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Little Trucks Big Ideas

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Peter Carter

The current state of the medium-duty truck market is like the story about a doctor who tells his patient he’s got good news and bad news. "I’ll have the good news first," says the patient.

Doctor: "We have to amputate your feet."

Patient: "And the good news is?"

Doctor: "The guy in the next bed wants to buy your shoes."

Medium-duty sales are down almost 26 percent in Canada over last year. Far, far too many trucks are sitting idle. And the short-term prognosis for people who make and use trucks in classes three to five (okay, six, seven and eight, too) is not bright.

So the good news? As Global Insight Analyst Ken Kremar jokes, "there’s less wear and tear on equipment." 

Alright, it’s not that funny. But it’s true. The medium-duty truck world is largely peopled by companies whose primary interest is something other than trucking; it could be landscaping, plumbing or delivering groceries. And when their main business is being stretched to breaking, they’re not going to be interested in spending money on their vehicles.

If Kremar’s numbers are right, they should be able to and will squeeze more miles out of the trucks that they do have. After all, they’re probably not that old.

"We had very strong numbers from 2004 to 2007. The numbers were way up," he says. (The numbers he is referring to are medium-duty truck sales statistics.) "It started to soften in 2007 but stayed healthy."
"But now you’ve got a young fleet and a bad economy. That’s an unfortunate combination."

"There’s a tremendous amount of underutilized equipment," Kremar says. And when the economy does pick up, which looks like sometime next year, truckers are going to use the equipment that’s been sitting idle rather than rush out to buy new trucks.

"If I had half my fleet idle," he says, "wouldn’t I be cannibalizing the half that’s sitting there to keep the others on the road longer?"

Another familiar transportation research group, J.D Power and Associates, mirrors the Global Insight predictions. Recently, Power released its report on the medium-duty market, based on research done in ’08. 

Dodge is trying to get its hooks into the
specialty and vocational markets

Says Brian Etchells, senior research manager in the commercial vehicle group, "Customer intent to purchase or lease medium-duty trucks within the next 12 months has reached its lowest level since 2002. Many owners are planning to hold on to their trucks longer," he says.

Combine the dreary economic forecast with the fact that medium-duty users are facing the same 2010 emission restrictions faced by heavy-duty diesel users, and it’s easy to see why only three items competed for the biggest news story of the year on the medium-duty front.

Story one: Daimler Trucks bidding sayonara to their formerly popular Acterra medium-duty truck with the closing of their Sterling plant in St. Thomas, Ont.  Daimler’s deep-sixing the entire Sterling marque and the Acterra was particularly popular among the municipal trash haulers and the expedited freight sets. (Daimler of course hopes these users will switch to Freightliners or Western Stars, other medium-duty trucks in the Daimler stable.)

Also dropped was the class-4 model 360 low-cab-forward from Mitsubishi Fuso, a sister company to Freightliner.

Story two: The reintroduction of Hino’s class-4 Model 155 COE out of its plant in Woodstock, Ont. 

Only a few years ago, Hino swapped its cabovers for conventionals but then responded to a backlash in Canada and announced in September that it was back in the COE biz.

Finally, from Detroit comes Dodge, moving more seriously into the medium-duty market, targeting the specialty and vocational operators. In 2008, Dodge launched a new 1500-series Ram. This year, at the Toronto International Auto Show, Dodge introduced a revamp of the heavy duty series pickups for 2010. The new trucks will be available in 3500 to 5500 classes and offered with a new "crew" design. Standard power for the 2500-and-up series will be the veteran 5.7-litre hemi or the 6.7-litre Turbo Diesel.

The hemi comes with a five-speed automatic while the diesel is coupled to either a six-speed automatic or six-speed standard and optional exhaust brake.

Beyond those announcements, the action in the medium-duty arena has centered around hybrids, incentives and, well, survival tips. 

A total of 35 vehicles were shown at the Hybrid Truck Users Forum’s annual meeting in October. Twenty-three of them had an electric-drive system from Eaton Corp., now the leader in hybrids, and another had Eaton’s Hydraulic Launch Assist (HLA). Bosch unveiled its own diesel-hydraulic system in Crane Carrier and American LaFrance trash trucks. ?

The diesel, meanwhile, continues as the king of commercial-truck power, but the engine continues to get more complex as increasingly stringent exhaust emissions regulations take effect.

Meantime, here’s a recap of the some of the latest medium-duty innovations:

Ford redesigned its SuperDuty conventionals last year and now has optional Work Solutions electronic products to help tradesmen plan their day-to-day activities and manage their businesses. SuperDuty models include the F-250, F-350 and F-450 pickups and F-450 and F-550 cab-chassis trucks. All can be ordered with two-door Regular, four-door Super and four-door crew cabs.

They use the 6.4-L, 350-hp Power Stroke V8 diesel or Triton gasoline V8 (5.4-L, 300 hp) and V10 (6.8-L 362 hp), all mated to Ford’s TorqShift five-speed automatic. The Class 3 and 4 LCF from the Blue Diamond joint venture with International use a 4.5-L, 200-hp V6 version of the diesel.?

Freightliner  is primarily concerned with heavier classes, but its Business Class M2-106 conventional dips into Class 5 with GVR ratings as low as 18,000 pounds. It comes with a low-profile suspension, Mercedes-Benz’s MBE 900 diesel or Cummins’ ISB, with ratings from 190 to 300 hp, and a choice of proprietary and vendor transmissions and axles.

The M2-106 (106 being its BBC dimension, in inches) claims outward visibility as good as a cabover’s, thanks to a large windshield and steeply sloped hood. Like other M2s, its electrical system is multiplexed for easy hooking up and control of lights and power equipment. A few Freightliner dealers also sell the redesigned Sprinter 2500 and 3500 van and cab-chassis, with new body choices, a diesel V6 and five-speed automatic.

Peterbilt’s flagship MD, the Model 325, is aimed
at operators who appreciate premium features.

GMC-badged Class 2 to 5 models include the Silverado and Sierra 2500HD and 3500HD. Last year these got new frames, stronger cabs and restyled noses, and use either the 353-hp Vortec 6000 gasoline V8 with a six-speed Hydra-matic or 365-hp Duramax 6600 V8 diesel with the six-speed Allison 1000.

Hino, in addition to relaunching the cabover, continues to assemble conventionals in West Virginia with Japanese-made cabs and engines and American-made hoods, frames, axles, transmissions and other components. Fuel tanks are now standard aluminum for lighter weight and better looks.

International’s  Class 5 DuraStar 4100 conventional uses many Class 6 and 7 components, including its steel cab (in two-door regular or four-door crew), low-profile "ambulance" frame, hydraulic disc brakes and Diamond Logic multiplexed wiring system. Emergency and public utility are among its principal applications, so it can be ordered with hig output alternators (up to 320 amps) and two A/C compressors. Engine is the 6.4-L 230-hp MaxxForce 7 V8 mated to a Fuller six-speed manual or Allison 1000 automatic.

Isuzu’s  N series low-cab-forward (LCF) was completely redesigned last year with fresh styling, new lights, and roomier, safer interior, including a bigger bonded windshield, halogen headlamps and daytime running lights. A front panel swings open for easy access to wiper parts, air filter and electrical components.

Growth of the Class 5 market led Kenworth to introduce the T170. There’s also the Class 6 T270 and Class 7 T370, all of which replaced the all-inclusive medium-duty T300 designation a couple of years ago. T170 is rated at 19,500 lbs and uses the Cummins-made, Paccar-branded PX-6 with six ratings from 200 to 300 hp and 520 to 680 lb ft.

Fuso covers this segment with four LCF models: FE125, rated at 12,500 lb; FG1400 4×4, 14,000 lb; FE145, 14,500 lb; and FE180, at 17,995 lb. All use Mitsubishi’s 4.9-L, 185-hp dual overhead cam 4M50 diesel.

Meanwhile, Nissan Diesel America, now a sister company to Volvo and Mack, plans on making its presence clearly felt in this market; starting with four LCF models: UD1400, rated at 14,250 lb GVW; UD1800CS (City Spec) and UD1800HD (Heavy Duty), both rated at 17,995 lb; and UD2000, at 19,500 lb. The 1400 and 1800CS use a four-cylinder MD175 diesel mated to a Nissan six-speed manual or an optional Aisin four-speed automatic.

Peterbilt  continues its Class 5 Model 325, a 19,500-lb truck based on the heavier 330 and 335 series. It’s aimed at P&D, towing, landscaping, municipal and other specialty applications whose operators appreciate premium features, including a stout, corrosion-resistant aluminum cab, aerodynamic nose made of an advanced composite that can withstand minor impacts, stainless-steel grille, and high-intensity headlamps.

Like other medium-duty models, the 325 uses a Cummins-made, Paccar-branded PX-6 diesel with 200, 240 and 300 hp and up to 660 lb ft of torque.

 

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