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On the road to somewhere

You cannot be too careful when it comes to school minibuses. Gerald Haigh gets behind the wheel of four of the latest models to see how they measure up.

Two years ago this month, 12 pupils and a teacher from Hagley School in Worcestershire were killed on the M40 in a horrific accident as they returned home from the Schools Prom. There was no suggestion that the school minibus in which they were travelling was faulty, but the consequent publicity caused most schools to look again at the condition of their vehicles.

Even so, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), there is still evidence of schools not carrying out basic safety checks. School minibuses arriving recently over a three-month period at RoSPA with drivers for training, were routinely checked by the association's chief examiner, who found numerous problems, the most common being underinflated tyres. There were also doors that would not shut, faulty wipers and, quite incredibly, two minibuses turned up with no MOT certificate.

In many schools, the response has been to stop trying to keep an older vehicle up to standard, and to look round for a new one. Manufacters have responded to this by competing to provide school minibuses which have up-to-the-minute safety features. The most insistent demand has been for seatbelts. However, minibus seatbelts have to be fitted to the seats themselves, which together with their mountings, have to be strong enough to bear the shock of a collision. This is why it is not easy or cheap to fit belts to an older vehicle.

The first factory-fitted belts were lap only. Now, though, all major suppliers fit school vehicles with lap and diagonal belts and high-back safety seats, all complying with industry test standards. Equally important, manufacturers have paid attention to "active safety" good brakes, efficient suspension, and positive controls which are easy to use.

I test drove four minibuses: I chose Ford and LDV as the only factory-built buses on the UK market. I added Citroen (who are currently advertising a special schools package) and, for comparison, Peugeot.

This was not an exhaustive test, and it would be unfair to single out a "best buy", particularly as there are other vehicles which are not included. I could, as a head teacher or parent, live comfortably with any of those tested, but schools might also wish to consider manufacturers like Volkswagen, Fiat, Mercedes and Renault who provide their own buses, or speak to Dr George Read at Manchester Metropolitan University if you need any advice about van conversions.

Manufacturers make their own claims about the levels of testing applied to their seats and belts. You must ask about this, but in my view, for all practical purposes the vehicles I saw are as safe as current engineering permits.

Each vehicle I drove had a two-and-a-half litre diesel engine. The Transit had Ford's own engine; the other three all had the same PeugeotCitroen engine. In this class, only the Ford is available with a petrol engine. I like the user-friendliness of diesel, despite current questions about its environmental impact. Fuel economy is better; there are fewer electrics and electronics to go wrong; starting, hot or cold, is reliable, there is no choke to juggle with and good solid pulling power is delivered at modest engine speeds.

One of the minibuses (the Citroen Relay) had an optional turbo-charger. This cures the diesel's propensity to run out of breath at high revs.

Schools make a significant market for mini-buses, and suppliers often have special school packages. Although most firms have a range of minibuses, the buying information given here is for the ones that schools usually want those with 15 or 17 seats and ordinary diesel engines. Prices exclude VAT, and there may be additions.

The cost, or free availability, of small add-on options such as reversing aids, steps, door buzzers, first aid kits and fire extinguishers will vary too, as will the list of major optional extras such as anti-lock brakes. Leasing and lease purchase are available. These vary in price, and you should make careful comparisons, but reckon on up to Pounds 5,000 a year for a rental deal which includes full maintenance.

Use our guide as a starting point, and make sure that you see and drive these and as many other vehicles as possible. Take two people and a notebook and bear in mind that the degree of co-operation and response to your own requirements will make a contribution to your decision. Remember also that, as with a car, what counts is the total cost over a period of time, and that the initial purchase price is only one part of this.

* The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, tel: 0121 200 2461

* Minibus and Community Transport magazine is a free publication dealing with issues concerning the use of minibuses from Reader Registration, MCT magazine, Landor Publishing, 250 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5RD

* Information on minibuses can also be obtained from the pressure group BUSK (Belt up school kids). Busk, Gwent, NP5 1SP

* Volkswagen: between now and mid-December, a new VW minibus will be touring VW dealers. Tel: 01908 601348

* Mercedes Benz: 01928 245000

* Fiat: 01753 511431

* Renault: 01793 486001

* Dr George Read, STATUS Office, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Manchester Metropolitan University, Chester Street, Manchester M1 5GD

LDV 400

Of the four vehicles I looked at, this one has the most dated, van-like appearance. However, the driving characteristics belie the styling. The power steering is light, and the controls are easy to use, though it takes a little time to get used to the gearbox. One advantage of the Seventies styling is that you can see the front of the vehicle from the driving seat, which helps in confined spaces.

The main attraction of this minibus lies in the keen basic price to schools. This additionally includes free school livery, free RoSPA driver training for four members of staff, free National Trust membership and a two-year, 100,000-mile warranty. Add the fact that it comes with 17 seats (and will thus take a rugby team and two adults) and you can see why it continues to sell well.

Price: Pounds 17,995

Seats: 17

Engine: 2.5 litre diesel

LDV, tel: 0121 322 32963110

Citroen Relay

Because this minibus has front-wheel drive (unlike Ford or LDV), the floor is comparatively low. Add the fact that the basic vehicle is quite large anyway, and you have a pleasantly roomy interior. The side loading door is wide too.

The vehicle feels manageable and secure on the road. The power steering is light at parking speeds, and the dashboard-mounted gear lever is not nearly as awkward as it looks.

The example I drove had the turbo version of the Peugeot 2.5 diesel, and accelerated like a scalded cat, though whether such performance is useful for schools is doubtful. Staff at Taunton School, where the example I drove is on appraisal, like it very much. They would prefer 17 seats, though, and Citroen has responded by saying that they will build a 17-seat version on request. If you do want a 17-seat Citroen, there will inevitably be reductions in seat width and spacing.

With a non-turbo engine, this minibus costs Pounds 18,995. The school package includes free RoSPA driver training for three members of staff, free mobile phone, free graphics including the school name, 3-year 100,000 mile warranty, 3-year free roadside assistance. A range of financing options is available, including contract hire and lease purchase.

Price: Pounds 18,995

Seats: 15

Engine: 2.5 litre diesel

Citroen, tel: 01753 822100

Peugeot Boxer

This minibus is derived from the same basic van as the Citroen. There is the same feeling of space, and the quality of the interior is high. My example had the same engine as the Citroen too, but without turbo-charging. This confirmed my view that the turbo is not really necessary for a school minibus. There is ample power from the refined and quiet normally-aspirated engine, and it is well suited to a smooth, safe driving style.

This firm has chosen not to do special offers, believing that they have a keen price in relation to the high quality of the product. The vehicle does, however, come with a 12-month unlimited mileage warranty (which can be extended at an extra charge) and free AA membership for one year.

Price: Pounds 20,795


Engine: 2.5 litre diesel

Peugeot Talking Business tel: 0345 280280

Ford Transit

A pleasant drive the power steering is effective without being too light, visibility is helped by door mirrors which, alone among the vehicles I drove, have blind spot eliminator. The gearbox is easy to use, although reverse could be difficult to engage. It will bowl along the motorway comfortably enough for a vehicle full of children. Ford's diesel is noiser than the PeugeotCitroen engine, and the characteristic diesel knock is noticeable, especially at town speeds. Other drivers all commented on this. I cannot say it bothered me much and an audible engine is a considerable aid to neat gear changing.

The 15 seater with 2.5 diesel costs Pounds 23,295. The Ford Minibus Programme, however, enables parents and friends to allocate their Barclaycard Profiles points towards the cost, up to a total discount of Pounds 6,000. A number of schools have demonstrated that a well-organised group of parents can knock up the full amount in a surprisingly short time. The deal includes free on-site training for two drivers, a mobile phone, school livery, free RAC membership for a year, 12 months unlimited mileage warranty, with an option to extend at extra charge.

Price: Pounds 23,295

Seats: 15

Engine: 2.5 litre diesel

Ford Minibus Programme tel: 0800 111222

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