This isn’t surprising. Compared with their nearest equipment kin – skid steers – CTLs are relative newcomers to the industry. So CTLs remain in a phase of development that includes rapid advances.
Two other factors propel CTL development. First is their broad, enthusiastic acceptance by customers. Maintaining market share requires OEMs to stay at the forefront of product development.
Second, the industry as a whole continues to make great gains in technology as advances in electronics, metallurgy and basic design bring peak performance to all types of equipment. This is as true for CTLs as for any other category.
The downside? In a world of relentless product development, it can be hard for customers to feel assured they’re getting the best from their equipment decisions. So, we've provided some tips from experts to help you learn more about the new compact track loaders and what you should look for when searching the market for your next CTL.
Take time to study new models
There are going to be a lot of newcomers on the market since you bought your last CTL, so take the time to study what they offer. Here are some examples.
Bobcat's new R-Series consists of four models, the T62, T64, T66 and T76. The T62 is radial-lift and the others are vertical. All four feature Bobcat’s optional five-link torsion suspension, which improves ride quality and machine stability, especially at full lift. Engines are now mounted inline rather than transverse. This provides more space for emissions-control components but also boosts rated operating capacity 200 to 300 pounds by creating slightly longer machines. Their width is comparable to R-Series’ predecessors.
R-Series machines also have greater lift and reach than the models they replace. Engine placement and a larger fan contribute to overall improved cooling performance, especially when running attachments. LED lights are standard equipment. A prefilter has been placed ahead of the main fuel filter. “Everything about the new R-Series really is new,” says Tyler Zima, senior product specialist, Bobcat.
Cat’s newest CTLs, the D3 Series machines, have been out since August 2019. “They are a further refinement of what were already forward-looking machines," says Kevin Coleman, senior product specialist, Cat. "For example, we’ve had sealed and pressurized cabs since 2013.”
Much of that refinement is directed at the working envelope. Visibility is enhanced everywhere, most notably to the bucket corners and the edges of the tracks. There’s about 3 inches of additional space between the joysticks; this provides more knee room and opens up more foot placement options. An available performance package offers dual self-levelling, work tool positioning and return-to-dig.
D3 models are also compatible with all three of Cat’s Smart attachments: grader blade with assist, dozer blade with assist and backhoe. Joystick controls can be converted to match the needs of these Smart attachments for more intuitive control.
Lists of specs and features are crucial, says Buck Storlie, product manager, ASV. “But the best plan is to visit a dealer and do a demo. You can tell a lot from the cab that the specs don’t reveal.”
He says operator comfort and visibility are examples of features that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Storlie says this is especially true for the Max-Series CTLs introduced in 2020, in which cab improvements were part of the extensive changes in design.
But there can be some downsides to some new features, says Ryan Anderson, product marketing manager, New Holland Construction. Advanced electronics, emissions control systems and other new features introduce new failure modes, he says. “Sometimes it seems the market’s thinking is, ‘What’s the next widget we can put on this machine?’”
A key consideration when evaluating new models is reliability, Anderson says. “Early machines were extremely durable. You still hear customers lament, ‘They just don’t make 'em like they used to.’ For this reason, New Holland pays strict attention to durability in the design of new features.”
Anderson says this may be an ideal time to buy a feature-packed new model before the current boom market pulls back, which will inevitably occur. “Markets become more cost-centric in downturns, and it’s hard then for OEMs to develop and sell new features.”
Spec’ing a new model
New models have so much potential that spec’ing a new machine is far more complex than in the past. This is especially true if the CTL is going to be more than a bucket-and-forks machine for the customer.
“John Deere has over 100 attachments for compact equipment, including compact track loaders, available from the factory,” says Luke Gribble, solutions marketing manager, Deere. “Ask yourself, ‘What kind of jobs am I going after?’ Look beyond the one main attachment you use.” And even if it’s always going to be a bucket, consider material density – rock, dirt, mulch, etc. – to make sure the machine will handle the load.
ROC, flow and pressure are still key specs, but other factors must be considered. “Some attachments use 14-pin connectors,” says Devin Adams, product manager, CTLs and skid steers, Wacker Neuson. “Others, notably proprietary smart attachments, use seven-pin connectors. Attachment interface is mechanical and hydraulic but also electrical and it’s not always plug-and-play.”
Matching connectors is not enough; controls must also be matched. “Look at the grips. Are there multiple circuits? A plus B functions? Are there enough buttons and are they configured properly?” Adams says. Wacker Neuson CTLs offer a D Mode whereby grip button functions are reassigned for added convenience and efficiency.
Chris Trampush, product manager for CTLs and skid steers at JCB, recommends looking at the details of the application. “The same attachment can put very different demands on the loader depending on conditions,” he says. “Just knowing you’ll be using a bucket or forks isn’t enough. You need to understand exactly how you’ll be using that bucket or those forks.”
He also advises against making assumptions about the need for system upgrades. “No matter what your needs have been in the past, you may find that the newer, more capable machines meet those needs in standard configuration. High flow still has its place, but requiring it in the past does not necessarily indicate a need for it in the future for doing the same work.”
George MacIntyre, product manager, Case Construction Equipment, offers another approach. “Take a look at the auxiliary hydraulic performance you need now and then consider buying a machine with the next level of auxiliary hydraulic performance.” He says this will future-proof your fleet and increase the scope of work you can do.
“When you buy a CTL, you expect that asset to live in your fleet for many years,” MacIntyre adds. “If you expect to grow your business and expand your services, you don’t want to be limited by auxiliary hydraulic performance.”
Blane Burroughs, product specialist, Kubota, notes that sophisticated attachments need sophisticated protection. “We offer a guard protection package for several models of our track loaders. The kit includes coupler guards, lights guards, a DEF guard and additional protection for the FOPS and engine compartment.”
New machine, new markets?
The current lineup of compact track loaders will allow customers to do the same work they’ve always done with greater efficiency and productivity, but should the advantages stop there? If these machines are so capable, do they provide an opportunity for owners to offer more services to the same client base or even enter entirely new markets?
“The attachments available for CTLs and the availability of high-flow hydraulics can significantly expand your capabilities and help grow your business,” MacIntyre says. He mentions landscapers and concrete companies that already use CTLs for their main applications. “With a mulching attachment, they can do clearing and site prep for residential work.”
Snow removal is another market opportunity in many parts of the country, one that helps even out annual revenue flow. Snow removal seems simple enough, but actually there are multiple attachment options including snow pushers, blades, brooms and blowers.
Lee Padgett, product manager, Takeuchi, lists other opportunities. “There are tree spade attachments for nursery work, power rakes for soil conditioning, mulchers and mowers for managing large tracts of vegetation, and trenchers for installing utilities and irrigation.”
Zima says the market is split on this matter. “Smaller CTLs will continue to do much of the same work they always have. Larger-horsepower machines have the greatest opportunity to move into other markets.”
He cites road construction as an example. A dozer or grader can do the heavy cutting, and a large CTL can come in behind to button up smaller areas using the same GPS system and a variety of attachments. The use of a CTL allows single lane closures, instead of having to close multiple lanes.
Narrowing the gap
There have always been gaps between compact track loaders and skid steer loaders. Most notable is upfront cost, but ongoing O&O costs, travel speed and ROC create additional differences. What efforts have OEMs made to close these gaps and increase the appeal of CTLs to customers considering either a CTL or skid steer?
“We strive to have common parts between our skid and track loaders,” says Mike Goche, global product manager, skids/tracks, Gehl. “This lowers maintenance-parts costs to the end customer and allows for less inventory at the dealer service centers.”
Gehl CTLs also feature IdealTrax. This design makes it easier to switch or repair tracks, which reduces downtime. It also automatically releases track tension when the machine is not in use, extending track life by up to 15 percent.
Burroughs says that such things as travel speed, width and weight are driven by Kubota’s customer base. “As an example, the operating weights of our SVL65-2 and SVL75-2 are under 10,000 pounds, allowing the customer to tow their machine without needing a CDL.”
Others say there is a clear distinction between compact track loaders and skid steers and the markets they serve.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like the market is trying to narrow the gap between skid steers and compact track loaders,” says Padgett. “In the U.S., CTLs have a greater market share due to their versatility and their tracked undercarriage, which makes them more suitable for multi-terrain use. But skid steers have their place, such as for roadwork with frequent spin turns on paved surfaces, which would cause premature wear on tracks.”