Test Run: Cat’s 306 CR Compact Excavator is a “Fantastic Little Machine”


On this episode of The Dirt, operator and host Bryan Furnace gets some seat time in Caterpillar’s 306 CR compact excavator.

The next-generation machine, first introduced in 2019, boasts some handy features like E–Fence, Swing Assist – even cruise control in which the excavator can travel forward on its own while the operator can still control swing, boom, stick and attachment. This can be particularly helpful on mulching operations in which the machine slowly advances forward.

The roomy cab includes multiple air conditioning and heat vents for the operator. As for power and performance, Bryan gives his views on how it handled in the hard, red clay of North Carolina, where he tested it.

So to find out more about why Bryan calls the 306 CR “a fantastic little machine,” check out this week’s episode of The Dirt.

Here are some quick specs on the 306 CR:

  • Engine: Cat C2.4 Turbo
  • Net power: 55.9 hp
  • Operating weight: 15,766 lbs.
  • Tail swing: 58 in.
  • Standard dig depth: 146 in.
  • Dig depth, long: 162 in. 

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In This Episode:

  • 00:00 â€“ Caterpillar 306 CR Mini Excavator Review
  • 01:40 â€“ Exterior
  • 02:21 â€“ Interior
  • 03:25 â€“ E–Fence
  • 04:56 â€“ Swing Assist
  • 05:53 â€“ Joystick Steering 07:06 â€“ Cruise Control
  • 09:48 â€“ Performance & Accessibility
  • 10:39 â€“ Room For Improvement
  • 15:00 â€“ Final Verdict



Bryan Furnace (00:00):

Today, we’re here to talk about the CAT 306. If you are familiar with CAT's lineup, you'll know that they traditionally haven't had a six ton excavator, and so after talking with some of the cat personnel, they decided this was a gap that needed filling, and so the 306 is here. Now, before we really dive into this review, there are a few things that I'd like to discuss with you. First of all, the CAT next-gen machines, if you will, have been here for a little while, but unfortunately I haven't really gotten any seat time in those machines, so there are going to be some features I'm going to cover that a lot of you in the industry have probably already seen. You're well versed in and it's like Brian, we already know, but to me they're new, so bear with me. Number two is after talking again with some of the CAT personnel, it's come to my attention that what we've been seeing over the last 10 years in the equipment industry is OEMs reacting to emission standards.


That's really what updates two machines have been for the last decade. As manufacturers have struggled to cram different engines with more emissions components into these machines, the vast majority of R&D has been going into that side of the equation as opposed to going into changing and improving the actual machine itself. Well, now that we've finally arrived at Tier 4 final, Caterpillar's starting to make some advances in let's improve the machine, not just build a machine around an engine. And so that brings us to the next-gen machines and specifically for today, the CAT 306.


Now walking around the eyesight of the machine, you're going to notice the new body style that fits with all of the other next-gen equipment. It's got that kind of boxier feel to it, but still some nice subtle rounded corners. They're very good-looking machines in my opinion. The new mini excavators are shipping with four-way blades, which I'm a huge fan of. If you've ever dug in a sump line and then tried to go backfill it with a old school single way blade on, a mini excavator, takes forever. So having the four-way blade on these machines is a game changer. And in all honesty, the next biggest thing you're going to notice is the cab size.


For a mini excavator, this does not feel like a mini excavator. This is a very comfortable, spacious, roomy cab. I will not hold back. I hate running mini excavators because they always feel cramped and claustrophobic. This CAT 306 is not that way at all. It feels like a full excavator sized cab when you get in the machine. It's very comfortable, and that brings me to my next point that you're not going to notice visually, but you are going to notice from a comfort standpoint and that is the air conditioning system.


CAT has finally done what we've all wanted manufacturers to do for a long time and they've put HVAC vents on both sides of the operator, so now you have vents on your left side as well as your right side. Now we actually have a really nice ventilated cab. You actually have gray airflow so that you're comfortable on all parts of your body. That's such a small thing, and yet at the same time, it's not a small thing and I'm glad to see CAT has finally improved the HVAC system on these machines. Now, this is where we start to dive into machine technology


And really that's what the next-gen equipment is about is really embracing the technology side of what these machines can do, especially now that we've really gone full bore down the electronic over hydraulic controls, that's allowed us to get some really cool features such as e-fence. What is e-fence? Well, traditionally when you have a rookie on the job and you have overhead obstructions or power lines or you may have a wall out in front of you or perhaps you don't want them going too far down on their dig, with e-fence you can actually set parameters in the machine. Assuming the machine doesn't track to a new location, you can set parameters in the machine to limit your swing from left to right. You can monitor how high the boom can go. You can monitor how low the bucket can go. You can set all of these wherever you want.


You position the machine where you want the stop. With a quick touch on your keypad, you can set that limitation and the nice thing that CAT's done, we don't come racing into our turn and slam to a stop spilling all of your material. Instead, what CAT's done is they've built in a little buffer cushion area where as you get close to the swing, it automatically applies the swing break and brings you to a nice slow stop before you get outside your limitation. And then if you want to disable that limitation, you go back into your menu and disable the limitation and now you're back to running an excavator just like normal. Again, this is something that seems kind of small and straightforward in the beginning, but really once you start to utilize these, you can do some fun things with them. Now, they've also included a feature called swing assist.


Now, swing assist differs from your e-fence in the sense that it's more of a convenience factor. Let's say we are swinging into our trench that's directly here in front of us and we are swinging over here to my right to a pile, and we're going to be doing that over and over. Probably for the next 15 minutes, we're going to be doing the exact same thing. With swing assist, we can actually go into the menus and we can set similar to e-fence, we can set a limitation, but this time what it's going to do is it's going to bring the machine to a rest, and if I put my joystick back to the neutral position and then re-swing, unlike the e-fence, I can continue to swing past my swing assist area. Now that seems like one of those features that you would never use. Real operators don't need that business. That's just bells and whistles. That's immediately what I thought as well, but then when I was digging my little simulated trench, turns out that's pretty stinking convenient.


Now, one of the other great improvements to the new excavator lineup from Caterpillar is the joystick steering. Man, that is convenient, especially when you've got a long track across the job site before you even reach where you are going to be. It is really nice to take those feet off the foot pedals and just kick back and use your joystick to steer wherever you need to go. Now the really cool thing is you can still use all of your functions. Caterpillar has designed the 306 in a way that you can still use your boom stick bucket and your swing while using joystick steering. Now, the controls get a little non-traditional and we're not going to dive into the details right now, but know that you can dig a trench with one hand while you are tracking in the machine, and I have footage from my demo to prove it.


It's awesome. It's a great feature and it's one of those things that, especially when it comes to mulching applications or something where you're tracking along and you just need to knock down a couple windrows instead of having to take the machine in and out of joystick steer mode for one quick pass or in a mulching application, you can do it all with one hand while you continue to track the machine. Now, that does bring up another cool feature on this machine that I thought initially I would never use until the CAT rep actually brought up a really good application.


In joystick steering mode, you have cruise control. Yes, you heard me right. As I can creep forward and I have a button here, I'm just going to click that button, and now the machine is going to carry itself and the cool thing is I can continue working, which means that if you're on a mulching application where you want to move at a pretty slow pace, but you don't really want to concentrate on the tracking aspect, now I can go back to mulching with my one hand, my right hand while the machine continues to track for me. We now have our house here on my toggle.


I have my boom control here on my right-hand joystick as well as my bucket control. And then if I click this trigger over here, instead of me operating my thumb the second I hit this button, now I operate my stick. Now as soon as I go to change my track speed forward or reverse, it's going to kick off cruise control as you would expect, like any other vehicle or there are a number of other safety features built in that will kick you out of cruise control if something were to go awry. It's actually a really well laid out system and I could see people starting to get creative with it once they get familiar with the concept of an excavator having cruise control. It's just going to take us time as an industry to adopt some of these new features and think outside the box of ways that we can use them.


Now, one thing I was really thrilled about and really that's getting to the meat of this review is the power and balance of the machine. This is actually a heavy little unit, and that's really nice because it offers a really firm stable base. I did not have any tipping issues, even at full reach with a full bucket. There was enough weight in this machine that I was very comfortable. It would've been very comfortable working on slopes. This is a really well-balanced machine and unlike a lot of minis, this sucker has a fair amount of power. I was not underwhelmed at all, especially digging in the hard North Carolina clay. This machine performed and I was very impressed with the power output out of this small little footprint. Now, as with all of the next-gen machines, you've got great accessibility to all of your engine compartments. You have doors around the entire machine. You've got really easy access through these doors all the way around.


Now, let's get into some of my critiques. The first one is with all of these new technology features that we have, we're kind of running into a situation to where all of the manufacturers want to use that little touchscreen over on the side for any and everything you ever want while also trying to display all of the information that you could ever want. So one of my small irks, but it's really kind of moved into a bigger irritation, is the fact that the HVAC controls are no longer separate from everything else.


You now have to go into a menu if you want to change your HVAC controls. Now, it's easy to get to that menu. It's not like you have to go into a menu and go into another menu. It's a one button press thing. You're in the HVAC menu. But as an operator, when I am on the fly, adjusting my climate control as I will do many times a day, especially in the morning because you want the heat on when it's a little cool and crisp in the morning, and then you want to transition to AC during the day, and then maybe you're working a little late.


So we want to go back to heat. Instead of me having to dive into a menu, I miss the good old days of just being able to blindly reach down because I know where my HVAC controls are, hit a button and then I'm back to work. Now, one of the things that I have a problem with with the e-fence system is the wall setup. So let's walk through this scenario. Let's say we had a wall out in front of us, and so what we'll do is we'll reach out with our arm and we're going to set a wall right here, so I don't want to reach any further so that I don't hit that wall. That's great. That's a really nice feature because now I can reach out there and I don't have to worry about it. But what happens when I turn the machine 90 degrees and I want to go dump over my spoils pile over here?


Well, unfortunately, as far as I could tell, the wall is created around the entire machine. The machine just arbitrarily puts a value out there for you cannot reach past this point, but it has nothing to do with your orientation to the actual wall. And so that's a bit of a frustration and it's really a pretty big limitation on the wall e-fence portion. Now, all other portions of the e-fence work beautifully. Another slight irritation is transferring from feet pedals to joystick steering. Now, unfortunately, in its current iteration, you have to bring the machine to a full stop, push your button on the trigger, and then you have to wait about it feels like about a second.


When I'm tracking across the job, I want to be able to hit that button and seamlessly go from operating with my joysticks to my foot. Pedals are going forward and we just continue going forward. I don't want to stop the machine because I want to be able to roll right up to my trench and immediately start going to work. Now, that kind of brings me into my overall where we go with technology. This is not CAT specific. This is every OEM out there right now. We're starting to get so many features in these machines that we can't have everything accessible through our four little hotkeys anymore at the bottom of our screen, which means I'm having to dive into menus more and more these days. And again, as we just talked about with the HVAC controls, I don't like being disrupted when I'm in the middle of my workflow.


I want to be able to go, go, go. I need to be able to get to those menus really quick. And so I do feel like all of the OEMs are getting to a point now to where we're going to have to go back to having some soft keys maybe below our screen so that we can quickly access a lot of these additional features like e-fence, swing control. You also have bucket assist, which we didn't even talk about. These new machines are just jam packed with features that are largely going to go unused most of the time simply because you have to go two menus deep before you can access those features.


Now, the bright shining liner on all of this is over time this can all be fixed with software updates from Caterpillar, assuming that Caterpillar wants to address this issue. I could absolutely see them doing some tweaks to the user interface through some updates down the road to where maybe we have a few more buttons at the bottom of the screen, or perhaps we make some of the more used items easier to access. And as always, a lot of these manufacturers are making it to where the soft keys can be programmed to where you can use whatever soft key you want to represent whatever function you want. But again, I just come back to as we get more and more complicated with these machines, the manufacturers are going to have to address this issue of being able to get to everything quickly.


So overall thoughts on the 306, it was a fantastic little machine. All of the features, the functionality, the updates to the cab, everything about these machines is really, really bringing us into the new era of being an operator. And so this part of the review, I would like to encourage a lot of us in the industry, we are stuck so much in the past in the old ways, and what we've got to do is realize we are now moving from an era of what we're all used to into the era of technology. And I would almost say that is equivalent to or very close to going from the old cable driven machines into the world of hydraulics. So that's where I encourage you as audience members, as business owners in this industry, stop looking at technology as this big, bad, scary thing, and as an operator especially, stop looking at technology as a set of training wheels for all of the new guys.


Instead, we need to think about this as we are reducing our workload mentally. We are making our day easier with a few button presses in the machine. As I've kind of mentally started to wrap my head around that, I've found that I've actually really, really enjoy these new features that are coming on the next-gen equipment and the 306 is no different. This is a really, really convenient tool to use if you take the time to figure out what it does and then actually take the time to use it. So as always, I hope this has been helpful. I hope it helps your business continue to grow. Thanks for watching, and we'll catch you on the next episode of The Dirt.