Unconventional thinking

Dec. 1, 2012
Despite overseas dominance, model remains a bit player in U.S.

It’s ironic that the cabover truck is in high demand almost everywhere in the world—it’s a configuration that’s practically the de facto global standard where commercial vehicles are concerned—yet it is nearly an afterthought here in the U.S. Despite its global dominance, can the cabover truck ever hope to break out of its niche in this very major truck market?

UD Trucks North America (UDNA), a subsidiary of Sweden’s Volvo Group, for one, no longer sees much of a future for the cabover design here. Thus, it announced back in September that it would stop production of cabover medium-duty trucks in Japan aimed for the North American market by the end of this month.

And this wasn’t a “short-timers” move either. UD’s decision came just two years after its North American division celebrated its 25th anniversary serving the U.S. market.

Yet cessation of cabover production for North America should not affect the global cabover sales of UDNA’s parent company, UD Trucks, which is being more strongly aligned with Volvo products in overseas markets, the most recent being South Africa.

So why leave? For starters, the U.S. market is very crowded with Japanese medium-duty cabover manufacturers, i.e., Hino Motors (a division of Toyota), Mitsubishi Fuso, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America Inc., and domestic builder Paccar, which just got back into the cabover game via new models produced by its Kenworth Truck and Peterbilt Motors divisions.

“The Japanese OEMs in particular have saturated the market,” says Steve Tam, vice president-commercial vehicle sector for ACT Research Co. Secondly, and much more importantly, the medium-duty segment is a small slice of the overall U.S. truck market. Some are predicting this market will decline going forward as the renewed growth of major metropolitan centers in this country will demand light-duty equipment that is more adept at navigating crowded urban roads.

“The main reference point for cabovers is the smaller Class 4-5 segment; we see more of the cabover play in that part of the medium-duty market if you will,” notes Jonathan Starks, director of transportation analysis for FTR Associates. “Right now, looking out five to 10 years, we really don’t see any major play towards increasing cabover use in that segment.There’s definitely nothing near term we see moving the needle more in the cabover direction.”

But the gradual falloff in medium-duty demand in the U.S. isn’t being replicated in other nations, explains Sandeep Kar, global director of commercial vehicle research for Frost & Sullivan. UDNA’s exit from the U.S. market may be part of a strategy by its parent to “reposition” factory capacity to serve markets closer to its home base in Japan, particularly Indonesia.

“We’re predicting the medium-duty market in Indonesia alone is going to [more than] double over the next six years, from 280,000 units this year to 670,000 units by 2018,” Kar says. “Those kinds of volumes far and away dominate anything UD could hope to achieve in the U.S.”

Yet it’s also important to remember that being a niche player in the U.S. isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.


Let’s revisit Kenworth and the two new medium-duty cabover models it rolled out in late 2011, the K270 Class 6 and K370 Class 7, both of which are targeted at urban-delivery applications, according to Gary Moore, the company’s general manager. “They offer excellent maneuverability, durability, styling and ease of service for customers operating in urban operations,” he notes, pointing in particular to pickup and delivery service, along with the lease/rental, towing/recovery, landscaping, furniture delivery, plus food processing and distribution markets.

Peterbilt enhanced its medium-duty Models 210 and 220 cabovers for the Class 6 and 7 markets late last year as well, offering several wheelbase options in order to accommodate a variety of application requirements including pickup and delivery, wrecker and sweeper.

“To expand versatility in Peterbilt’s medium-duty line, and to capitalize on market growth, our team of engineers has developed new designs for the Model 210 and 220 to enhance driver productivity,” says Landon Sproull, Peterbilt’s chief engineer. Sproull adds that offering a cabover model allows the OEM to provide what he terms a “complete truck lineup” from Class 5 through Class 8 models.

“That’s the reason Kenworth and Peterbilt offer cabover models; they fill a gap in their product line,” says Brent Gruber, director of commercial vehicle practice at research firm J.D. Power and Associates.

Gruber notes that Paccar also owns DAF Trucks in Europe, which only builds cabover models. That knowledge has allowed for an easy transitioning for a cabover model to meet U.S. market needs. It also gives the OEM an opportunity to pick up incremental medium-duty sales while forging ties with fleets that operate a mix of conventional and cabover trucks—positioning the OEM to gain more aftermarket parts and service business as well.

“They already have the economies of scale in terms of building cabovers from DAF, so while they know cabovers in the U.S. don’t amount to a huge quantity of sales, it gives them the opportunity to address the truck market more broadly,” he says.

Peterbilt says the design enhancements for its cabover models pair a lightweight chassis and frame rail with a strategically positioned electrical system to optimize body installation and increase payload capacity.

The Model 210, for example, is available as a Class 6 straight truck with a GVW rated at 26,000 lbs. It features a tight turning radius for improved maneuverability in difficult, confined spaces, plus a wraparound windshield, extra-large side windows, and heated mirrors for better visibility. The Model 210 comes standard with an automatic transmission and air suspension, is recommended for bodies between 18 to 26 ft. in length, and can be configured for a non-commercial driver’s license operation.


The Model 220 Class 7 cabover’s low chassis weight, tight turning radius, and wraparound windshield makes it best suited for high volume payloads and is recommended for bodies between 20 and 26 ft. in length.

“That’s why we’re still going to see the cabover as the dominant model for in-city operations in the future,” Frost & Sullivan’s Kar stresses, noting that cabovers are not only more maneuverable, but they also reduce the amount of material used to build the truck in the first place. This helps to improve fuel economy and payload capacity.

In suburban and rural areas, where a Class 4-7 truck will travel at higher speeds over longer distances, however, the conventional model gains the edge in terms of aerodynamic performance and fuel efficiency, notes Kar.

In fact, for U.S. fleets using medium-duty models, the subject of whether to favor a conventional or cabover model rarely crops up, according to Ken Gillies, manager of truck ordering & engineering at GE Capital Fleet Services.

“We rarely talk model type with customers,” he explains.

“Most of our discussion centers on base model cost, the job the truck is expected to perform, and how regulations impact vehicle specifications. Seldom does model type enter the discussion.”

The conventional model of medium-duty trucks is also heavily favored by GE Capital’s customers for another reason: attractiveness to drivers.

“For a lot of our customers, it really boils down to getting drivers behind the wheel,” Gillies says. “With a cabover, entry and egress is a little more difficult, especially for the 98th percentile male who’s 6 ft. tall and 220 lbs. Also, you can’t get an air ride suspension seat in a cabover—and driver comfort is a big vehicle specification factor today.”

That being said, a cabover becomes a no-brainer if a particular fleet’s duty cycle involves travel on narrow and congested urban roadways, such as those found in the boroughs of New York City.

“A cabover becomes a no-brainer if a fleet’s duty cycle involves travel on narrow and congested urban roadways, such as those found in the boroughs of New York City.”

By the same token, though, a Midwestern urban locale such as Kansas City may feature wider roadways and less congestion compared to the Big Apple, potentially making a conventional model more attractive.

“For us, it’s all about the job the truck is expected to perform and the location where it will operate,” Gillies stresses. “Our task is to strike the right balance between application, base cost, lifecycle cost, and driver needs. Once we achieve that balance, then we look at what type of truck makes the most sense.”

Yet Scott Perry, vice president-supply management for Ryder System, stresses that the cabover is often the truck model that makes the most sense for a large slice of his company’s customer base. “The choice between conventional and cabover designs is really duty-cycle dependent, but when you are talking operating in metropolitan markets with heavy traffic congestion, the cabover best fits that duty cycle,” he explains.


And while it’s true more driver “creature comforts” can be added to a conventional medium-duty model because of the larger cab, he says the operational benefits to driving a smaller yet more maneuverable cabover platform offers a type of comfort factor as well.

“The higher visibility and greater maneuverability of a cabover definitely help less-skilled drivers, as they can see the road better and often operate the vehicle with greater ease,” Perry notes.

You’ve also got to deal with the knowledge base of today’s younger drivers, he points out, as many simply don’t enter the workforce with the truck experience of the previous generation of drivers.

Still, FTR’s Starks emphasizes an important distinction when it comes to comparing the U.S. and European truck markets—a distinction that really explains why the cabover will remain, at least for now, a niche configuration on this side of the pond.

“The U.S. transportation system is designed for the conventional model; the European for the cabover,” he says. “Europe is just far more urbanized and densely packed, with city streets far more narrow compared to U.S. metropolitan locations. That’s really the heart of it when comparing and contrasting conventional and cabover medium-duty models in this country.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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