Dec. 18 2010 12:00 AM
While the words Newest! Biggest! Fastest! sound great when talking about holiday toys for your kids, when it comes to the truck in your company´s fleet, durable, functional, reliable and versatile are much more practical terms. Looking at the parade of commercial trucks coming off the assembly line in 2011, there is no doubt that manufacturers have incorporated all of these terms-and more- when describing their new models.

Truck manufacturers are introducing some of the most exciting innovations that the industry has seen in years. Some of the changes were due to previously announced, more stringent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission standards, while others had to do with unforeseen downturns in the economy. To meet these challenges, some truck manufacturers have gone back to the future and re-introduced a popular model, while others have practically reinvented the wheel.

Isuzu at one time partnered with General Motors (GM) to assemble their company’s gasoline-powered trucks in the U.S. Once the completion date on the agreement expired, both parties agreed not to continue the partnership, and GM closed the plant. The economy was failing and there were many trucks still left to be sold. During this time, Isuzu was producing its diesel-only trucks.

In the spring of 2011, Isuzu will be re-introducing its gasoline-powered line of Class 3 and Class 4 mediumduty trucks. “Our new gasoline engine is a carryover from what we used to offer,” says Brian Tabel, retail marketing manager for Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Cerritos, California. “We didn’t build any gas models in 2010 or 2011 because GM closed the plant. Now, Spartan Motors in Charlotte, Michigan, is going to assemble our new N-series low-cab-forward trucks in both single and crew cab models.”

Isuzu is also driving down the ‘ecoramp’ with the introduction of its new NPR Eco-Max diesel: a turbocharged, 4-cylinder engine featuring 150hp and 282 pounds-feet of torque.

“We’re offering the NPR-Eco-Max in our 1,200 GVW (gross vehicle weight) truck,” said Tabel. “It has a smaller hp diesel that gets about 20 to 30 percent better fuel economy, which is ideal for landscape contractors who want to “go green” but don’t want to pay $15,000-$30,000 extra for a hybrid or electric vehicle to get there.”

Another manufacturer who decided to take a one-year hiatus is Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, Inc.

Due to a combination of the new emission standards, consolidations in the trucking industry and the economic crises that hit ancillary equipment manufacturers and suppliers, Mitsubishi found itself model-less in 2011.

“We didn’t have a model because our EPA-10 engines were delayed,” said Todd Bloom, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America. “We had already met the new stricter particulate emission levels in 2007, but the nitrogen oxide emissions had to be reduced by a minimum of 85 percent by 2010, and those engines weren’t ready in time. Now, we not only have our engines at EPA-10 standards, but the 2012 models (which will be introduced in March 2011), will come with a smaller displacement engine and brand new transmission technology called automatic mechanical transmissions (AMT),” he said.

According to Bloom, the AMT operates similarly to a manual transmission, except that it doesn’t require clutch actuation or shifting by the driver. Automatic shifting is controlled electronically and performed by a hydraulic system or electric motor.

“The controls on the truck still look like an automatic, it feels like an automatic, so for all the driver knows, it is an automatic. The fact that it’s an AMT only means that it’s simpler, lighter and less expensive to both manufacture and repair, is more efficient and gets better fuel economy,” says Bloom.

Mitsubishi Fuso’s new AMT transmissions will be launched early next year, along with a four-wheel drive cab-over which will be available in both Class 3 medium, and Class 4 heavy-duty work trucks—the sizes that seem to be most popular for landscape contractors.

“We have about 16 to 18 Class 3 medium and Class 4 heavy-duty trucks for our hardscape installations, such as patio walls, driveways, and brick walls,” says Barry Witz, fleet manager at Kujawa Enterprises, Oak Creek, Wisconsin. “We were using GM trucks for this part of our business, but when they went under, we decided to go with the new Navistar International TerraStar for the hardscape division, because of the size of the engine and larger cab interior space.”

The International TerraStar is the new kid on the block in the Class 4 and Class 5 work truck neighborhood. Navistar entered this market to fill the void left by General Motors in the medium-duty truck division. As Witz pointed out, the TerraStar is equipped with a 300horsepower, 660 pounds-feet of torque, 6.4-liter MaxxForce 7 turbodiesel V-8 that meets the rigid 2010 EPA emissions standards without a urea-injection system.

According to Randy Oetting, director of business development at Navistar, Inc., Warrenville, Illinois, the in-cylinder exhaust-gas recirculation system doesn’t require diesel exhaust fluid for selective catalytic reduction of nitrogen oxides. Another new feature of the TerraStar is the commercial-style tilt-away hood that offers unobstructed access to the engine compartment, and the new International Diamond Logic Electrical System (DLES) which allows the engine, transmission, cab and body to electronically ‘talk’ to each other.

“The DLES is a self-diagnosing, self-monitoring system that allows drivers and technicians to accurately pinpoint electrical problems for quicker troubleshooting, faster repairs and increased uptime,” says Oetting. “It also delivers a number of smart, customizable features for added convenience and safety, like automated pre-trip inspections, turning the headlights on with the windshield wipers, and more.”

While the name of a truck may change, the reputation of a brand remains the same. Brad Skarsten, general sales manager of Tom’s Truck Center in Santa Ana, California, points out that UD, a division of Nissan Diesel, was recently purchased by Volvo, and Hino is now a division of Toyota.

The Chrysler Group, for 2011, dropped the name “Dodge” from its line of commercial trucks and created the stand-alone Ram Truck brand. “Creating a separate brand has allowed us to concentrate on how our core customers are using their trucks, so we can pay attention to the details they’d like to see,” said Fred Diaz, president and CEO of Ram Truck Brand, Chrysler Group LLC, Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Joe Benson, head of Ram Truck Commercial Vehicles, says that some of the new features in the 2011 line are of special interest to the landscape industry—new upgrades and technologies added to the chassis cabs.

“We know that the landscape industry has been struggling over the past few years, as have many businesses. Many have had to decrease their fleet size to increase profitability, so in that sense they’re trying to do the same amount of work with fewer vehicles. Our new crew cab has more room, which gives them a greater opportunity to transport more of their crew to and from jobsites. We’ve added six more inches of leg room over the previous models, and the rear doors open a full 87 degrees to allow the crew easier access into and out of the vehicles.”

Knowing that many landscape contractors spend more time in their trucks than they do in their office, Ram has added up to forty storage features for hanging folders, clipboards or laptop computers. “This truck is not only a transportation tool, it also functions as a mobile office.

It comes complete with 110-volt plugs built into the dash, so contractors can do their daily work and keep their business up and running at the same time,” Benson said.

All these features will be on the Ram 3500, 4500 and 5500 chassis cabs which will be entering the new decade for the first time, while the familiar Ram 2500 and 3500 heavyduty pickups will be making a return engagement, with some new engine enhancements.

“Our pickups are equipped with a choice of engines, including the 5.7liter 390 horsepower HEMI V-8 gas engine or the 6.7-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel, the only heavy-duty pickup to meet 2011 EPA compliance rules without the need for a Selective Catalytic Reduction or diesel exhaust fluid,” Benson said.

While there are a variety of truck manufacturers and models with loads of new features to choose from, some landscape contractors have a favorite. Usually it’s the brand they started out with. John Mohns, president of Benchmark Landscape, Poway, California, has kept up a relationship with his Ford fleet dealer for more than two decades.

“Our first truck was a Ford Ranger and we’ve always been a Ford company,” Mohns said. “My production managers drive Ford Rangers, my construction foreman drives an F-150, the installation department uses the big F-650 cabs and F-350s are used by our maintenance fleet, which has the largest number of vehicles.”

Mohns, and other Ford fans, will be happy to hear that for 2011, Ford is launching three new truck engines: the 3.7-liter V6, the 5.0liter V8, and a new version of the 6.2-liter V8 for the Ford F-Series Super Duty. In addition, a total of four new powertrains will be available for the F-150. Also new for 2011 is the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine that delivers 420 pound-feet of torque and 365 horsepower, and has an added class-exclusive electric powerassist steering (EPAS).

“The EPAS system replaces a conventional hydraulic system. It runs continuously off the engine, with a system that draws power only when needed,” said Jim Mazuchowski, V6 engines program manager. “Additionally, the EPAS enables several other driver convenience technologies and provides better steering feel.”

For eco-friendly customers, GMC is introducing the Sierra Hybrid, a full-size pickup that achieves 33 percent greater city fuel economy and a 23.5 percent improvement in overall fuel economy over non-hybrid models. In addition to increased fuel economy, the Sierra Hybrid’s electrically variable transmission also provides towing capacity of 6,100 pounds with 2WD models and 5,900 pounds in the four-wheel drive models. Electric drive is enabled up to approximately 30 mph, saving fuel even when the truck is towing a trailer.

Tony Bass, president of Super Lawn Trucks, agrees with Tabel. He believes the landscape industry has seen a continuous push towards creating greener products over the last few years. To better help landscape professionals “go green” without having to shell out a great deal of green, he’s paired his SLT Eco Series truck body with the Isuzu Eco-Max cab chassis, to get better fuel mileage. “Another added plus with the SLT Eco Series body system is that it can carry more cargo. It’s a win-win for the landscape contractor and the environment,” Bass said.

With all the new trucks rolling off the ramps in 2011, you may think that every area has been covered, but for those looking for energy-saving hybrids and alternative fuels, there still remains a vacancy.

“There’s a gap in the hybrid market between the 12,000 and 20,000 GVW chassis,” Witz said. “Above 20,000 or below 12,000, there are all sorts of combinations of hybrids, gas and diesel, but between those two sizes, which is about 90 percent of our fleet, there’s nothing in the alternative fuel market.”

According to Bloom, Mitsubishi is looking into alternative fuels like natural gas, compressed natural gas and others, but as of today, the technology to produce engines for these types of fuel sources would be cost prohibitive for the market.

“Where the industry will change in the coming years is that the cost of the emissions, plus the advancement in new technologies, will make not only hybrids, but other alternative-fuel engines more attractive, as the cost of the vehicles come down to such a point where it’s cost effective to have a fully electric fleet,” Bloom said.

For now, the improvements and enhancements are certainly a good start, as this year’s trucks begin rolling down the ramps.