Caterpillar Looks to Capitalize on its Name and Network with New Trucks

For months, Caterpillar has been building suspense leading up to its debut  in the on/off-highway vocational truck market. Today, it reached a climax as journalists watched the global reveal - replete with heavy curtain, dramatic lighting and a shadowy mist of smoke - of the CT660 set-back front axle heavy truck.

Surprisingly, the truck shown didn’t bear Caterpillar’s trademark yellow, but rather a deep red. According to George Taylor, director of the on-highway truck group, the company recognizes that not all customers want a yellow truck – pride of ownership and corporate branding demand that other colors be made available to fleet owners. (Not to worry. Cat yellow is still one of your color options.)

The CT660 offers a set-back configuration with two available cab lengths. (You can find details and specs at DriveCat.com.) Interestingly, a set-forward version, the CT680, won’t be available until the first quarter of 2013. When asked about the delay, Gary Blood, product manager, on-highway truck group, indicated it was due to the need to ensure they had the right product on the road.

“With this configuration (the CT660), it kind of gave us a footprint of what is out there,” he stated. “It’s a matter of resources. We wanted to make sure we got this truck right first.”

And as of this time, there are no plans to expand the line beyond the two models. “With the 660, we will be able to do many configurations for many types of applications… We plan to make these products very flexible to meet the needs of every application,” Blood explained. However, he allowed that the company may eventually explore a third model specifically targeted for off-highway use.

Of course, the question on many potential customers’ minds will be, “Is this truly a Cat truck, or just a Navistar with a new logo?” (Caterpillar and Navistar have a supplier partnership agreement.) Well, according to the company, this is very much a Caterpillar product.

“Everything above the frame rail is new,” asserted Blood. “There is very little carryover inside the cab.” “We were going to settle for nothing less than a Cat truck,” Taylor stressed. “We needed to deliver [to customers] the rugged durability and reliability customers expect from a Cat truck.”

To that end, the vehicles will be sold and serviced exclusively through the Caterpillar dealer network – and, like most Cat machines, command a premium price. “This will be a premium priced truck. But at the end of the day, it’s about what is the cost to own and operate and service it over the life of that vehicle,” Taylor points out. Models will start to roll off the line in July.

Currently, order books have yet to be opened, so it’s premature to gauge customer response. But Blood points out that the company has 15 test units in the field, with plans for more leading up to the launch. Current field units have accumulated roughly 900,000 miles working in the toughest applications, including along Alaska’s ice roads. So far, the results have met Caterpillar’s – and the users’ – expectations.

“Last fall, we had permission to use a customer’s quarry to test competitive trucks against the CT660,” Blood noted. Engineers spent several days testing everything from acceleration and braking to ergonomics in the cab. “We had 12 test categories that we were measuring. The CT660 scored higher in 11 out of the 12 categories.”

While Caterpillar refrains from sharing production or sales targets, there are high hopes that these vehicles can capitalize on the reputation of the company and its dealer network. Taylor predicted, “Over a five-year period, our expectation would be to be one of the leaders in the industry.”

Only time will tell whether the cost-conscious vocational truck market will be willing to make the necessary investment to purchase these machines. It’s a gamble, but Caterpillar appears to be in it to win it. It has spent five years on R&D and field testing, with countless millions invested in developing a product based on the “voice of the customer.”

“This isn’t just something we’re starting,” said Taylor. “We’ve been in the commercial truck business for 40 years. That’s why we are confident we have something that matters and will work for our customers.

“They asked us to get into this business,” he continued. “We know these customers well, and our dealer network is there to support us.”

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