Officially introduced to the European market in late 2013, it will have been three years since our first look at the new generation Actros when it goes on sale in Australia at the end of 2016.
But according to Michael May, Director of Mercedes-Benz Auspac’s Truck and Bus division, the wait was without alternative: Acknowledging that it may have been a little too “hasty” with the introduction of the outgoing model in Australia, the OEM wanted to get the latest generation “just right” for the local market and ensure it would be 100 per cent suitable for what is still considered the harshest operating environment in the world.
To do so, it staged a two-year evaluation program involving 15 trucks of various configurations and some 30 partner fleets across all of Australia. Determined to learn all there was about the company’s Strategic Future Truck Platform (SFTP), Mercedes-Benz logged well over a million kilometres during that time – more than in any other non-European market.
“Germany acknowledges that there are things they can’t test anywhere else but here because of the higher weights, comparatively higher speeds, high heat and unique configurations,” Michael says. “Two years of local testing – that’s almost unprecedented. During that process, our engineers have incorporated everything they learned straight into the evaluation vehicles and sent them out again to see if it worked.”
According to Michael, the comprehensive evaluation process also included back-to-back testing in fleets with the existing Actros model, as well as benchmark testing against competing European and American prime movers. To add a personal note, feedback from the trucks’ telematics systems was combined with input from drivers and owners – those who will eventually use the product.
Was the result worth the effort? To find out, Prime Mover is driving a 2658LS model that should be close to series production spec, apart from the still somewhat simplistic audio system. With a GVW of 90 tonnes, it is loaded to 58.6 tonnes with 1,000 litres of diesel in the tank – certainly not the maximum allowable weight on a B-double, but definitely a realistic load for a single trailer application.
The LS in the nomenclature is short for Luxury Sleeper and hints to the 2.5m-wide cab. Providing an extra 10cm over the standard version, it provides a feeling of spaciousness that long-haul drivers will certainly appreciate, especially in combination with the flat floor and light interior colour scheme. In our test layout, the cab also features a 2,200mm long and 750mm wide lower bunk with a comfortable mattress and adjustable backrest to make reading or watching television more convenient.
Compared to the last model, the driver’s seat is wider and has a greater range of adjustment, too, making the daytime workplace at least as comfortable as the lounge area. In line with that first impression, the extensive list of interior features covers all the necessities for long distance transport, boasting a plethora of storage spaces, cup holders, power outlets and a fridge.
The engine powering our test unit is Daimler’s 15.6-litre straight six OM473 unit, which shares the basic architecture of the Detroit DD16. Stated power is 578hp at 1,600rpm, with the maximum torque of 2,800Nm available from as low as 1,100rpm. Using SCR, EGR and DPF components, the OEM473 is Euro VI compatible, but a Euro V version will also be available for the Australian market.
On B-double duty, AdBlue use was previously around five to seven per cent of fuel volume, but in the new model – even at Euro VI – Mercedes-Benz claims it will be somewhere below three per cent, leading to a smaller, 110-litre AdBlue tank that is able to get the new Actros all the way across the continent without needing a refill.
Our pre-series test vehicle only has 4,000km on the odometer at the start of our trip and as usual, we are not driving to maximise fuel economy, but rather try out the truck under various driving styles. In light of that, it is impressive to see an on-screen readout average of 55.7 litres per 100km for the classic Sydney-to-Melbourne trip, which converts to 1.8km per litre.
Getting there took some smart engineering from the team at Mercedes-Benz, especially taking into account the complex change-over from V8 and V6 configurations to a straight six layout. To get the front axle weight right, for example, the new Actros now has a smaller front over hang with the front axle located well forward to allow for the longer engine and transmission assembly’s weight to be ideally distributed.
Taken from the vast Daimler portfolio, the Mercedes-Benz PowerShift 3 12-speed automated transmission constantly assesses the conditions surrounding the truck – from the inclination of the road and accelerator position through to the combined weight of the vehicle. While a creep mode can be manually selected for better control when juggling into loading docks and connecting to trailers, it is the new Eco-Roll mode that will likely leave the biggest impression on the market, as it will contribute significantly to improving fuel consumption by disengaging the driveline when gravity and momentum can drive the truck for free. During our test, no shudder can be noticed when the dual plate clutch re-engages the engine to the rest of the driveline, as the technology perfectly matches the engine speed to the road speed to deliver a seamless transition from coasting to drive.
Leaving the driver equally impressed, the engine brake works well enough to make the new Actros a true ‘one pedal’ truck on all but the steepest hills along the Hume. Pushing harder on the foot pedal to activate the service brakes will trigger the electronics to downshift one or two gears if required to maximise engine-braking capacity. A water retarder will be on the option list once the new model goes on sale.
Driving through industrial suburbs on the way to the highway interchange, the overall smoothness of the driveline leaves a lasting impression, too – as does the precise feel of the steering, which feels fairly comparable to another European brand’s praised offering.
Also in line with current offerings from Europe, the adaptive cruise control has been refined and the dash screen now shows the distance away and the speed of any vehicle within range and corrects the Actros’ speed accordingly. The forward-facing radar has a very narrow beam so Mercedes-Benz says there should be no false alarms from vehicles in other lanes or roadside objects.
The 2.533:1 diffs on our test truck mean that 100 km/h on the highway equates to about 1,350rpm in top gear, which is close to the centre of the indicated 1,000–1,500 sweet spot for best fuel economy – and yet another sign that Mercedes-Benz’ testing has led to a well balanced machine ready to take on the Australian market.
According to Michael, the OEM is planning a “progressive introduction” into the local market, beginning with prime movers in both B-double and single trailer spec, followed by equipment optimised for tipper-and-dog applications before specialised specs, for example for ultra-heavy haulage, are released.
Michael says the staged rollout is focusing on volume first in order to gain sales traction and then use that momentum to cover the market across all levels. “We really tried to look at this truck from a customer’s perspective to get it right,” he says. “We know we need to understand the product we are selling to our customers and we plan to continue to evaluate even after the official launch. I want [the new Actros] to be as good as it can be. This has not been about testing up to a point and then just stopping the whole process. If there is an issue, it’s better when we know before the customer does.”
According to Michael, Mercedes-Benz is acutely aware that the mentality associated with buying trucks has changed significantly in Australia, with Total Cost of Ownership now part of almost every sales conversation. The European brands have been most active in steering the market in that direction and Michael says Mercedes-Benz’ slow and comprehensive development process will ensure it can live up to expectations in that regard, too. The conservative schedule has also made it possible for service and other aftermarket personnel to be fully appraised of the necessary skill sets required to support what is effectively a whole new vehicle.
After testing an early next gen model in a B-double set up last year, our brief encounter with the improved pre-series 2658LS goes to show that the Australian heavy truck market may soon see even more competition than previously, as a new, highly mature offering is about to enter the scene.
The story has appeared in the October edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.