Medium trucks require big decisions

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. — The medium-duty truck market has been steady over the past year; healthy, but lagging the historical pace of orders seen in the Class 8 segment. Medium-duty Classes 5-7 truck orders declined in March, according to the latest preliminary data from ACT Research.

“Classes 5-7 orders took their first respite in more than a year, falling to the 20,000-unit mark in March,” said Steve Tam, ACT’s vice-president. “Regardless of the time period comparison, March orders declined, coming in 23% below February and 32% lower than March 2018.”

However, reports from the ground show there remains strong demand for medium-duty trucks.

“The demand seems to be picking up on our side of the business,” Jason Cuddy, account manager with Rush Truck Centres of Canada, told Truck News. “There are a lot more guys enquiring for the spring. Build rates for us, like most OEMs, are out to November for a lot of products. You’ve got a backlog of stuff on order. The market seems to be fairly robust.”

Blaine Nicholls, salesman with Metro Truck Group, said because of the order backlog, more planning is required of medium-duty truck buyers than in the past.

“Build dates are pushed way out,” he said. “Traditionally, this market was a reaction market. They get a project, they need a truck and go out and buy a truck. Because of the lack of inventory, customers are realizing they have to forecast ahead, the same as the Class 8 market.”

So, what are medium-duty truck buyers looking for? Box trucks. And lots of ’em.

The effect of e-commerce
With online shopping continuously reaching unprecedented levels, more box trucks are required for package delivery.

“For me, personally, I see a lot of box trucks for local distribution,” Cuddy said.

It’s a trend that Steve Kljajic, truck sales manager with Humberview Trucks, has also noticed. He said it’s also driving increased demand for Class 5 cabovers.

“Cabovers, over the last five years, in the city are increasing all the time,” said the GMC and Isuzu dealer. “That won’t change, because congestion is going to become worse. The turning radius on a conventional truck with a 16-ft. body can’t touch a cabover with a 20-ft. body. Our most popular body length is 20 ft. The cabover is safer, too. Visibility is better.”

Nicholls, however, says driver comfort is greater in a conventional.

Spec’ing for the driver

Automatic and automated manual transmissions have almost completely replaced manual transmissions in the medium-duty segment.

“We barely spec’ or stock manual transmission trucks anymore,” Cuddy said.

Owners are also trying to bring more driver amenities into the cab, especially for delivery routes with lots of stops, and are trying to reduce the rigors of the job for drivers.

“Everything has a tailgate,” said Kljajic. “In the past it was maybe 50-50 whether they’d get a tailgate and walk ramp or no tailgate. Now, for dry freight, I’m noticing 80% want a tailgate loader.”

This is being done to accommodate aging drivers but also to make the job more attractive to new hires. Spec’ing a truck that doesn’t require a D/Z driver is another consideration.

“Keeping a truck within a G class in Ontario has been beneficial,” Cuddy said. “The driver pool is so tight, it allows anyone with a licence to drive the truck. It’s a different category and probably a different pay scale.”

The alternative fuel that’s commanding the most attention in medium-duty circles is electric. Urban delivery trucks are ideal for electric powertrains. They typically don’t cover a lot of miles, so range anxiety is limited. They frequently stop, enabling regenerative braking to push power to the batteries. And they’re quiet and environmentally-friendly. Freightliner has announced plans to electrify its M2 medium-duty trucks, and some turnkey systems are available on the market today. (See pg. 28 for a report on a Pete 220 beverage truck with a turnkey electric drive system from Dana).

Nicholls said he sees the eM2 having a home in Canada, especially among landscapers.

“I don’t know if it will have an impact initially on the waste industry. They require too much horsepower to run PTOs and crush garbage. For landscapers, when they want to silently pull into residential areas, do what they’re supposed to do and pull out, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity,” he said.

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) published a report that found medium-duty trucks with one shift per day are the best fit for electrification, as those trucks sit for long periods when they can be recharged.

“The operational complexity increases as the number of duty shifts increases,” NACFE concluded.

But the biggest shift Kljajic sees, is a move from diesel to gasoline.

“We see the trend growing towards gasoline, especially in the city with lower mileage,” he said. “People are getting diesel fatigue with diesel exhaust fluid, regenerations, more maintenance. Gas is a really simple truck to operate – you do your oil changes and go. There are less electronics.”

Don’t do this
Medium-duty truck dealers help steer buyers toward the right truck for their business, but sometimes, mistakes are made. It could be out of ignorance, or it could be because operators are stuck in their traditional way of thinking and don’t always consider how trucks have evolved. Kljajic cites an example.

“I find people sometimes get too much power,” he said. “Everyone is used to the North American way of doing things, which is high horsepower and high torque. If you look at the Asian products and some from Europe, those places in the world are surviving with a lot less torque and horsepower and that is coming into the North American market.”

Increased congestion, rising urban populations, and more efficient engines are a few reasons customers may want to consider a downsized engine or rating.

Ontario customers can also be caught off-guard when they realize moving into a bigger truck may put them into CVOR territory. Any Ontario trucks with a GVW over 4,500 kgs require a CVOR, and that can take quite some time to obtain.

“Anything we sell is at 4,500 kgs for the chassis alone,” Cuddy said. “Some guys get down the line, make a deposit, and then the CVOR takes months to get and they learn the hard way.”

If upsizing to a larger truck, ensure the CVOR is in place before taking delivery, or else the truck will serve some time as an oversized lawn ornament before being put into service.

Nicholls said another mistake to avoid, especially in this environment, is settling for any old truck that’s available.

“For buyers who haven’t planned ahead and need a truck, don’t react and take whatever is in front of you because you need a truck right now,” Nicholls said. “You’re going to have it 10 years. Step back, take a breather, and make sure you’re getting the right truck. With medium-duty buyers that’s a big thing. A lot of these guys don’t buy trucks regularly – they’re used to walking to the car lot and choosing a blue one or a brown one. If you buy a truck like that, it may suit you today, but it’s not going to suit you in three weeks. Do
your homework.”

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