Article by: Anirudh Raheja

Launched in 2012, SML Isuzu’s S7 has been a star performer. It is also one of India’s favourite school bus.

SML Isuzu launched the S7 in 2012. Capable of seating as much as 50 people, the mid-size bus has been drawing attention for its modern appearance. Powering the bus is a 101 hp, 3.5-litre four-cylinder CRDI engine. It could be had in BS III or BS IV emission compliance mode. Springing new variants that are capable of accommodating 15, 19, 24, 25, 30, 40, and 50 people, the S7 has over the years turned out to be a star performer at SML Isuzu. It is perhaps the most versatile among the range of products the company offers. It is also the most popular as well as the most selling; the S7 school bus especially. The other forms that the S7 is available in, include a staff bus and a XM cool series bus, which is aimed at executive travel. Based on three wheelbase sizes – 3335 mm, 3940 mm and 5100 mm respectively, the fully-built S7 could be had with air-conditioning too. With many school bus operators choosing air-conditioned buses on the demand of parents, it should not come as a surprise if one sees an air-conditioned S7 school bus. The S7 school bus, as the three models – S7-3335, S7-3940 and S7-5100 – may suggest, have different wheelbase, and thus differ in length and seating capacity.

A modern school bus

Painted in a bright shade of yellow as per the rules laid down by the ministry of transport, the S7 school bus follows a design idiom, that maximum space in a bus should be made available to the people travelling in it. Boxy the S7 looks. It also looks modern. The school bus logo at the front and the rear distinguishes it from the other S7 variants. Exhibiting good fit and finish standards, the front is made up of a large windshield. The surrounding portion is finished in black. If the large, near vertical windshield facilitates good vision of the driver, large mirrors further facilitate the driver’s vision. The driver can now see what is in the vicinity of the bus; on either side and at the rear. Below the large windshield, the grille has headlamps on either side. They are built into a silver-painted strip across the corner. It is this bit, and the SML logo, which make this bus stand out in the company of other school buses, by other commercial vehicle manufacturers. While the window rails extend along the side, and ensure safety, an emergency door at the rear right facilitates evacuation in an unfortunate incidence of a collision. At the rear, the tail lamps are also built into a silver-painted strip, albeit vertically arranged and placed at either corners.

Climb into the driver’s seat, and a spartan dash draws attention. It contributes towards the modern look of the bus. The instrument console consists of a large speedo dial. It is flanked by front and rear (brake) air-pressure dials. Below them is the fuel and temperature gauge. Situated on the vertical bank to the right of the panel are a few switches. One of them is the headlamp levelling switch. The console surface is made of faux wood, and adds to the impression of good overall standards of fit and finish. The engine is placed besides the driver. It is longitudinally arranged with the drive going to the live rear axle via a 5-speed synchromesh manual transmission. While attention is drawn by the moulded roof and the neatly built interior, a door on the left facilitates low step entry. The flooring is of the modern, anti-skid variety. Also ensuring safety are the grab handles attached to each seat along with bottle holders. The hatrack has been so designed that it hardly intrudes into the passenger room.

Slid into the driver’s seat, and the view ahead is unhampered. Unlike in a car, I am sitting right ahead, amidst a forward control setup, and ahead of the front axle. The engine fires to life with enough noise to announce that it runs on diesel(S7 is also available with a 91 hp, 3.5-litre CNG engine). It is however not intrusive. Not even when the bus is moving. Good insulation ensures a fairly silent ride. Vibrations are well contained too. The first two ratios give the impression of being tall. Rather than speed, they offer the needed torque to get going. It is in the third gear that the school bus gathers speed. Enough to present an idea that the CRDI unit which powers it, is capable. The three-spoke steering wheel is good to grip. It is easy to read the instruments. Most controls, including the gear shifter, are within easy reach of the driver. This helps him to concentrate on the road. The low revving motor, it is clear within spending some time behind the wheel, is about torque rather than speed.

The multi-leaf spring suspension does tend to have a stiff edge to it. This is felt over less than ideal surfaces. The drive however does not get harsh or uncomfortable. Riding on 8.25×16-inch dia. 16-ply rating tyres, the steering feel is decent. This one’s got a power assisted steering. Of the three models, the 3335 comes with non power assisted steering. A good view ahead, and that of the surrounding area, courtesy the large windshield and mirrors, the school bus is quite manoeuvrable. The hydraulic vacuum assisted brakes provide a strong bite when the need to halt presents itself. A mere touch of the pedal initiates retardation of speed.

The drive of the S7 school bus is enough to provide an idea why the name, SML Isuzu, is synonymous with light and intermediate commercial vehicles LCVs. At the cargo end of the spectrum as well as at the passenger carrier end. It is the company’s presence at both ends of the spectrum, which makes it interesting. LCV and ICV sales may continue to drag, small and mid-size people carriers have however been recording fair growth for some time now.

Increasing the market share

It does not come as a surprise when a company official states that the going’s been good in case of the S7 school bus. He is quick to point that other variants of the S7 are doing well too. A sense of optimism is apparent at the SML Isuzu headquarters in Chandigarh. Sales of the company soared to Rs 383.2 crores in the first quarter of this year. The sales turnover during the corresponding period last year was Rs 338.6 crores. In the 2015 financial year, the company clocked sales of over 11,750 units, marking a 20 per cent growth in comparison to over 9,760 vehicles sold in the 2014 financial year. The plan is to double the market share to 15 per cent by 2019 from the 7.5 per cent market share in 2014, according to the official. What contributed most towards SML Isuzu’s sterling performance were buses. Small and medium in size!

Aiming at new application areas

Fueling SML Isuzu’s aspiration to double the market share to 15 per cent by 2019 is perhaps the new application areas small and mid-size buses are coming to find. The demand for mid-size buses to improve connectivity in the rural areas under JnNURM II scheme is growing. The emergence of AMRUT is also expected to facilitate the growth of small and mid-size buses on feeder routes. The company delivered 270 buses recently to the Chandigarh State Road Transport. It has received orders from various state transport undertakings including the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation, Chattisgarh Road Transport Corporation and others. SML Isuzu has also received orders from the defence sector.

Thrust on development

The alliance with Isuzu has enabled SML to strengthen its brand image and launch modern platforms in the cargo and passenger carrier segments of increasingly higher GVW. Technology sharing has led to an upgradation of R&D facility in order to meet regulatory demands in the area of emissions and safety. With CRISIL affirming that prospects of CV industry in India as positive, and Novonus, a market research firm mentioning in its report that the Indian bus market is growing at a CAGR of 9.36 per cent, and is expected to surpass the USD 10.34 million mark by 2020, it may not take long to understand the fact that SML Isuzu is strengthening the pipeline at both the ends. At the product end as well as at the sales and service end. It has thus far invested in 120 dealers, 18 authorised service centres and 18 spare parts distributors.

Modern manufacturing at Ropar

 

SML Isuzu’ plant at Ropar, 40 km from Chandigarh, has an installed capacity to manufacture 18,000 trucks annually in a single shift. The capacity can be hiked in response to a rise in demand for trucks in the 5.2-tonne to 12-tonne GVW. The bus plant is in close proximity to the truck plant. Demand for fully-built buses facilitated its rise. The plant has a capacity to build 4000 bus body units annually. While the R&D facility is in the vicinity, SML Isuzu bus plant can manufacture 15 units in a single day. The plant is currently operating at 50 per cent of its total capacity. The strategy to setup own bus body building plant rather than let buses be built by specialists is paying off. The facility setup with the help of the Japanese partner has enabled the company to stay ahead of the tightening emission regulations as well as the bus body norms. After postponing for three more months, the government, begining August 01, has implemented the Bus Body Code. SML Isuzu’s buses have been AIS 052 and AIS 063 norms compliant for more than an year now. While demand for other services like GPS, etc., expected to rise, SML Isuzu is already in a position to offer GPS services, speed governors and more.

 

Exports

India is not the only market SML Isuzu is concentrating upon. It has expended its reach to the SAARC region; to neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Nepal, SML Isuzu commands a 10 per cent market share. The aim is to double the market share by FY16 on the basis of aggressive marketing activities and new product launches. In the LCV and ICV segment especially. Products include school buses, tourist buses, etc. SML Isuzu has already launched the S7 school bus in Nepal. The S7 staff bus will follow.

Considering the changing paradigms in the transport industry, and driven by the need to comply with stricter regulations and tackle other challenges, SML Isuzu is gaining market share. Its aim to double its market share by 2019 does not look like an exaggeration. Its S7 range of buses are finding new takers. Buses aimed at the executive travel market are also finding more takers. A reflection of progress is had from the fact that in 2015 the company sold two-lakh units. With reforms initiated by the central government in the area of smart cities, infrastructure and industrial sectors, the demand for quality commercial vehicles like the S7 is only expected to grow.

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