Incremental Changes Mark Compact Wheel Loaders

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | February 28, 2012
Incremental Changes Mark Compact Wheel Loaders

With a 2012 sales outlook of flat to slightly up for the compact wheel loader market, manufacturers aren’t bolstering their lines. Rather, they are taking the opportunity to make incremental improvements to existing machines, some as they add Tier 4-Interim or otherwise upgraded engines.

“Compacts will get many of the improvements common to larger wheel loaders as they go to T4-I; not many will be left the same,” says Ryan Connelly, the heavy line product specialist for JCB who also handles all the company’s wheel loaders. “It’s an opportunity for manufacturers since so much R&D is going into the machines, and it’s a really good time to make further enhancements and incorporate customer feedback.”

 As a result, equipment managers and contractors in the market for compacts will find not only fuel efficiency increases due to some new engines, but also increased operator comfort through visibility improvements and more ergonomic control layouts. In addition, manufacturers in this industry-defined 109 horsepower and under category are tweaking serviceability and adding big-machine options such as auto-reversing fans in their cooling systems.

Buyers will also find a category that is more expensive to operate since the last time Construction Equipment examined it nearly two years ago, with the average cost of working the machines up $3.21 an hour, according to data from These numbers come despite list prices for the smallest units (less than 59 horsepower) decreasing slightly.

List prices for the larger end of the compact loader spectrum have increased in large part due to component costs, and manufacturers’ investments in installed or forthcoming T4-I technology, while higher fuel costs and service prices contributed to the operating cost rise.

Despite a relatively slow market, a number of manufacturers have been tweaking their lines.

Wacker-Neuson has nine compact wheel loader models in the U.S.; five of them are of the traditional articulated variety. The 77.8-horsepower WL 37 has been improved with an additional high-flow hydraulics circuit that offers 17 or 34 gallons-per-minute, a universal style attachment plate that is compatible with skid steer-type attachments, and a new high-speed option (allowing 12- to 18-mph travel) on the high-flow units.

John Deere Construction & Forestry has made a model number change, taking the 73-horsepower 304J to a 324J. The main impetus for the change was incorporating a T4-I engine.

Kawasaki is a relatively new entrant to the compact wheel loader market, introducing two models at Conexpo last year. The company, known as a larger loader specialist, offers the T4-I 42ZV-2 and 45ZV-2 with standard hydraulic quick couplers and standard third-spool hydraulics. The 42ZV-2 checks in at 45 horsepower while the 45ZV-2 has a 61-horsepower engine.

JCB has recently upgraded one of its compacts with a Tier 3 engine that yields lower emissions. The company’s entire compact loader line (including the 58-horsepower 406B and the 72-horsepower 409B) is now Tier 3, but will be transitioning to T4-I in the near future.

The 411HT, at 93 horsepower, also has an auto-reverse fan available as an option. “With the auto-reversing fan, if you’re working in a landscaping application or anywhere there’s fine debris that may be thicker than dust, you can use the fan to spin the blades in the opposite direction,” Connelly says. “This will blow out the debris. If you don’t, it can clog your cooling packs, and as a result, your cooling efficiency is reduced.”

Another option on the upgraded 411HT is a wide-core radiator package. “The wide-core radiator increases the space between the fins on the cooling packs, allowing for more debris to pass through,” Connelly says. “With a wide core feature and auto reverse, you’re maximizing cooling efficiency in those dusty applications.”

Connelly points out that JCB uses a single-face cooling pack as opposed to a stacked cooling system. “This allows air to enter the cooling packs at the same temperature,” says Connelly. “In a stacked system, you can get warmer air flow due to the temperature increase as the air flows through each of the packs. The stacked system is also more susceptible to debris clogging up the packs, causing restricted airflow.

“Along with cooling system options, there’s a choice of manual or servo-style controls. You can up-spec the machine a number of ways, but the idea is to get the right machine for the application,” Connelly says.

According to Connelly, JCB sees the market for compacts growing slightly in 2012, similar to 2011, after a flat 2010 and the drop-offs of 2008 and 2009. “We may see some increase in use of compact wheel loaders in waste and recycling, particularly in applicatiions that require light material buckets, such as waste disposal and paper recycling,” he says.

Komatsu’s Steve Moore, product manager for compact wheel loaders, says skid steer use is the primary difficulty for the compact wheel loader market in the U.S. (See our analysis of the two machines.) “You’re up against the skid steer, or the compact track loader when you’re wanting less ground disturbance,” Moore says. “Landscapers are still the primary market for compacts. The skid steer is cheaper, but less stable for transporting material.”

Moore sees compact wheel loaders making an inroad, but only a small one at this time. “There’s a big reluctance to go away from the skid steer, but all the major players in the industry now have compact wheel loader lines, so it’s going to grow.”

Komatsu offers four models, from 39 horsepower up to 98 horsepower, all with hydrostatically driven transmissions. “The hydrostatic transmission is basically a four-mode traction system that allows you to control the speed of the wheels, the tractive effort,” Moore says.

“We have an ‘S’ mode that we call a sand or snow mode. It makes a huge difference for snow plowing or working in poor underfoot conditions,” Moore says. “Essentially, you’re controlling the wheel slip on the machine to maximize traction. There is a sweet spot on the curve: if a tire rotates at 1.3 times the ground speed—30-percent slippage—you’ll maximize traction. Hydrostatic transmissions can do that electronically and conveniently.”

Caterpillar makes four models, all with skid steer loader-style couplers, auxiliary hydraulic systems, and two-speed hydrostatic drives with standard differential locks in both axles. The company says its 914G is well sized for governmental work because the 95-horsepower machine is small enough to navigate streets but big enough to pick up pipe and pieces of concrete.

Gehl manufactures three compact, articulated wheel loaders, at 23, 35 and 47 horsepower. “Compacts are a niche market, and there will probably be some nice growth in selected markets,” says Kelly Moore, Gehl’s product manager for compact wheel loaders. “Municipalities are finding they work great in snow removal, particularly in small areas like sidewalks.

“Contractors are also learning that there is an alternative to a skid steer,” Moore says. “The biggest advantage is better visibility and the non-skid steering.”

Moore says that one of the company’s goals with the compact wheel loader line is commonality of attachments with skid steer loaders. “Due to quick-attach and hydraulic couplers, this gives you terrific versatility, going from skid steers to our AL model compact wheel loaders. Buckets and pallet forks are prime attachments, and there’s also the power rake and other landscaping attachments. We’ve also seen work with a grapple-type brush attachment,” Moore says.

“The versatility of attachment usage is the one point that seems to be growing every year,” Moore says. “The name of the game is not to have to buy a different system or change something just to get compatibility.”