ALMA-MAMMOTHA rendezvous with the Alma Mammoth highlighted the abilities of the MG Group and the technological prowess of MAN. Further tweaks are certain to elevate the Mammoth to a new level.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

The Alma Mammoth grabs attention. Enough to raise a doubt if it were designed by ace Indian designer Dilip Chhabria. Built by Belgaum-based Alma Motors, the coach building arm of MG Group, the Mammoth is quite attractive. Drawing the attention of show goers at the Busworld India 2015 show held at Mumbai, the two-axle 12 m long bus puts out a premium inter-city appearance. Adding weight to the proposition is the presence of MAN logo on the body as well as on the front wheels. Announcing MAN’s entry into the bus segment, the Mammoth employs a MAN chassis that finds its way to Belgaum for a premium body to be built on it.

Set up in 2004 in response to a mandate for bus body building received from Ashok Leyland according to Anil M. Kamat, Executive Director & Partner, MG Group, Alma Motors has come to have two plants at Belgaum. The Mammoth is built at the younger plant, which will continue to be dedicated to the building of the Mammoth, according to Kamat. Supported by the MG Group’s allied business verticals like West & Deccan, MG Composite LLP and Grey Engine LLP, Alma Motors caters to the conversion demand for Ashok Leyland, Ashok Leyland Nissan JV, Volvo Eicher, Tata Motors apart from MAN and a host of bus operators like Pai Associates. Entering into conversion of automotive bodies from 1980, and progressing to serve OEMs like Mahindra and Force Motors apart from those mentioned earlier, the Mammoth marks the entry of the coach builder into the premium segment. It is logical therefore, that for a company, which has built over 90,000 buses in the last 19 years (and of which 7,500 have been exported), the Mammoth matters a lot.

The move up to Mammoth
It was at the 2011 Busworld India that a MAN (Germany) official approached the MG Group, taking note of the four models the company had displayed there. He expressed an interest in bus body building according to Kamat. The display of automotive electronics business vertical, Grey Engine LLP at the Busworld 2013 proved be a basis for a serious discussion with MAN officials. A visit to the MG Group facility followed in 2014. “MAN officials,” Kamat exclaimed, “were also talking to two other companies. Their (MAN’s) condition was to get the bus body work certified by MAN, Germany. We took up the challenge and completed the project in 10 months.” Supported by West & Deccan, which is the Group’s design arm, the company went to work. Since it was a front-engine chassis, the frontal styling was a challenge. The result turned heads at the Busworld 2015. The frontal appearance of the Mammoth turned heads even when we took it out through the city of Belgaum and on to the Belgaum-Kolhapur stretch of the Pune-Bangalore highway.

1. Sleek headlamps accentuate the modern appearance of the Mammoth.
2. Taillamps are part LED, part conventional.
3. The ladder chassis construction means the Mammoth has storage bays along the sides.
4. The Mammoth rides on 295/80 R 22.5 radial tyres.

The surprise element at the Alma plant at the start of the drive was the presence of two Mammoths, an LHD version and an RHD version. Over nine Mammoths have been built till date according to company sources. Of these, the LHD versions have found their way to Ethiopia. The RHD versions have found their way to Maldives. Once the 280 hp engine is made available, the Mammoth will find its way into the Indian market by the mid of this year. Trials with various bus operators of the current, 220 hp version are said to be underway. Claimed Kamat that the MAN chassis is fantastic, and the mileage is far superior.

With the engine at the front, the MAN chassis is of the ladder frame variety. It is however engineered especially for bus application by MAN, according to Kamat. Adorning a Alma logo at the centre, the frontal styling of the Mammoth stands out. Below the huge glass windshield is a grille that tends to skillfully accommodate sleek lamps, including the daytime running LEDs. Cleverly and thoughtfully styled along the lines of a rear engine bus rather than a front engine bus, the giveaway is the driving position. Unlike in a rear-engine bus, the driver of the Mammoth seats higher up. This is however nicely masked by the lack of a protruding engine cover inside. The driver’s door opens all the way down. Steps built into the inner surface reveal themselves as the driver’s door is opened. They help him to climb down or climb up. Get behind the wheel, and the rear view mirrors placed on either side of the large windshield give an impression of the driver sitting at almost the same level as in a rear-engine bus.

Premium looking and comfortable
The sides highlight superior levels of fit and finish. Bonded windows create a similar impression, and also does the large front windshield. Aft of the door are lockable doors that provide access to the storage compartments along the side. Transporters are known to transport small scooters in the centrally mounted box sections of their rear engine buses. They will not be able to do so in the Mammoth. The only box section available is at the end. It is clearly not big enough to transport a scooty. For safety, the fuel tank is mounted between the two ‘C’ sections of the frame, and between the two axles. Nicely designed arch surrounds painted in a contrast colour liven up the sides. They are openable for ease of service access.

Dominating the rear is a large hatch hinged at the top. It is strut mounted, and a part of an ingenious approach towards emergency exit. Called the EMSecure (Emergency Management – Secure), the emergency exit of the Mammoth, also includes a manually ejected stairway, built with assist handles to provide support while descending, allowing passengers of all age groups to evacuate the coach unharmed as the height between the last step and the pavement is less than two feet. According to Alma sources, the EM-Secure has been patented by them. In all, the Mammoth comes with eight emergency exits! One from the door on the left; two by breaking the window glass on either side in the front section; two from the front and rear roof hatch each; two by breaking the window glass on either side in the rear section, and from the EM-Secure at the rear.

The luxurious push-back seats on the bus we drove were imported. The seats have since been localised, and come from either Harita or Prakash. This was done in consideration to the travel preferences of various travellers the Mammoth will address. The hatracks continue to be imported, and have high quality of build apart from the multi-purpose consoles including AC vents built into them. Attention to detail means the driver of the Mammoth and his associates have to deal with two keys only. One for the ignition and the other for the rest of the locks. The overall fit and finish levels of the passenger compartment are of good standards, and lend a premium touch. Any rough corners are hard to identify. Besides each seat has a mobile charging point with a USB port.

The drive
Finding its way over Belgaum’s seemingly congested roads, some of which are being expanded, the Mammoth got an opportunity to stretch its legs on the four-lane highway between Belgaum and Nipani. The driving position of this bus is commanding to say the least. The large windshield provides good visibility. Also do the rear view mirrors mounted higher up and ahead. The modern engineering attributes that have gone into the making of this bus reflect through the instrument console behind the large twospoke steering wheel with MAN written at the centre. The console has two big dials, that of the engine revs and vehicle speed each. The warning lamps occupy a place in between the dials. Below the speed dial are three dials including those that indicate the fuel and air pressure. Switches on either side of the instrument console are for ride height adjustment, hazard warning, etc. To ensure that there’s no uneven load distribution, the Mammoth’s bellows can adjust the air pressure. This also improves the handling, stability and tyre life. To counter rough road conditions, the bus has a second ride height system, which raises the chassis height by 50 mm. Gathering speeds in the region of 80-100 kmph, the Mammoth gave the impression of being steady and devoid of any tendency to rock. Any pitching at the front is only under heavy braking. Retardation of speed is accomplished confidently, thanks to the dual circuit S-cam brakes and an ABS system.

If the all-round pneumatic suspension impressed with its ability to provide a comfortable ride, the Mammoth, powered by a six-cylinder 6.8-litre turbocharged diesel engine, which produces 220 hp at 2400 rpm, has been engineered to have a low centre of gravity. A quality that is clearly reflected through its impressive handling abilities on the highways at speeds. Capable of a top speed of 110 kmph, the six-speed manual transmission of the Mammoth is light to operate. The first three ratios are tall whereas the other three, and particularly the last ratio aids to do good speeds.

At speeds in the region of 60 kmph, an amount of engine noise finds its way into the driver compartment. Noise in the driver compartment is clearly not as low as in the passenger compartment. Capable of seating 36 people, the Mammoth could do with some more refinement; more noise insulation. This would also help towards a premium experience, and in the wake of its front-engine layout. Located longitudinally at the front, with the drive going to the live rear axle, the engine does feel a bit sluggish on inclines. Especially when the need to regain speed after slowing down is necessary. The 280 hp engine should help to address this issue and up the appeal of the vehicle. Apart from elevating the performance of the bus, the 280 hp engine will also provide an opportunity for MAN and Alma to truly compete with premium segment players, albeit in the front engine category of the market. According to Kamat, a rear engine configuration is also in the making. A multi-axle variant could find a way into the future.

The Mammoth edge
Premium looks of the Mammoth are well matched with MAN’s ability to engineer a bus chassis that displays high levels of stability and comfort. The effort put in by the MG Group despite the chassis’ front engine configuration is worth acknowledging. The Mammoth presents a premium feel, albeit with the need for more refinement and power. A powerful engine will arm the Mammoth with more fire power. A sleeper coach version could further define the flexibility of the platform. The rear-engine version would best epitomise the premium edge that the MG Group is looking at for the Mammoth to achieve. CV

Anil M Kamat, Executive Director, MG Group

Q. Where do you see the Mammoth as a project?
A. What we have tried to create with the Mammoth is a complete expression of our passion for bus building. With this product and the way it is gaining traction in the export market, we hope that the Mammoth will also attract similar levels of interest in the domestic market once we get the 280 hp engine.

Q. From body conversion for Mahindra at Zaheerabad to the Mammoth. How do you look at the journey?
A. We have been doing business with Mahindra for the last 40 years. Bus building opportunity came to us in 1994 on the Mahindra FJ. We produced 17,000-18,000 FJs. We developed a Mini Tourister model for Mahindra. Probably, the first true bus product of Mahindra. We began building bus bodies on 15-seater platform. Model after model, we kept developing conversions for Mahindra. In 2004, we had an opportunity from Ashok Leyland. We set up a new facility at Belgaum. The Belgaum plant came to cater to Volvo Eicher. We built the new Skyline; almost 10,000 of them. We also developed a bus body for Force Motors. We produced about 4000 buses for them. We gained the confidence of Indian OEMs. We have been able to offer OEMs with the best bus building solutions. Our solutions are cost effective and competitive. What makes us unique is our ability to work with different OEMs, including Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland and others. For Ashok Leyland Nissan joint venture we have produced the Mitr buses. We are working with MAN too, and for a bus that has been certified by MAN, Germany. We should be clocking 100,000 buses by the end of this fiscal. This fiscal also happens to be our 20th year in the business.

Q. How did you survive the slowdown?
A. We come across challenges every day. We have a strong inclination towards creating something new. Not that we were not affected by the slowdown. We were hoping for the bus industry to boom, and in the process expanded our infrastructure. Lot of our projections went haywire. Since we were catering to many customers we were able to survive the slowdown. We are looking positively at this year, and expect the bus industry to take off. Especially with so many trends coming in. Also, the various activities taken by the Government. I feel that there is going to be a huge demand for mass transportation solutions. Buses will play a major role. We are building body solutions that range from USD 4,000 to USD 60,000. It would therefore depend upon the amount of flexibility we can offer to our customers. We continue to upgrade ourselves and offer the best solutions to our customers. We are taking the right steps, and we hope that our efforts get their due. We hope to get the right traction in the market.

Q. How did the Mammoth project come about?
A. We first participated in the Busworld exhibition in 2011. Since then we have put on quite a show. We displayed four models on four different chassis. We met a MAN representative from Germany. He expressed interest to enter into the Indian bus industry. At Busworld 2013, we displayed our automotive electronic product – a mock up of a bus with electronics in it. We had a serious meeting with MAN personals at this juncture. In April 2014, MAN official visited our facility, providing impetus to the coach building project. There were two other companies that they were talking to. The pre-requisite was to get the body certified by MAN, Germany. The entire design, the structures, welds, etc. We managed to build the product in 10 months; fully engineered and certified by MAN, Germany. It was an opportunity as well as a challenge. The Mammoth is our first true luxury coach. The feature constraint was the front-engine layout. Frontal styling was a major challenge.

Q. How do you look at Mammoth as a front engine premium coach over others, which are offering rear engine premium coaches?
A. The front engine chassis is a stepping stone for us. We needed a reputed partner like MAN. We will not pitch the Mammoth against the Volvo buses or Scania buses. It is going to be a notch lower. Our effort has been to create a better impression with our body solution. This product has proved to be of much interest in Germany (at MAN). The Mammoth, we feel, will give them (MAN) the confidence to introduce a multi-axle rear engine product at a later date. For that coach too, they would prefer to have the Mammoth body design is what we feel. That is the kind of product that will pitch against a Volvo bus or a Scania bus. The Mammoth will kick-start a different segment all together.

Q. Will this bus be positioned as a mid-premium offering?
A. In case of the body, there’s nothing that is less premium about it. The MAN chassis is fantastic. We conducted lot of trials. The mileage that the Mammoth delivers over all terrains is far superior than the other products available. In case of noise and vibration we are at par if not above. I think it is about the mindset that this is a chassisbased product whereupon the other products available are monocoque designs. Monocoque designs offer certain benefits like more luggage space, but then the price of the Mammoth would be lower than what it costs to buy a monocoque bus.

Q. What future do you see for the Mammoth?
A. Mammoth is attractive, and there is nothing that is lacking in terms of ‘premium’. Every person, company and fleet operator that has seen it wants to posses it. The need is to pitch it at the right price point with the right specifications (engine). As far as the export market is concerned, we got inquires even before we had the first prototype ready by seeing the pictures; the 3D rendering of the product. We received good inquires from Bangladesh, Africa, Maldives, Sri Lanka, etc. we have received export orders. We have started exporting the Mammoth. We are confident that this product will do very well in the domestic market once the 280 hp engine comes in. We expect the 280 hp engine to reach us at the start of the next financial year. The Mammoth will also offer a sleeper variant in view of satisfying the demand.

Q. Would Mammoth evolve into a broader portfolio?
A. Mammoth will continue to be a MAN chassis-based design. We are currently having a capacity to produce five Mammoths per month at Belgaum. By April 2016, we would have geared up to produce 30 buses per month. We have deployed a lean manufacturing setup.

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