Changes ahead for midrange trucks

There's a lot of change going on across the midrange spectrum home to Class 3 through 7 trucks serving a broad range of applications, from landscapers and contractors to delivery companies, utility fleets and government entities. Some of that change is massive, such as the still-unresolved effort by General Motors to sell its long-vaunted medium-duty line of Kodiak and TopKick trucks or Daimler AG's

There's a lot of change going on across the midrange spectrum — home to Class 3 through 7 trucks serving a broad range of applications, from landscapers and contractors to delivery companies, utility fleets and government entities.

Some of that change is massive, such as the still-unresolved effort by General Motors to sell its long-vaunted medium-duty line of Kodiak and TopKick trucks or Daimler AG's decision to shut down its Sterling Truck Co. subsidiary. Other shifts are far more subtle, though still packing a punch, as in the changeover within the Class 3 designation to an almost wholly consumer instead of commercial customer base.

“That's some of the biggest news in the Class 3-5 segment, that Class 3 trucks are no longer traditionally sold to commercial buyers,” says Eric Starks, president of research firm FTR Associates. “They are much more consumer-oriented now. That brings you a lot more buyers, but it's made that Class 3 segment more susceptible to big market swings.”

However, Starks believes Class 4 and 5 trucks remain a steady source of sales in the medium-duty market. FTR is forecasting annual sales of 62,000 units in those two classes for this year, which is right up there with the 72,000 Class 6 and 7 units the firm projects will be sold in the U.S. in 2009.

HOLDING THEIR OWN

“In terms of commercial attractiveness, Class 4 and 5 are holding their own,” says Starks. “We've seen a slow shift over the last 10 years to more Class 5 purchases simply because those are predominantly diesel-powered, while the Class 4 models are mostly gasoline-powered.”

Ford Motor Co. is one OEM trying to address more of those customer needs by adding new chassis offerings to its medium-duty lineup. This includes an F-59 stripped chassis with GVWR choices of 16,000, 19,500 and 22,000 lbs., plus an E-Series ambulance preparation package available in van or cutaway configurations.

Built on Ford's F-53 Super Duty motorhome chassis, the F-59 will be available starting January 2010. It's designed for parcel/courier services, food distributors, laundry specialists, construction trades and government fleets, among other various applications, says Rob Stevens, Ford's chief engineer for trucks. “This chassis represents tremendous value for the customers in this unique commercial segment,” he notes.

The F-59 will be equipped with a 6.8-liter, Triton V10 gas engine combined with the TorqShift 5-spd. automatic overdrive transmission; standard four-wheel antilock disc brake system; and stabilizer bars fitted to both front and rear axles for large load-carrying capacity.

Ford's new E-Series ambulance package is also powered with a 6.8-liter, Triton V10 gasoline engine, which will deliver torque comparable to diesel-powered ambulances. This will help lower the cost of ambulance acquisition for private and municipal customers alike. The package will be available later this year.

“These new commercial vehicles demonstrate our ‘One Ford’ strategy … adapting our existing resources to new market opportunities and combining innovative technologies to better deliver on the needs of our customers,” says Mark Fields, Ford's president of The Americas.

MORE OPTIONS

There are more options available for medium-duty buyers, including everything from tire choices to stylized body enhancements.

“For the most part, tire considerations are the same for these classes as for the Class 6-8 trucks; it's important to consider the environment that the tires will operate in and the demands that will be placed on them,” says Don Baldwin, product marketing manager for Michelin Tires North America.

“In an urban or regional application with stops and starts, high-scrub and the potential for sidewall impacts, the tire should feature reinforced sidewalls and a tread design and compound that resists irregular wear and tearing,” he explains.

“But if the vehicle would be heading off-road at a construction site, work yard, etc., for a period of time, a tire that is better suited for wet or slippery surfaces would be appropriate,” he notes. “This would also be the case in winter or other conditions where added traction is needed. The tire should also have a tread pattern that will resist stones and improve traction, include protective sidewalls and features that will guard against any debris or other impacts.”

Aside from performance, the “look” of medium-duty trucks is becoming increasingly important for both resale value and aesthetic appeal, says Tim Wenger, product development manager for parts at Hino Trucks USA.

For that reason, Hino has added a range of exterior trim accessories made from 304-grade stainless steel with noncorrosive and nonmagnetic properties under the label “HinoStyle” for its 2005 through 2010 model-year trucks. Accessories include sun visors, hood deflectors, bumper covers, door handle trim, window and cab trim, anti-sail mud flaps, steps and step covers. Wenger says all HinoStyle stainless steel accessories (excluding electrical components) carry a 12-month, unlimited-mileage product warranty against defects in material or workmanship.

INCENTIVES FOR HYBRIDS

A range of new incentives are being introduced to help fleets defray the cost of purchasing the more expensive diesel-hybrid trucks. The cost can be as much as $40,000 to $50,000 extra, explains Kevin Beaty, hybrid business unit manager for Eaton Corp.

The $737-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act steered through Congress by President Obama's administration earlier this year provides government funding to help fleets acquire more hybrids. Gary Moore, Kenworth Truck Co.'s assistant gm for marketing and sales, says this economic stimulus package contains significant funding to support various clean diesel activities.

“This funding presents a significant opportunity for truck operators interested in reducing their environmental footprint,” notes Moore. “There will be intense competition for the grant money, which will be awarded on a fast-track basis.”

The National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program, for example, offers $156 million to fund grants awarded on a competitive basis to support diesel emissions reduction programs. The EPA's SmartWay Clean Diesel Finance Program offers $30 million to support creation of national, state or local innovative clean diesel financing programs, while the State Clean Diesel Grant Program offers $88 million to fund clean diesel grant and loan programs administered by states.

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