Two years after debuting at BusCon and growing its customer base, particularly in the assisted-living and ADA markets, New England Wheels Inc. announced in June that its Frontrunner lowered-floor minibus successfully completed the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Altoona Testing program. The 22-foot, 15-passenger true low-floor, which was sent out for testing in November 2017, achieved a score of 91 on the new pass/fail test upon completion of testing in March 2018.
“Most vehicles in our class only test for four years and 100,000 miles, but we wanted to raise the bar because we know that we have a good product, so we had the vehicle tested for five years and 150,000 miles,” explains New England Wheels President/CEO Paul LaRose. “As best as we can determine by looking at the Altoona database, our 91 score is the highest grade achieved since FTA moved to a pass/fail test.”
LaRose adds that in addition to its high score, the Frontrunner was allowed 125 hours of downtime due to mechanical failure during testing, but only used one hour, which he says is a testament to the vehicle’s durability.
Described by LaRose as a “bus that has broken all the rules,” the Frontrunner is built on the Ram Promaster 3500 chassis and features a lowered-floor and gross vehicle weight of 9,350 pounds.
“When FCA introduced the front-wheel drive Promaster, it was really an opportunity to build a lowered-floor vehicle in a 15-passenger class that’s truly flat-floor,” says LaRose. “The challenge the industry has had to date is getting a truly flat floor with a rear-wheel drive chassis. You generally haven’t been able to do it, because the drive shaft is in the way and that results in what you call stadium seating and ramps that have weird angles and a lip where the ramp meets the floor, which tends to be sloped.”
The company uses ultra-high strength lightweight steel in its purpose-built chassis, which is then fully dipped in a hot-dipped galvanized process for superior corrosion resistance. The company also uses fully composite wall panels that have been patented for their strength, durability, and light weight, which LaRose says were three key points New England Wheels kept in mind when designing the Frontrunner.
Because it’s lightweight, one of the benefits of the Frontrunner is its fuel efficiency. In fact, LaRose says that while Altoona determined the vehicle can get 12 miles to the gallon, he has gotten feedback from end users that say they are getting as high as 16 to 17 miles to the gallon on the highway.
“The vehicle is also a front-wheel drive, which means it is significantly easier to handle and is better in the elements because it has a much tighter turning radius,” says LaRose. “Our rear axle is actually six inches wider on each side, making it, quite frankly, more stable than the traditional dual rearwheel.”
With a 9.75-inch first step into the bus in the kneeled position, the Frontrunner offers the lowest-ramp angle in the industry, and with a 60-inch-long ramp, it exceeds the proposed one-to-six standard.
“Our simple fold-out ramp that enters into a truly flat-floor really sets a new standard for what low-floor transpor-tation should be in this class, and in fact, the Frontrunner is the only vehicle available in its size class that is truly built in the likeness of a 40-foot transit bus,” says LaRose.
While traditionally focused on assisted-living and the senior and ADA communities, LaRose says now that the Frontrunner is Buy America-compliant, Altoona-tested, and built in the likeness of larger, low-floor transit buses, it is now ideal for paratransit, smaller fixed-route services, and first/last-mile feeder routes.
“We have also had a quite a bit of interest on the bus in Canada, where we’ve already applied for and have received approval from the Canadian equivalent of FMVSS, so we anticipate extending our distribution into Canada within the next six to nine months,” says LaRose.
Currently, the Frontrunner is being sold by eight dealers across the country, with New England Wheels looking to broaden its network in the short term. In the long term, LaRose says an electric version of the Frontrunner is also in the works.