Sterling 360 Medium Duty Truck Scoots Along

Sept. 28, 2010

It was a dark and chilly day, the kind you expect in mid-March in a place like Cleveland, Ohio, where winter sometimes just won't go away. Yet I was smiling because driving this Sterling 360 was outright fun. It is a slick, quick and nimble truck that deserves more sales than it gets, and that goes for all imported and domestic low-cab-forward vehicles sold here.

Execs at all the importers thought that the entry into the market by Ford and International, with their jointly built (in Mexico) LC and CityStar, would boost interest in LCFs, but it hasn't happened. A big majority of buyers still prefer conventionals, partly because most drivers think a hood and engine out front is safer in a frontal collision (it is) and that a conventional rides better (not necessarily). And conventionals usually cost less, which could be the biggest reason for their popularity.

LCFs — informally called cabovers — prevail in most overseas markets because of urban congestion and stricter length laws. The 360 is typical. It is Sterling's version of Mitsubishi Fuso's made-in-Japan FE145, a Class 4 LCF rated at 14,500 pounds. There are lighter and heavier versions, and they're sold here because they're what Fuso makes and there is a place for them in big cities. The 360 is in Sterling's lineup so dealers have something to sell besides heavier duty conventionals.

Sterling gets the 360 from Fuso because it's a sister company, through common ownership by Daimler AG of Germany and its American arm, Daimler Trucks North America (formerly Freightliner LLC). Fuso administrative and support functions that have been handled out of New Jersey are being taken over by Sterling at its headquarters near Detroit, which will remove some overhead costs in what has been a stubbornly low-volume operation.

This 2008-model truck was on the lot at Valley Freightliner-Sterling-Western Star in Cleveland a year ago March, actually. Salesman Andy O'Donnell said he had sold a couple of 360s with dump bodies to a local park district. People there like the trucks because they're compact and easy to run on sidewalks and maneuver around buildings and other obstacles.

Compactness comes primarily from the no-nose design; all the space that would be taken up by a conventional's hood, fenders and everything underneath in effect becomes payload area on an LCF's chassis. Put another way, a cabover provides several feet more room for a body and load in any given overall length than any comparable conventional. And the LCF's wheelbase will be shorter, aiding maneu-verability.

The cab tilts up to reveal the engine, and a mechanic can just step around a front wheel and do his service and repair work while standing there. It sure beats crawling under a truck or leaning under the hood into the crowded engine compartment of a typical midrange conventional. O'Donnell demonstrated that the 360's cab tilts easily; just pop the lock behind the cab, grab a hold and raise it. It can be done with one hand, and the lift mechanism locks in place so wind won't push it back down.

The engine is a Fuso 4M50, a 4.9-liter (299-cubic-inch) inline 4-cylinder turbodiesel running through an Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes up to 175 horsepower (Fuso advertises it as 185) and 391 pounds-feet of torque. It's more than enough for city duties, and should easily keep up with normal stop-and-go traffic. On the freeway, it begins running out of steam at about 65 mph; it'll do 70 or more, but has to work harder at it than big-cubic-inch domestic I-6 or V-8 diesels, which is no surprise, but economy with an I-4 should be better.

After some driving and a stop for snapping photos, I observed that "360" implied a compass's full 360 degrees. So I made O'Donnell and Susan Gallik, an exec at Sterling's P.R. agency who had arranged this demo, wait outside in the cold while I spun the truck in a circle — two or three of 'em, actually — in a wide driveway. I didn't put a tape on the resulting tire tracks, but the circle's radius was rather short.

With these trucks you get the sensation that you can almost T-bone yourself. I could've tried if we had been pulling a trailer, but as it was, the 14-foot American stake-side flatbed body was all that was behind the cab.

The body was interesting in itself, as it was constructed partly of composite plastics that should last almost forever. Its floor was smooth-surfaced plastic that hadn't yet been blemished with a load. Because the body was empty, I couldn't make a judgment on the truck's behavior under load.

The cab was more than big enough for all three of us, and everyone had plenty of hip-, shoulder- and leg room. The dash-mounted transmission selector leaves the flat floor completely clear ahead of the center passenger. The cab is so wide that there's room for a "stuff" tray just to the driver's right, and the driver's seat has a fold-down armrest. On each door is a raised horizontal bar that acts as an arm rest, at least when the window's down.

Power windows and door locks are standard, as is a tilt-telescoping steering column. Interiors are attractively trimmed with comfortable two-tone cloth-faced seats and easy to use gauges and controls that are pretty much straight from the Fuso FE. Sterling says it has packaged certain features and pre-engineered the chassis for various vocations, so ordering is simple.

Most FE and 360 cab exteriors are painted a rather common white, as this one was, but cabs are also available in more distinctive red, green, blue, silver and black.

LCFs can have a good ride, even with the steer axle right under the driver and passengers, because the springs are long and compliant. The ride is bus-like, with a lot of vertical motion when going over bumps and through potholes. The streets we traversed on Cleveland's south side had a lot of broken and bowed concrete — typical for an old city in a cold climate — and those springs got a good workout. The ride was sometimes bouncy, but it wouldn't have been much better — only different — in a conventional. On smooth freeway pavement the 360 rode fine.

Entry into a low-cab-forward truck takes a little practice, but is pretty easy on this one due to its setback steer axle and the wide step ahead of it. That step is less than a foot from the pavement and doors are claimed to be the widest in the LCF segment, so the first part of the climb isn't bad, and then you just slide sideways onto the seat. In getting out, you can just turn to the left (or right if you're the passenger) and hop down. I'm describing all this because most Americans have never been in a cabover.

Conventionals — many of them based on the domestic Big Three's pickups — still take about 80 percent of the midrange commercial truck market because they are very competent in their own right, as I've noted in other Hands-On Trucking articles. But I liked LCFs when I drove them while working my way through college more than 40 years ago, and still do. People who run them for their clear advantages usually stick with them, and so might you if you'd give one a try.

Sterling 360
Sterling nameplate is oval while the truck's "360" name suggests a circle, and this truck will turn them with alacrity. It's badge-engineered from the Fuso FE series.
Interior has good gauges and controls, the steering column tilts and telescopes, and dash-mounted shifter (to the right of the steering wheel) keeps the floor clear for center passenger's legs.
The door is wide and step is only 11.75 inches from the pavement, so getting into the roomy cab is easy.
Economical and adequately powerful inline 4-cylinder turbodiesel is readily accessible after the cab is tilted forward.
The 14-foot American stakebed body uses composite floor and sides.
Many from Which to Choose

For its limited size, the low-cab-forward market is rather crowded, with entries from Isuzu (by far the dominant player), Mitsubishi Fuso (builder of the Sterling 360) and Nissan Diesel America (with UD-brand trucks). Hino Trucks used to import LCFs, but several years ago switched to assembling conventionals in California, and now sells three times as many trucks as it used to. I drove several models over the past year, and here's a glimpse at a couple.

Chevrolet W4500

General Motors obtains its W series LCFs from Isuzu Motors, its Japanese affiliate. This one was a W4500 with a Chevrolet bowtie, but it could've said GMC or, for that matter, Isuzu, as they are virtually identical.

Diesel-powered Class 3, 4 and 5 trucks are built in Japan and have nameplates applied and identities assigned when they arrive in the United States. Exceptions are heavier Class 6, 7 and 8 LCFs assembled by GM in Flint, Mich., and Class 3 gasoline-powered models built at GM's plant in Janesville, Wis.

This Class 4 Chevy, which I drove at a GM event in Charlotte, N.C., proved to be a puzzler because it ran out of steam on the freeway. Its 4-cylinder, 205-horsepower turbodiesel huffed and puffed at over 3,000 rpm, but couldn't get the truck much past 60 mph. What's wrong here? I said to my GM host, but he couldn't tell from where he was sitting over in the passenger seat.

Toward the end of the route, I found a thumb switch on the automatic transmission's lever selector and pushed it. Bingo, the tranny went into overdrive and revs dropped by about a thousand. That was such a revelation that I went back onto the freeway and confirmed that sure enough, the truck would now run to 70 mph and beyond without much effort from the "little" diesel.

Of course, the truck was empty, so acceleration was brisk. With a load in the American stake-side body (the same composite-material type that was on the Sterling) it would've behaved more like a real truck. Power is moderate but entirely up to the hauling job, even if it won't win any drag races with autos. I'd call this engine right-sized, versus the grossly oversized and overpowered gasoline and diesel V-8s in most domestic light and light-medium trucks.

Even with no weight in the bed, the truck rode well over rough pavement. It cruised down straightaways and zipped through tight corners easily. The newly designed Hexacube cab is roomy, and its interior is businesslike but comfortable and attractive, assuming you like plain grey upholstery and plastic panels. So, pick your dealer and the nameplate it offers, and go to work.

Isuzu NPR Crewcab

Four-door pickup trucks have become popular among consumers, but commercial buyers get such things only if there's a good reason. Customers for this Class 3 Isuzu NPR Crewcab include landscapers and contractors who send four or more guys to jobs, and most of 'em will be fairly comfortable in the stretched cab with its wide doors.

However, the fella in the center of the rear seat will find the engine hump blocks him from stretching out his legs. Parts of the hump are covered by swatches of thin plastic sheeting and the seat has skimpy padding. It's as though designers doubted anyone would really sit back there and didn't care what they might think of the decidedly plain trim. Up front it's rather nice, even with unpatterned grey fabric and upholstery, and a new-for-'08 instrument panel and controls freshens the overall look.

Whether with four or two doors, the Hexacube cab includesa big swing-up access panel on the nose for fluid checks and electrical servicing. The drive train is the same as in the W4500 (described above), with a 205-horsepower I-4 diesel and anAisin 6-speed automatic. There's also the NPR-Gas, using GM's 6-liter gasoline V-8 and a 4-speed Hydra-matic, which is newly available in the Crewcab. It costs about $3,500 less to buy, and while it burns more fuel, gasoline now costs about a dollar less per gallon than diesel fuel. So this setup makes sense in operations where a truck's annual miles are less than 25,000, according to GM.

Chevy W4500 is built by Isuzu in Japan. In-line 4-cylinder turbodiesel makes up to 205 horsepower and moves the truck well.

Isuzu crewcab has room for up to six people and is useful to landscapers, among others. Front seat area is nicely trimmed, like the Chevy, but rear is comparatively spartan.