Side by Side: Skid steer loaders vs. compact wheel loaders

One of the more interesting discussions contractors are having is whether to use a skid-steer loader or a compact wheel loader on certain jobsites. Although the skid-steer loader is a hugely popular machine, some have found the compact wheel loader option intriguing as well.

To get a more accurate and complete look at the merits of each machine we talked to Matt Mumford, who has industry responsibility for Caterpillar compact wheel loaders, and Kent Pellegrini, who does the same for the company’s skid-steer loaders and multi-terrain loaders. For discussion purposes we compared specs between the Cat 262B skid-steer loader and the Cat 904B compact wheel loader. Keep in mind there is a wide variation in specs when all manufacturers are taken into account.

As a general rule the compact wheel loader will have 25 percent more bucket capacity and tipping load capacity, Mumford says. That can vary depending on which model and which manufacturer’s machines you’re comparing. For Cat, says Mumford, “We are comparing a big skid-steer loader and a small compact wheel loader.”

Purchase price
You’ll pay about 25 percent more for a compact wheel loader. But with some two dozen manufacturers of skid-steer loaders, expect a wide range of prices.

Operating costs
Fuel and tires are the two biggest operating costs for skid-steer loaders. With their smaller engines, compact wheel loaders use less fuel than skid steers, Mumford says. And their articulated front-end steering is easier on tires as well.

No debate here. The compact wheel loader is a fast machine. The Equipment World Spec Guide shows most small loaders with an average travel speed of 10 to 14 mph, compared with skid steers that generally range between 7 and 10 mph. But travel speed is not the only metric. “It articulates quickly and loads faster than a skid steer can,” Pellegrini says.

Across the board, skid-steer loaders have higher horsepower engines than comparable compact wheel loaders, Mumford says. The Cat 262 has 50 percent more horsepower than the 904B. The bigger engine translates into higher hydraulic horsepower and that’s a plus for skid steers. But keep in mind the two machines use horsepower differently. The skid-steer loader needs some of those extra ponies to push itself around, counter rotate and such. The compact wheel loader has more efficient transfer of power to the ground and dedicates more of its power to carrying loads. “The Cat skid-steer loader can fill its bucket to the tipping capacity and raise it to the top of its reach at low throttle,” Pellegrini says. “That’s important for fuel costs.”

No other machine can match the maneuverability of the skid steer, with its small footprint and ability to counter rotate. The top of a skid steer’s cab is also lower so it can maneuver in spaces with low clearances. On some jobsites counter rotation might tear up the turf or disturb the soil more than is desirable, which might negate the counter rotation advantage. The compact wheel loader has a larger turning radius, but the articulated front prevents the tires from tearing up turf or finished surfaces.

Vertical-lift-path skid steers typically have a hinge pin height that’s higher off the ground than comparable compact wheel loaders, so you can dump a bit higher, Mumford says. But compact wheel loaders sit a bit higher, which improves your visibility when dumping and when using the forks to load materials into second story openings or over walls.

“The skid steer has a decided advantage when you’re talking about visibility to the bucket cutting edge,” Mumford says. “You sit lower to the ground. Your bucket is right there in front of you. The advantage for a compact wheel loader is that you sit up a little bit higher. Your visibility behind you and to the side is typically better.” How important these considerations are depends on the application.

Operator comfort
Both machines tend to be used intermittently, unlike a large wheel loader where an operator may sit all day. Getting in and out of a compact wheel loader is easier since it has a side door, whereas on a skid steer you have to climb over the bucket. The steering wheel control of a wheel loader can be easier for inexperienced operators and rental users to deal with, Mumford says.

Service access
Because the skid-steer loader is such a compact machine, designing accessible service points can be more of a challenge than it is on the larger frame of a compact wheel loader. But each manufacturer does this a little differently, so you need to examine for yourself the ease with which your operators or technicians can reach scheduled maintenance service points.

The skid steer is often thought of as a mobile hydraulic power source for attachments. Accordingly there are hundreds of attachments designed for them. That’s not to say a compact wheel loader can’t use attachments as well. The key is making sure you buy a compact wheel loader that has the proper interface for these work tools, Pellegrini says. Otherwise you have to buy new attachments.

“Compact wheel loaders used to be thought of as just a bucket machine, although most of them go out with forks too,” Mumford says. “But we’re seeing the work tool applications expanding. We even see them with things like landscape rakes.”

There’s no black or white, right or wrong answer with this one. The answer is largely dependent on the applications you’re working in. The largest markets for compact wheel loaders are general construction and landscaping, Mumford says. The top market for skid-steer loaders is landscaping, he says, but it’s such a versatile machine that it has found fans in every market.

Mumford and Pellegrini also strongly urge contractors who are debating a choice between these two machines to work their dealers hard on this one. Ask for demos on your jobsites and get your crews to try each machine, they advise.

What about compact track loaders?
The compact track loader (Cat calls it’s models multi-terrain loaders) might also need to be considered a contender if you’re debating between a skid-steer loader and a compact wheel loader. In engine power, footprint, visibility, reach height and many other considerations the compact track loader closely matches similar size skid steers.

But these rubber track machines weigh more and have a slight edge when it comes to tipping load. Plus the extremely low ground pressure exerted by the rubber tracks allows you to work in muddy, swampy or sensitive conditions that would stop any rubber tire machine. Many contractors also report the flotation they get from a compact track loader can extend their working season by several weeks into the winter and help them get a jump start on spring.

Our Caterpillar experts caution, however, that the compact track loader is not for everyone. In rocky terrain or hard surfaces the rubber tracks take a beating. Rebar, ragged tree roots and construction debris may also damage tracks. As with any other equipment choice, your best strategy is to carefully review the specifics of your applications and operations with a knowledgeable dealer before committing to any machine.