Cabover conundrum

Cabover trucks, also called low-cab-forward vehicles, continue to fight an uphill battle in the U.S. medium-duty market. While those on the lighter end the GVWR range can sometimes match conventional medium-duties in price, a new spate of conventional models has started to cancel out some of the advantages of the cabover design. This is kind of ironic, because the cabover platform dominates the truck

Cabover trucks, also called low-cab-forward vehicles, continue to fight an uphill battle in the U.S. medium-duty market. While those on the lighter end the GVWR range can sometimes match conventional medium-duties in price, a new spate of conventional models has started to cancel out some of the advantages of the cabover design.

This is kind of ironic, because the cabover platform dominates the truck market in Europe, Japan and just about everywhere else in the world except North America. According to General Motors Isuzu Commercial Truck LLC (GMICT), cabovers represent 25.1% of all Class 3-7 sales in the U.S., a market share that increased only 1% between 2000 and 2001. Todd Bloom, vp-marketing, says sales figures for October 2002 show that GMICT has garnered a 69.7% stake in the cabover segment. Much of that success can be attributed to the GMICT venture itself, which combined the medium-duty commercial vehicle sales, service, and marketing functions of Japan-based American Isuzu and General Motors in the U.S.

GMICT has chipped away at the price advantage typically enjoyed by conventionals. Five years ago, says Bloom, Class 3-4 cabovers cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than a comparable conventional. Today, the price difference has dropped to the $500-$800 range for gasoline-powered Class 3-4 cabovers.

In the heavier models (Class 5-7), however, conventionals still have a $5,000 to $6,000 price advantage. Perhaps this is why cabovers have only a 12% market share in the higher GVWR vehicles. Bloom also notes many of the new conventional models have sloped front hoods and set-back front axles that can now compete with the good forward visibility and tight turning radius that have been hallmarks of the cabover design.

Nonetheless, cabovers have managed to carve out niches in the medium-duty market, including urban delivery fleets and street-sweeping operations. This has convinced some manufacturers of conventional medium-duties to develop cabovers of their own. Ford Motor Co. and International Truck & Engine Corp. have formed Blue Diamond Truck, a joint venture that is slated to introduce a cabover by 2004.

The fierce competition among cabover manufacturers may lead to some interesting changes in the near future. Mack Trucks, which builds the Freedom line of cabovers, and Hino Trucks are contemplating new strategies in this market, details of which they're both keeping close to the vest at this point. Mitsubishi Fuso has a new entry in the cabover segment — a lightweight concrete mixer for vocational applications.

Kenworth continues to make the K300, a Class 6-7 cabover. Last year, Kenworth and sister company Peterbilt had planned to introduce the DAF Class 5-7 cabover to North America, a truck designed by parent company Paccar's Leyland Trucks of Great Britain. But with medium-duty sales continuing to fall, it's not clear whether or not Paccar will move forward with this plan.

Bering Trucks, the most audacious new entrant into the cabover segment, closed its doors last year before its new factory even officially opened for business. An ambitious plan to import cabover truck cabs as complete modules from Korean manufacturer Hyundai and install them on truck chassis built in the U.S. fell apart after DaimlerChrysler bought a stake in Hyundai and effectively killed the deal. Bering and Hyundai are still in court trying to sort things out.

Despite all these market machinations, it looks like, for now, cabovers will remain a significant player in the U.S. medium-duty market.

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