Skid Steer vs. Compact Wheel Loader ...Keep an Open Mind

Sept. 28, 2011

Based on the best numbers we could find, the global demand for skid-steer loaders in 2011 should end up in the range of 60,500 units. Of that total, an estimated 33,500 will be sold in North America, but only 5,000 in Europe. On the other hand, the global demand in 2011 for compact wheel loaders—let’s for the moment arbitrarily say those machines with less than 80 horsepower—is estimated at around 19,500 units. Of this number, 11,500 will go to work in Europe, compared with only about 1,750 in North America.

Based on the best numbers we could find, the global demand for skid-steer loaders in 2011 should end up in the range of 60,500 units. Of that total, an estimated 33,500 will be sold in North America, but only 5,000 in Europe. On the other hand, the global demand in 2011 for compact wheel loaders—let’s for the moment arbitrarily say those machines with less than 80 horsepower—is estimated at around 19,500 units. Of this number, 11,500 will go to work in Europe, compared with only about 1,750 in North America.

What do the figures show? From a global perspective, you could say that the skid-steer loader is preferred about 3-to-1 over the compact wheel loader. Of further interest, however, is the striking difference between North America and Western Europe in the percentage of this small-machine market occupied by the compact wheel loader. Roughly calculated, the compact wheel loader accounts for about 5 percent in North America, compared with nearly 70 percent in Europe.

So, does North America know something Europe doesn’t, or is it vice versa? Do certain factors surrounding machine use in particular geographical areas influence the choice of one machine type over the other? Or, does the choice have also to do with what we might call the “culture” of equipment use, that is, a mindset that says, “That’s just the way we do it here!”?

After Construction Equipment spoke with a number of manufacturers that build both products (but might market them in a geographically selective manner), we’d say the choice of compact wheel loader or skid-steer is probably a mix of both influences.

Europe’s experience

Actually, says Kelly Moore, product manager for the Gehl range of skid-steers and compact articulated wheel loaders, 15 or 20 years ago in Western Europe the skid-steer loader predominated, with only a smattering of local manufacturers building small wheel loaders.

“You might say that the small wheel loader grew into its own in Europe,” says Moore. “The design of these machines was continually refined in terms of performance, comfort, sound levels, and physical dimensions that accommodated small working spaces, yet maintained good loading capacity.”

Tom Petersen, product development specialist for the Wacker Neuson range of compact equipment, suggests that the compact wheel loader’s early attraction for European contractors might have include the machine’s typically lower fuel consumption, long a concern in Europe and a sharpening concern here.

Senior product manager at Komatsu, Steve Moore, makes the further point that the compact wheel loader’s ability to be “roaded” between jobsites, a common practice in Europe, he says, is an appealing feature for busy contractors. The compact wheel loader’s longer wheelbase, steering-wheel-equipped cab, and generally higher travel speeds, he says, make it easier to drive over reasonable distances than the skid-steer.

“But we’re still dealing with culture,” says Marcus Auerbach, director, compact equipment and marketing for Wacker Neuson, which builds both compact wheel loaders and skid-steers, but does not sell the latter in North America. “People use what they know and are reluctant to change. Ask a European contractor, and he’ll tell you that he does all his jobs with a compact wheel loader.”

The other side of that, of course, is ask a typical North American contractor, and he’ll probably tell you he can’t work without a skid-steer. So, what’s the point? Maybe this: In an economy in which contractors are increasingly concerned about equipment efficiency and overall cost of operation, it’s smart to be open-minded about equipment choices.

Apples-to-apples….sort of

If you’re a dedicated skid-steer user—or a dedicated compact wheel loader user—who wants to approach an equipment purchase thoughtfully, how do you even begin to compare the relative capabilities of the two machine types?

We caution that attempting such a comparison is an inexact science and that not everyone agrees that the generally accepted basis of comparison is valid. That said, Caterpillar’s Kevin Coleman, senior project engineer for compact equipment, sums up the problem and states the fundamental criterion that most manufacturers use for comparing skid-steers with articulated compact wheel loaders:       

“Skid-steer loaders are categorized by ‘rated operating capacity,’ which is 50 percent of the machine’s tipping load. Compact wheel loaders are categorized by horsepower. In my opinion [and in the industry’s opinion generally], a better comparison between the two machines is to rate the compact wheel loader by its full-turn-static tipping load. This value is the amount of weight required to raise one of the rear tires off the ground when the machine is fully articulated. To draw a comparison, apply the ‘50 percent tipping load’ formula from the skid-steer to the wheel loader’s full-turn-static tipping load.”

When rated in this manner, manufacturers generally refer to the capacity of the articulated compact wheel loader in the same terms as a skid-steer, that is, rated operating capacity or “ROC.” If you look for a compact wheel loader’s ROC in the manufacturer’s specifications, take note that some might use the wheel loader’s “straight” static tipping load to calculate its ROC. If so, the resulting value might be 15 to 20 percent higher than the “full-turn” value.

When equipped with forks, the articulated compact wheel loader’s ROC might be only 35 or 40 percent of its rating with a bucket. Of course, if the machine has four-wheel steering—as a few of them do—then the “straight” tipping load for these non-articulated machines remains constant.

Why not compare the machine types by horsepower? It can be misleading. The skid-steer, says Gehl’s Moore, because of its mode of steering, demands significantly more horsepower—perhaps 30 or 40 more than a compact wheel loader of similar rated operating capacity. The articulation of the wheel loader, he says, doesn’t require huge amounts of power for steering. George Chaney, product manager for JCB’s skid-steer and compact track loaders, adds that skid-steers also need added horsepower to generate a greater volume of auxiliary-hydraulic flow than do most comparably sized compact wheel loaders.

A positive result of less horsepower is lower fuel consumption, but compact wheel loaders tend to be more fuel efficient for another reason.

“The power of the engine contributes to the compact wheel loader being more fuel efficient,” says Curtis Goettel, marketing manager for the Case line of compact equipment, “but it typically uses less fuel also because it’s throttle driven—the engine revs only when the throttle is used. By contrast, the skid-steer loader frequently is used at full throttle or at a high rpm—even if it has a foot throttle.”

Perhaps worth mentioning here is that the discussion of compact wheel loader versus skid-steer usually focuses on the upper end of the skid-steer spectrum—the “large frame” models with an ROC of 2,500 pounds or more—because that’s where the majority of the smallest articulated compact wheel loaders reside. Some wheel loader models, however, have ROCs of less than 2,000 pounds, and a few with less than 1,000 pounds. The potential competition between the two machine types extends further to the small end of the scale than most buyers realize.

Points to consider

Unfortunately, no one has a neat check list that lets you tick off relevant factors and come to an iron-clad decision about which machine—compact wheel loader or skid-steer—will work best in your operation. The choice, essentially, seems to be a matter of thinking through a number of considerations and then deciding which type is, overall, most advantageous.

Overall Costs/Service Life: Assuming similar ROCs, but depending on the specific machines being compared, the compact wheel loader typically is more expensive—by a factor of 15 to 30 percent—and some would say that the price differential is usually on the high side of that range.

The cost differential, says Gehl’s Moore, will be due in part to more expensive components in the drive train, such as conventional planetary axles, locking differentials and a transaxle or drop box. Case’s Goettle adds that compact wheel loader frames typically are more robust, hydraulic cylinders might be larger, cabs are roomier with more glass—and that the compact wheel loader price might include items (such as two-speed travel) as standard that are optional on the skid-steer.

Wacker Neuson’s Auerbach reminds buyers, however, that a true cost comparison must include an analysis of total owning and operating costs over the anticipated useful life of the machine, including financing costs, insurance, maintenance, tire wear and fuel. Most manufacturers agree that fuel costs for the compact wheel loader can be significantly less, and, although no one is willing to pin themselves down on tire costs, the general consensus is that in similar applications, wheel loaders are much easier on tires. But then again, wheel loader tires can be more expensive than those for skid-steers.

Predicting the practical economic service life of a particular machine depends, ultimately, on application and maintenance. But that said, and taking the broadest possible view, we get the sense from most manufacturers that skid-steers remain in front-line service for perhaps four to six years, and the compact wheel loader perhaps for as long as 10 years, assuming an average use of about 1,000 hours per year.

Gehl’s Moore suggests that the wheel loader’s generally smaller engine places less torque stress in the drive train, compared with a skid-steer, and that articulated (or four-wheel) steering significantly lessens operating stress. But he reminds us also that proper, timely maintenance has much to do with machine longevity.

Some suggest that the compact wheel loader’s generally heavier operating weight is an indicator of added durability, as long as the weight does not come simply from more counterweight. JCB’s Chaney suggests caution here, however, saying that longer life for wheel loaders could be a function of the more specialized applications in which these machines are typically employed. A severe application, he says, could use up a small wheel loader as fast as a skid-steer.

Auxiliary Hydraulics/Couplers: Most compact wheel loaders are equipped with an auxiliary hydraulic system, as are all skid-steers, and it’s probably safe to say that most have the auxiliary system plumbed out to the boom, with the piping terminating in quick couplers. Some wheel loaders, though, might be just  “auxiliary ready”—with a third spool in the main valve—and require final plumbing. If so, the plumbing usually is no problem, but does add cost to the machine.

In terms of hydraulic flow for operating attachments, we must be careful of over generalizing. At the small end of the ROC scale, most skid-steers probably don’t have much more flow than a comparable compact wheel loader. Typically—not always, but typically—the disparity in flow becomes wider as the machines become larger. With more horsepower in relatively the same-size ROC package, the skid-steer has added capability to generate hydraulic flow.

But that said, compact wheel loaders with ROCs close to large-frame skid-steers usually have adequate flow to handle a moderate range of attachments. A few of the larger models, in fact, might be available with a high-flow auxiliary hydraulic system, but in these instances, the machines probably also get a substantial boost in horsepower, which can work against fuel economy.

Decisions about the attachment-handling capability of either type of machine are usually straightforward: Does the machine have the flow (and pressure) capability to effectively handle the attachments frequently used? The skid-steer is designed essentially as a platform for handling attachments, and in this role, it’s tough to better. But, more compact wheel loader designs seem to be tending toward increased attachment-handling capability and may well have the ability to compete favorably with the skid-steer.

For the most part, smaller compact wheel loaders are equipped with a universal-style (skid-steer type) attachment coupler, but not all. As the compact wheel loader increases in size, “hook-and-pin” type couplers or couplers with proprietary designs become more prevalent. The manufacturer’s thinking might be that these larger units will see primary service as bucket-and-fork machines and will benefit from a more robust coupler.

In most instances, however, the manufacturer has an available adapter that allows using a universal-style coupler. The caution to observe when using existing skid-steer attachments with compact wheel loaders, especially buckets, is to make sure that the generally higher linkage forces of the wheel loader do not jeopardize the structural integrity of the attachment. The compact wheel loader bucket, says Gehl’s Moore,  most generally has greater rollback, a higher back, and a profile that retains material more effectively than a skid-steer bucket.

Specifications/Application: The possible choice between skid-steer and compact wheel loader in a particular operation really distills down to which is best suited to the application. Obviously, both machines need to meet the specifications required—whether lift height, reach at full lift, lift capacity, auxiliary-hydraulic capacity, and the type of control required in auxiliary-hydraulic circuits to manage more specialized attachments.

Then, consider overall efficiencies of the two machines. Is the operation attachment-intensive, or more specialized, involving, say, a good deal of truck loading or load-and-carry operations. Frequent attachment use might favor the skid-steer with its generally higher hydraulic flows; the latter operations might favor the wheel loader with is typically higher travel speeds and a longer wheelbase to smooth the ride.

When pallet forks are frequently used, it might be a draw; the compact wheel loader might provide a few more inches of reach at full height, but a comparable vertical-lift skid-steer might actually provide more height under the hinge pin. The assumption seems often to be that the wheel loader is hands-down superior with forks, but you don’t know until you compare specifications. Some would add, too, that the skid-steer provides a better view of the load, given that it’s positioned closer to the front of the machine.

If flotation is important, or increased ground clearance, or minimizing ground disturbance, then the wheel loader would have a definite edge. But if space constraints are a concern on most jobs, then the skid-steer’s innate agility (to turn within its own radius) is really tough to beat. On the other hand, four-wheel-steer wheel loaders are surprisingly maneuverable.

If finish grading is an important consideration, then the rigid frame of the skid-steer typically provides a more stable platform for this task than does an articulated wheel loader that allows oscillation at the center hinge or rear axle. Some would add that the contour of the basic skid-steer dirt bucket—with its long flat floor and good sight lines to the cutting edge—further enhance the skid-steer’s grading effectiveness.

Is visibility an issue? Compact wheel loaders usually provide a more commanding view of the work site in all directions. Also, everything else being equal, if the operator would benefit during long intervals in the machine from a generally roomier cabin, more comfortable steering, and easier cab access, then the compact wheel loader gets the nod.

Yet another concern might be machine transport. Is the existing truck and trailer capable of safely moving the generally heavier wheel loader, along with attachments?

Unfortunately, the decision between the two machine types often is not a black-and-white issue. Thinking through the gray areas, though, and then making the best-informed choice, can pay long-term benefits.