An electric minibus from Lithuania

Altas: How the short city variant fares on its first test drive

Altas: How the short city variant fares on its first test drive

It is currently not easy to find an electric minibus that meets the usual requirements of this segment. Admittedly, almost all the major manufacturers are now offering an electric van base, but it is proving very difficult to fit a genuine bus body on top. Mercedes and MAN are unable to provide a launch date for their attempt, while VDL and Iveco have either canceled their first attempts, or not even had them out on the road. It is actually a shame, as the areas of operation and types of use of compact buses are essentially predestined for battery-electric drives. Competition from vans and even cars for the battery packs and drive components is possibly still too fierce in this segment. At least it cannot be due to lack of customer interest.

One of the few options comes from Lithuania. The minibus manufacturer Altas, which is based in Vilnius, has the best references with both Mercedes and MAN as a bodywork manufacturer and “Preferred Partner”. Lithuanians are often regarded as the clever and meticulous ones amongst their Baltic neighbors. You can see that immediately on their buses: the workmanship is almost flawless, no bodged areas or sharp burrs on plastic components. So much for the first impression, but now let us take a look at the electric range. First up is the EV Cityline, which we drove, which comes in two lengths: 7.36 meters carrying 20 people, or the L-version with a length of 7.66 meters, up to 18 seats and carrying up to 22 passengers. Both models can also offer wheelchair space and a ramp. And second up – for anyone that can do without a low-floor vehicle for a crew bus or similar uses – the EV Ecoline. It boasts up to 19 seats or also two wheelchair spaces, but otherwise comes with the same traction technology. And the latter also comes from the Baltic specialist Elinta.

The vehicle itself is built on the Sprinter mid-length van and does without a molded design of bus rear. If need be, the last row of seats can be removed, making the vehicle even more versatile. The three battery modules are fitted under the driver seat, with the asynchronous electric motor, flange-mounted on a short cardan shaft, positioned in front of the conventional rear-axle differential. It is also designed to act as a recuperation generator, obviating the need for the antiquated energy-destroying Telma component – finally! The strength of this electric brake can be fine-tuned in five stages.

The Altas minibus is built on the Sprinter van. Photo: Thorsten Wagner

The driver’s cab is not fully closed

The vehicle does not yet have rear suspension, but this is in the pipeline and should soon be available. Our impression of the ride was by far not as bumpy as we have experienced in the past with robust suspension like this. And, after all, a city bus is by no means a coach. In spite of this, you really have a nice ride on the slightly raised seats with the low-entry principle. Passengers can talk to the driver at all times, as the cab is not fully closed off, and the driver is also able to quickly head to the back of the bus in an emergency. This is an important aspect, particularly when the bus is frequently used in urban areas and with relatively few passengers.

The Altas developers have very much focused their work on the driver. The Sprinter is actually not a bad base for this either. Unlike Mercedes per se, the Lithuanians have even succeeded in attaching an attractive-looking control unit for bus functions under the cockpit instead of on top of it, as is the case with the Sprinter City. To achieve this, the Lithuanians have omitted Mercedes’ own head unit beside the monitor, and have replaced it with a ten-inch touchscreen on which the driver can access a wealth of information about the drive. The fact that this means going without the MBUX infotainment system is a concession that is worth putting up with. Nonetheless, the Altas people still need to do some work on the monitor user experience. A few buttons have ended up being terribly small, and we would have liked a finger pad at the bottom of the screen.

The user experience still needs to be extended

We also like the spirited and whisper-quiet propulsion of the 150 kW/210 bhp asynchronous motor, which produces an impressive maximum torque of 1,250 Nm – naturally regulated to give passengers a comfortable ride. The price of this electrifying fun? “We are also aware that they are currently significantly more expensive than diesel buses,” explains Altas CEO Edvardas Radzevicius at the launch of the bus in July 2020. “With our will to make these costs competitive, we are closely monitoring the electric vehicle market to be able to offer our customers all the benefits that the introduction of electric mobility brings.” But this still means almost twice as much as you would pay for a diesel bus. Having said that, this is money that is well spent with an Altas bus.