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October 19, 2011

Driving the new Caterpillar Truck

Caterpillar’s CT660, the all-new on- and off-highway truck, is just now rolling into the dealers and a few high-profile customers. The green light startup of production was September 5th. To mark the occasion, Caterpillar staged a press briefing and drive at its Edwards Demonstration & Learning Center close to the Peoria, Ill., headquarters of the manufacturer of the more familiar construction equipment.

George Taylor, director of Caterpillar Global On-Highway Truck Group and head honcho for the CT660 talked of the enthusiastic reception of the new product by dealers and early customers. During the press day, many of the same presenters from the Las Vegas launch in March revisited the materials from the pre-production reveal at ConExpo.

But the highlight of the day was an all-too-brief opportunity to drive a couple of examples of this special Caterpillar product – the first highway truck in the broad and deep Caterpillar lineup.

Cat’s Truck
Four trucks were available to drive, but the driving exercise was as much about the transmission as it was about the truck. The red trucks featured Eaton manual transmissions; the yellow trucks featured Cat's own CX31 transmission. But with the driving entirely off-highway at the impressive Cat demo site, there was little opportunity to do more than run as far through the gears as a maximum of 25 to 30 mph would allow.

The exercise was still worth it to showcase Cat’s CX31. It's a powershift torque-converter transmission, virtually the only heavy-duty torque converter transmission competitor to the ubiquitous Allison available here in North America

The red truck's specs were built around the same 475-hp 13-liter engine, which is sourced from Navistar. It featured the construction-favorite manual transmission: the Eaton 8-speed, low-low. This is the industry standard for a construction truck, offering road-speed gearing with the addition of two low gears suited to crawler operation that would be needed with dump or mixer trucks.

The CT660
Much of the new truck detail has already been covered in the launch report, but to recap, here are a few details.

Even though Caterpillar has been in the truck engine business for 40 years, the CT660 is Cat’s first truck product for over-the-road hauling. It's built for Cat by Navistar at its Garland, Texas, heavy vocational truck manufacturing plant. This facility builds Navistar’s military MRAP and the International PayStar, the Navistar Interntional heavy construction truck, among other more mainstream products.

The Cat CT660 shares some componentry with the PayStar, and the 11- and 13-liter MaxxForce diesels, though they are branded Cat in the CT660.

The CT660's dab does have a family resemblance to the PayStar cab, though there’s little in common, according to Gary Blood, Vocational Truck Product Manager. Even the sheet metal is different, as the Cat cab is all-aluminum. The cab panels, reinforcements, doors and hinges – even the dual window lifts – are unique to the Cat product. And the cab sits on 12-inch rails, way tougher than the 10 1/4-inch or 10 5/8-inch used on the PayStar.

Setting the seal on the differences is a totally different hood, bearing strong visual cues to Cat equipment, and everything about it is tough and durable – and easily replaceable – as befits a truck designed for a rough and tumble construction site.

But it’s inside the cab that the CT660 is so easily recognizable as its own truck. Caterpillar ergonomics and styling set it a world apart from the International trucks and give it the unique Cat look and feel that shouts: Here is a Caterpillar product with all the durability, reliability, performance, safety and serviceability that the Caterpillar brand promises.

Cat has contrived a truck workspace that delivers the functionality of a construction machine with styling that is automotive, premium and immediately at one with the exterior styling of the hood, cab and brightwork.

Double Drive
But the burning questions of the press event were: How does it drive? Is it as quiet as promised? Does it turn on the proverbial dime? Does it deliver on the Cat promise?

Well, the jury is out on durability and reliability; time will tell on that. However, there can be no doubt that the Cat dealers have the service excellence to back it up and the CT660 should have everything going for it in that respect. As far as the other questions, and based on a really short time at the wheel, it seems the truck is right on the money.

Because we were off-highway and in the lower gears, it made no sense to put the sound meter on the interior noise levels, but with the windows shut, there was an impressive attenuation of the mechanical noise. That is in part because the engine with its compacted graphite iron cast block and common-rail fuel injection is exceptionally quiet for a heavy-duty diesel. But the CT660’s cab mounts are also relocated and modified from the PayStar’s to isolate the driving compartment better, and the doors shut tight against the seals.

There’s no cab-excited noise either. According to Blood, extraordinary efforts were made to eliminate the buzz, squeak and rattle that are the bane of a driver’s existence. He describes the BSR as the higher order of the noise, vibration and hardness that automotive engineers strive to eliminate from the cars we drive. Because of the harsher environment of the truck cab, engineers need to go a lot further with materials and testing, said Blood, to eliminate the aggravations that can wear so much on the commercial driver who spends all day, every day in the cab.

And over the rough unpaved road of the test loop, there was no evidence of any interior generated noise, despite the fact that the trucks were spec’ed with hard-riding walking beam suspensions.

Within the limitations of the test, the trucks performed more than adequately, picking up speed well in response to the throttle. It must be said that the automatic easily out-performed the manual models with its fast, full-power shifts.

The CX31 Cat transmission is a very robust torque-converter transmission that comes from the off-highway articulated dump trucks in the Cat line-up. For them, it has a steel case, but in the CT660’s more automotive applications the transmission gets an aluminum case. Nevertheless, it is still about 150 ponds heavier than the Eaton manual. That is OK with the Cat guys, though, because the 11- and 13-liter engines are advanced exhaust gas recirculation technology for emissions compliance so carry none of the selective catalytic reduction add-on aftertreatment that can weigh as much as 400 pounds on competitive chassis.

The Cat CX31 automatic brings all of the torque-converter pluses to the CT660, most notably the ability to shift without breaking torque. This means faster acceleration and most importantly, the ability to start without driveline shock on a steep grade and then run up through the gears for faster climbs and better productivity. This is most important in any situation where there is a long climb out of a loading site such as a quarry.

At the proving ground, this was very apparent with a loaded hill start on the driving course. The CX3 pulled away smoothly and quietly where most drivers felt they had to stay in the low starting gear with the manual. Some of the experienced drivers managed to grab a gear or two, but only over the protests of the Eaton transmission.

On The (Haul) Road
Immediately upon climbing aboard, the truck feels like a Cat. This is apparent from the driver’s seat with the cool dashboard featuring a unique two-in-one speedometer and tachometer. This single gauge, while still large, frees up enough real estate to allow the Cat designers to bring all the gauges within the upper arc of the steering wheel. Supplementary gauges are across the handsome center stack where the rocker switches are sized to allow operation by gloved hands.

Where there are no switches and dials, there is storage, loads of it, unusual for a day cab – all Cats are and will be daycabs – overheads, dash top, door pockets, back-of-cab. There’s even a glovebox, but without a lid. Blood would allow nothing that could develop a buzz or rattle over the life of the truck.

Safety is well served with an easy step up to the cab and exceptional forward visibility over the steeply sloping Cat hood. The engineers have done a terrific job of keeping the cooling package low under the hood so visibility to the ground is almost like that of a cabover – an important plus in the heavy populated environs of the jobsite.

Rearward vision is also good through the cowl mounted mirrors that stay in adjustment no matter how often the doors are opened and slammed shut in the course of a working day.

These interior appointments, the ease of driving and the safety are all important in the business of attracting and retaining drivers and the Cat CT660 will likely have a major role in these efforts. There’s no doubting it will be priced at a premium, but Cat says the ruggedness of the design and execution, the easy serviceability and intangibles like driver retention and Cat’s experience of integrating its product to work as a system will make the overall cost of ownership lower than competitive trucks.

That’s what Caterpillar does. Based on this brief ride ‘n drive, it seems that this could well be what the CT660 delivers.

It must.

After all, it has to live up to that great big Cat symbol on the grill.

94 comments:

  1. I had one of the caterpillar truck i.e. C13, it was a great experience to drive it, it was quite good except for using a lot of oil.

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