to the bottom of the door slightly restricts available space.
“Plaxton retains the seat supplied with the chassis. It is re-covered to match those for passengers and the courier, including leather inserts, and is air suspended. The seat also has a two-stage heater.
“Within the cab door is an electrically lowered and heated signaling window. Although the window line is quite high, visibility to the right is very good; that to the front and left excellent. An electric one-piece windscreen blind is fitted.
“A regular driver has noted that while there is no view from the cab through the passenger door, the wide-angle mirror on the nearside allows any obstruction to be seen clearly. The overall mirror arrangement is excellent. They adjust electrically.
“All switches are close to hand within the cab and a reverse camera monitor is adjacent to the handbrake.
“The reverse camera is part of a comprehensive Synectics-supplied CCTV system. Its hard drive is within a lockable section of luggage rack above the front passenger seat, also suitable as secure storage by the driver and courier. Otherwise storage in the cab is reasonable and includes room behind the seat for a bag.
“Very useful is a driving time display within the dash computer. Not only does it show the current period but also the cumulative weekly time.”
“Gears are selected by a rotary switch on the right-hand stalk and the Atego always chooses first to start. It does so smoothly and without any clutch judder. Up-and down-shifts are equally slick and almost imperceptible from the driving seat, which is good given the engine and gearbox’s proximity.
“Under normal circumstances shifts are taken sequentially but on more than one occasion a block change was made when descending a hill.
“Speed is gained rapidly and the four-cylinder OM 934 will pull hard from around 1,200rpm even in a high gear. PowerShift 3 keeps engine speeds down as much as possible and engages neutral when coasting, if judged optimal for fuel efficiency.
“It did this several times while at speed on the A1 south of Berwick and while initially surprising, the driver does not feel anything out of the ordinary. Drive is re-engaged almost unnoticeably when road speed drops. As encountered on an earlier Euro 6 Atego test, hill starts are easy thanks to the clutch beginning to engage as the brake pedal is released.
“Power is adequate and the Cheetah XL makes good progress when pushed. The driver may manually force a gearshift up or down via the selector stalk and a kick-down switch is below the accelerator. A two-stage exhaust brake is fitted, which is also activated by the stalk.
“At 50mph, engine speed is 1,400rpm in top gear and at the 62mph maximum it is 1,750rpm.
One thing becomes obvious very quickly when the Cheetah XL is sampled from either a driver or passenger’s perspective: It’s an excellent midi coach …. Plaxton has pushed the boat out with the Cheetah XL and the price is fair for a vehicle of its standard.
“…. the Cheetah XL is a very strong contender, demonstrated by the number of orders placed so far …. suggesting that the builder knew what it was doing when it moved up a size. ADL CEO Colin Robertson is right: It’s a gem – for sure.”