When the announcement of a new truck brand, Cat, came out as a joint venture between engine maker Caterpillar and North American truck giant, Navistar, many questioned the viability of such an enterprise. Now, several years later, the Cat project is continuing, and starting to find its feet in the Australian market. New models are starting to appear and the new engines comply to exhaust emissions regulations, ADR 80/03.
Earlier this year, Cat showed their future intentions with the unveiling of two new models at the Melbourne Truck, Trailer and Equipment Show. The new trucks are based on the initial two-day cab releases and show the company’s effort to develop application-specific models to suit Australian conditions.
One release saw them reposition the engine and shorten the bonnet to produce a 26m B-double prime mover with a sleeper, and the other was a genuine highway sleeper cabin out of the factory. This second truck is the one Prime Mover got an opportunity to test drive hauling two fully loaded trailers through Central Australia from Alice Springs to Adelaide. The model is known as the Cat CT 630 LS, with the LS standing for long sleeper and will be available later this year. The truck used in this test is the one many saw on show in Melbourne and the prototype used for testing the vehicle’s functionality on Australian highways.
After the initial hyperbole surrounding the announcement by Caterpillar and Navistar about the joint venture to create Cat Trucks and the spectacular launch at Uluru, the picture has become clearer as the new organisation has settled down to developing and selling trucks. The global structure of the company and its footprint here in Australia have become more obvious and people within the organisation seem to have a clear idea of how the brand is going to develop going forward.
The ownership of the Cat Trucks project has changed since that initial release with Navistar becoming the sole owners of Cat Trucks with a commercial agreement to use Caterpillar branding and engine technology. After initially building the first batch of trucks at Tullamarine in Melbourne, the new models coming on stream will be built at the Navistar truck plant in Garland, Texas, where most of the large International trucks sold in North America are built.
Another question hanging over the future of the brand was where it was going in terms of exhaust emission control. The first trucks were built to comply to ADR 80/02 and, at that time, there was no clear indication what the future would hold regarding emission control technology. That issue was cleared up in late 2011 with the announcement of the company's plans for an ADR 80/03 compliant 15L Caterpillar engine. The future of the 13L Caterpillar engine was already established, with Cat choosing to use the engine sold in the US as the Maxxforce 13 in International trucks, which they will brand as the Caterpillar CT 13.
The engine in question on the test drive of the new Cat CT 630 LS is the new ADR 80/03 compliant C 15. The changes required to get this engine over the line to meet the latest exhaust emission requirements are relatively simple. The original ACERT C 15 engine was already quite close to meeting the nitrogen oxide limits of the latest regulations, but the level of particulate matter was in need of considerable improvement.
As a result, this solution involves a couple of technical and software tweaks to meet the nitrogen oxide levels required, plus a pair of horizontal diesel particulate filters to bring the particulate matter levels down far enough to meet the new rules. The consequences of this new technology are relatively benign. The level of heat rejection has not been increased and no extra cooling capacity is required. The DPFs are cleaned through a process of continuous passive regeneration and do not require active regeneration or after-burning.
While the engine has only seen little change, the cabin got a more obvious overhaul. The vehicle clearly has the look of a large North American highway prime mover, and it actually is one. The 56-inch sleeper cabin is based on those offered in the US as part of the International Pro Star range. The dramatic aerodynamic profile is further enhanced, on this particular model, by the truck wrap artwork which had been specially prepared for the Melbourne show. From a distance, the effect is of a matte black truck but closer inspection shows a textile effect to the finish. It appears like carbon fibre or perhaps the same material as used on very expensive luggage.
Approaching the truck, it looks very modern and does not have the retro feel of some of the other North American equipment. This is a contemporary truck designed and built in a conventional North American style with a large, spacious sleeper. All of the traditional cues are there, round tanks, bull bar and exhausts running up the back of the cabin, but the styling of the vehicle is much more 21st century. The rules of aerodynamics are strictly adhered to, creating a slippery shape even though some of the benefits are negated by fitting the obligatory bull bar on the front.
Climbing into the cab is very easy, up the two steps fixed to the tanks. Once inside, this is a familiar North American cabin layout with a semi-wraparound dash and the familiar Roadranger gearstick emerging from the cabin floor. The cabin itself gives a sensation of space, the roof above the driver's head is quite high and there's plenty of space at the rear of the cab above a second bunk, if required.
Above the driver's head there are a number of storage options with open shelves and closing lockers available and within reach. As in many North American cabs there is little storage for things like keys, mobile phones, loose change etc. lower down around the dashboard. There also is a drinks holder to hand but it is not particularly effective.
The driving controls are all close by, with the cruise control located on the steering wheel itself, the usual steering column control stalks and most of the other major controls to the driver's left hand. The switch to turn on the headlights is a little difficult to find, low down near the driver's left knee. Overall, however, the driving position works well ergonomically and, due to the sloping bonnet and large windscreen, visibility is excellent at the front of the truck. The passenger door window is relatively small and could be aided by a downward facing mirror. The rear view mirrors themselves work well with a spotter mirror included within the housing. The mirrors are reminiscent of the West Coast style mirror but with much more modern styling.
Firing the engine up gives the driver a taste of that Caterpillar sound, which can be clearly heard inside the cabin. When the production vehicles arrive later this year they will be fitted with more sound insulation to bring the noise levels down somewhat but the reassuring gurgle of the Caterpillar will still be there.
The Caterpillar engine has never been one to be rushed and going up through the gears is a familiar experience to anyone who has driven a Cat engine in recent years. With the engine rated at 550 hp and putting out 1850 ft lb (2508 Nm) of torque, progress, even at nearly 80 tonnes, is even and the whole combination gets up to highway speed relatively easily. The model on test has been set up specifically for road train use and will sit at 1650 rpm when running under 100 km/h. A taller diff will also be available for this model bringing the rpm levels down to 1500 at cruising speed.
Once travelling at highway speeds the truck is in its element. Maintaining speed as the road rises sees the C 15 dig in and keep the truck working hard. The route chosen for the test is hardly hilly but the few steeper grades encountered simply needed a drop in gear and the Cat hauled the two trailers up and over with little fuss. In fact, the engine feels like it's doing it relatively easy most of the time and this was borne out by fuel consumption figures at around 1.38 km per litre, on an engine just starting to get run in at 10,000 km.
From the driver's seat the ride feels very smooth. Some of the roads in the Territory and the remote areas of South Australia leave a little to be desired and the Hendrickson Primax suspension held the truck on a straight track well. The combination between rear suspension, cab suspension and seat suspension seems to work effectively. The ride is always comfortable but there is enough feedback from the road to ensure the driver knows what's going on.
This model was always going to be a difficult one for Cat Trucks as they broke away from the initial excitement of the Caterpillar brand returning to the Australian truck market and got down to the more mundane business of selling trucks to suit Australian tastes. If the truck driven on this road test is anything to go by, they seem to have done a pretty good job. While this is not the most high-tech truck available on the market, it is a good solid performer and achieves what it set out to do, establish Cat as a long-term player.
Driving the truck, it feels like the finished article. The driveline integration seems just right and the feel of the truck on the highway is very reassuring. The bumpy outback roads did not reveal any annoying rattles or squeaks within the cabin itself on what is quite a long journey. If the assembly line in Texas can put together this truck in the same way, there will be few issues around fit and finish of the new model.
The Cat CT 630 LS does show us just how far the Cat Trucks organisations come in quite a short time. Due to their history in Australia there was a great deal of goodwill towards them when they brought the yellow engine back to our highways. Now it's just down to hard work, keeping the organisation on the ground in touch with the trucking industry and making sure the product is up to the job.