Hard Actros to follow 07 November 2011

Following on the launch of Mercedes' new Actros Euro 6 heavy truck, Ian Norwell reports from the first drive experience – and says automation and control could help canny operators cut costs

They say that information is power and, if you are operating a fleet of heavy trucks, that's never been truer – certainly when it comes to cutting costs. Hubertus Troska, the urbane head of trucks at Mercedes-Benz, has made some very ambitious claims in this regard for his new Actros. He's also on record stating that lower operating costs start with fuel consumption gains.

Three years ago, Mercedes was predicting that Euro 6 would require such a regime of strictures for the power unit that even maintaining its current levels of fuel efficiency would be considered a success. So where has a claimed 4% fuel bonus sprung from? A €2 billion investment creating a new range from scratch has helped, but the commercial vehicle giant's ability to have a genuine clean sheet approach has clearly been savoured by its engineers.

Troska says the five areas of development that contribute most to this overall improvement are powertrain, aerodynamics, auxiliaries' power consumption, rolling resistance and driver assistance. First, M-B's long relationship with V6 and V8 engines has been consigned to its Stuttgart museum, as the Actros OM471 straight-six arrives. Born of its heavy duty engine platform (HDEP) global engine programme, and with many US miles already under its belt, the new power unit is at the core of the new operating economy.

Beyond this, chassis, cab and the remaining powertrain components all play their part – and not least of these is its FleetBoard telematics system.

Coming from an awkward childhood, FleetBoard has now matured into a serious tool for saving money. All new Actros models come with the hardware already integrated and a four-month trial of free usage. The conversion rate to the paid-up version, post-trial, will be interesting. It will be charged at an €800 one-off fee per customer and a minimum €59 per month per truck. Troska is unequivocal when it comes to benefits: "If customers take full advantage of the data, they will recover the system's costs very quickly."

Claimed fuel consumption benefits are between 5% and 15%. These accrue partly from routing efficiencies, but primarily from the minute detail harvested by the driver assistance information. Driver performance data is as comprehensive as any we've yet seen, but with one important extra edge that M-B claims is unique.

In addition to the usual measurement of a driver's sympathetic driving technique, there is an assessment of how arduous the route and payload are by factoring in the 'degree of difficulty'. This, says Troska, will single out the genuinely better driver and make allowance for topography and gvw. It also gives more detailed pointers toward coaching for those who achieve lower scores.

What of the truck itself? Two cab widths, four cab heights, three trim levels and various engines give ample choice. Also, M-B notably brings the flat-floor premium truck spec to a 2.3m cab width, giving real driver appeal. Beyond these, the powershift 3 automated manual box gets ever more sophisticated; comfort levels take a big hike; and ride and handling seta new benchmarks.

We drove the outgoing and new Actros on the road from Munich to Ulm, and on the Münsingen test track. On the sinusoidal surface, the difference was startling. Chassis frame and suspension fundamentals are new, and it shows. Safety systems, such as proximity assist, which monitors vehicles in front, giving data on their speed and distance (ultimately intervening if necessary), add to the strong sense of security.

So will it really be cheaper to run? Georg Weiberg, M-B's head of truck development, says it will. "To prove the point, we've cut the cost of contract maintenance packages by 6%, compared to the current Euro 5 Actros. If we've got it wrong, it will be at our risk."

As for the visual appeal of the new range, it is naturally subjective, but Mercedes has clearly not set out to soften the public face of trucking. With angular radiator shutters and sharp design cues, it has a 'take-no-prisoners' demeanour. Drivers will like it and they'll be in control of a safer, cleaner and more efficient machine. And arguing about how it looks, will be of little moment to transport engineers.

Ian Norwell

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