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First impressions behind the wheel of the Cat CT660

PEORIA, Ill. - Before the smoke had cleared from the unveiling of Caterpillar's CT660 at its Conexpo-Con/Agg launch, trade press editors - including yours truly - were clamoring for an opportunity to put the new truck through its paces.That...

PEORIA, Ill. – Before the smoke had cleared from the unveiling of Caterpillar’s CT660 at its Conexpo-Con/Agg launch, trade press editors – including yours truly – were clamoring for an opportunity to put the new truck through its paces.

That opportunity finally arrived in late September, although Mother Nature did its best to rain on our parade, washing out part of our planned route through Cat’s sprawling Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Ill.
Driving the CT660, Cat’s first ever truck, on a shortened route at its proving grounds provided the opportunity to assess its maneuverability, ride and creature comforts but it would not be fair to fully evaluate the truck after roughly 20 minutes behind the wheel. That said, the CT660 did impress on several fronts. The first thing you’ll notice when taking in the exterior of the truck is its bold stance and stylish front end, which borrows from other Caterpillar machinery, specifically its 980K wheel loader. Cat designed the truck to be both stylish and functional, and struck a fine balance with a look befitting a premium vocational truck with easy-to-replace components that are frequently damaged.

For instance, individual sections of the three-piece grille surround and bumper can be replaced, reducing inevitable repair costs. The fenders are constructed of a durable flexible rubber composite material, which is damage-resistant and bounces back into shape after contact.

Cat’s attention to detail extends right down to the halogen headlight bulbs, which are emblazoned with the Caterpillar logo. Indeed much of the challenge facing Cat’s design team was differentiating the CT660 from its so-called “donor truck,” International’s PayStar. While the truck is produced at Navistar International’s Garland, Texas assembly plant, product manager Gary Blood noted pretty much everything above the frame rails has been redesigned. This becomes evident when you climb inside the CT660 and are greeted by an automotive-styled interior. And by automotive, I’m talking Lexus, not Toyota.

The interior of the CT660 is rich by vocational truck standards. On the gray, overcast day of my drive, the backlit gauges shone bright and lit up the dash like a Christmas tree. Blood refers to the dash as a ‘command centre,’ complete with easy-to-reach rocker switches and bright warning indicator lights. A unique attribute to the CT660’s dash is the marriage of the speedometer and tachometer into a single gauge. This is a feature that may eventually be copied, as it places the two most important gauges in one location and allows the driver to assess both with a quick glance.

A lot of attention went into the placement of the gauges, ensuring they are not blocked from view when a driver is in typical driving position. The heating and air conditioning vents are round, not rectangular, because Caterpillar has learned when developing equipment interiors that round vents provide more efficient heating and cooling. Who knew? While some of the enhancements are plain to the eye, others are not. For example, Cat added a second window lift because it wanted to ensure the window travels up and down smoothly, as the window of a premium truck should.

Make no mistake; the interior of the CT660 is purely Caterpillar. It’s far from a redesigned International PayStar. Visibility over the sloped hood is superb and the truck can be spec’d with either a one- or two-piece windshield. Cowl-mounted mirrors are designed to remain in position and will not be bothered by the repeated slamming that vocational truck doors are typically subjected to.

Caterpillar is particularly proud of the quietness of the CT660’s interior, and for good reason. Outfitted as a dump truck, the CT660 I drove was indeed quiet for its application. Some of this can be attributed to a compacted graphite iron (CGI) cylinder block, which lessens engine noise by about 30%, according to Blood.

However, designers took it a step further and focused an inordinate amount of their attention towards identifying sources of ‘BSR’ – or buzzes, squeaks and rattles. In its pursuit of a quiet cab, designers weren’t afraid to deviate from industry norms, like replacing the glove compartment with a removable bin. That eliminated two hinges and a latch, frequent sources of irritating noise. Another byproduct of their noise eradication efforts is a stationary cup holder (another swivel eliminated) and if you look closely, you’ll find other examples as well.

“Sound suppression was one of the key areas we focused on,” Blood said. “We really wanted a quiet interior.”

The CT660 rode well, particularly for a set-back axle configuration, with the steer axle located almost directly underneath the driver’s seat. Blood said Cat’s use of trunion-style cab mounts – which double as quarter fender mounts – dampen cab vibration and provide a smoother ride.

Turning radius, of course, is of paramount importance on a job site and the CT660 excelled when given the chance to make a tight turn on the course Cat provided. The company claims to offer “class-leading” curb-to-curb turning radius and while difficult to measure, there’s no reason to doubt the claim. At the very least, it’s right there with the best of them. The truck is available in 116- and 122-inch BBC (bumper to back of cab) configurations.

One of the more interesting spec’s available on the CT660 is the company’s own CX31 torque converter-style automatic transmission. While new to the trucking world, the CX31 has been around the block, designed initially for use in Caterpillar’s articulated dump trucks.

The transmission was smooth as silk on my short drive and it impressively held the truck’s position on a steep grade while I clumsily moved my foot from brake to accelerator to resume from a complete standstill. Steve Rutherford, marketing manager with Cat Powertrain, suggested the CX31 is 5-8% more fuel-efficient than the “other” torque converter automatic.

That’s a bold claim, so I asked Rutherford what it is about the CX31 that makes it that much more efficient to operate than the Allison offerings, which are highly regarded in their own right. He said it all boils down to integration: the efficiency of a fully integrated powertrain package simply cannot be matched by a third-party transmission that’s designed to work with a wide variety of engine makes, he explained.

A 5% improvement in fuel mileage, by the way, can provide fuel savings of $3,000 per year.

About 40% of Caterpillar’s initial orders included the CX31 automatic, which is being spec’d mostly for its contribution to good fuel mileage and also because it vastly broadens the pool of prospective drivers from which to hire. This mirrors the heavy machinery world, Rutherford noted, where manual transmissions are practically unheard of. Automatic transmissions can also contribute to a safer work site, Rutherford added, allowing drivers to keep “two hands on the wheel, two feet on the floor and two eyes on the road.”

The CX31 is a pricey upgrade (pricing specifics weren’t shared), but Rutherford said the investment can be recouped by avoiding the costs associated with the maintenance and repair of manual transmissions, including: clutch replacement ($3,000), driveline repair ($1,000), axle breakage ($4,000), premature brake wear ($1,500) and so on.

The CT660 is powered by either the CT11 or CT13 Cat engines, which admittedly are International MaxxForce designs programmed to excel in Caterpillar’s vocational applications.

Horsepower ranges from 330 to 475 with peak torque ranging from 1,250 lb.-ft. to 1,700 lb.-ft. A 15-litre offering – which will be greeted with some enthusiasm in the Canadian market – is in the works and should be available in early 2012.

Adopting Navistar International’s in-cylinder EPA2010 emissions strategy means there’s no need for diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) or all the hardware associated with the selec
tive catalytic reduction (SCR) system used by all other engine manufacturers. That eliminates about 400 lbs of weight versus competitors employing SCR, Blood noted. The Cat engines have a dry weight of about 2,400 lbs. Blood said Caterpillar is confident in its emissions strategy, and boasts a B50 life of 1.2 million miles, meaning 50% of its engines will still be running strong at the 1.2 million mile mark without significant repairs.
The Cat CT660 is a pleasure to operate and boasts a stylish interior in which drivers will take a lot of pride.

The theory is that drivers who are given nice equipment to operate will treat it with more care and lower repair costs, providing a lower cost of ownership. That’s Caterpillar’s sales pitch for a product that will be at the upper end of the price range among vocational trucks. (Cat officials said they will be priced competitively with other premium vocational trucks – namely Paccar siblings Kenworth and Peterbilt).

Cat is hoping it can leverage existing relationships with vocational truck and equipment operators into some strong sales. George Taylor, director of Cat’s global on-highway truck group, said about 70% of vocational truck buyers have an existing relationship with Caterpillar, whether from running Cat engines or operating other Cat machinery. The company has paid special attention to how it can enhance the relationship between truck and machine. One such example is Product Link, which comes standard on the CT660 and provides a Web portal into how the truck and other equipment (even non-Caterpillar trucks and machines) are performing in real-time.

Mike Verheyen, connected work site product manager, likened the system to an around-the-clock worker whose sole function is to monitor how a company’s assets are performing and who works for free.

Truck owners and fleet managers can be alerted to suspicious activity such as poor fuel mileage, sudden fuel loss, equipment usage outside working hours and anything else that may be out of the ordinary. The Cat dealer is also informed, so if they notice inefficiencies such as poor equipment utilization, they can bring it to the attention of the customer and offer a solution.

It’s clear Caterpillar has the relationships – and now the truck – to succeed in the vocational truck market. Initial interest is high, and Taylor said order boards are full right through October – even before most dealers have taken delivery of any inventory.

“Most of those customers are looking at a pamphlet,” Taylor said. “The key thing is getting that truck out there and getting it visible.”

One thing became clear at Caterpillar’s trade press show-and-tell: the company is not content to be a fringe player in the vocational truck space.

“We expect to be, in the next five years, the number one or number two player,” Taylor boldly proclaimed.

That’s an ambitious goal, but at first glance the truck itself appears up to the challenge.

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