Flippin’ fantastic trucks
The letter “F” reigned supreme when Isuzu Truck SA launched its new F-Series. But are these new vehicles really flippin’ fantastic? CHARLEEN CLARKE took a drive out to Gerotek to find out…
“Flippin’ great trucks for the looooong run.” That’s the first thing I saw when I arrived at Gerotek. The slogan proudly emblazoned one of the new vehicles as it was making its way around the banked circuit. I had made the trip north to experience the all-new Isuzu F-Series heavy truck range first-hand, so I headed straight to the gymkhana, where the new F-Series was being put though its paces. That’s when I bumped into FOCUS colleague, Vic Oliver. Because the trucks are purported to be leaders in their field in terms of safety, economy and meeting environmental standards (which is quite some claim!), I was keen to ask him what he thought of the new range.
“It’s good. At last year’s launch of the N-Series, a statement was made by a senior Isuzu executive that their future aim and strategy was to increase their market share in South Africa. The introduction and launch of this complete range of new vehicles is proof that they mean business,” he responded.
While chatting to a bunch of transport operators participating in the gymkhana, it soon became obvious how impressed they were with the extent of the range. “They have a truck for every single application,” was a comment I heard over and over again. Which is probably true. Whereas the previous F-Series comprised a range of nine models, the new F-Series is available in a 13-model line-up offering gross vehicle mass (GVM) stepped up from a minimum 10 000 kg to 11 000 kg, followed by 13 500 kg, 15 000 kg, 16 000 kg, 22 500 kg, 24 000 kg and 26 000 kg: a pretty formidable range of freight carriers. For trailer operations, the Isuzu F-Series has a gross combination mass (GCM) topping 32 000 kg in the FVR 900.
Specialist F-Series models include full-time 4×4 and 6×2 freight carriers, a 6×4 refuse compactor and truck tractors. The new Isuzu F-Series range also includes one crew-cab model – the Isuzu FSR 750 is a 13 500 kg GVM truck offering fully-homologated seating for a driver and six passengers. It is powered by an electro-hydraulic tilt mechanism to offer full maintenance access to the engine (as on all Isuzu truck cabs).
Taking momentary respite from my chats with the operators, I hopped into the driver’s seat of an FTR 800. I had heard that the new trucks boasted electronically-managed, fuel-efficient, common rail diesel Euro 2 engines (a 176 kW motor in the case of the truck I was driving) and that the vehicles were well spec’d in the safety department. For instance, ABS braking systems are standard except in the F-Series 4×4 model. Which is all very well – but what are the vehicles like from a driver’s perspective?
In a nutshell, the answer is “very good”. For starters, access to the cab is easy because the doors open wide; something I would value if I was a driver who had to get in and out of the cab every day. The controls are all within easy reach; the interior is spacious, stylish and functional; the truck is as easy to drive as a car; and the cab is incredibly quiet. The Isuzu F-Series looks good, too, although that’s probably not important to most truckers. However, bottom line is, which is why operators will be pleased to learn that the cabs are aerodynamically designed to improve fuel consumption.
Although our test route was short and the vehicle wasn’t loaded, the FTR 800 appeared to have more than enough grunt and torque to do its job. Especially comfortable was the air-suspension seat that is standard on every model in the new Isuzu F-Series. I also liked the fact that safety belts, too, are standard; and I enjoyed the panoramic windscreen, which means you can see for ever.
William Scott, asset care manager at Coca Cola Fortune, was similarly impressed with his driving experience. “The trucks are easy to manoeuvre, which is especially useful in areas that are hard to access,” he said.
Another fleet operator (who asked not to be named because of his close relationship with a different vehicle supplier) said he was particularly impressed with the smoothness of the engine and gearbox, as well as with the vehicle’s styling. His only complaint was lack of feedback through the steering wheel.
Before leaving the gymkhana, I had an opportunity to chat to another colleague: Ian Byers, who runs Scott Byers and is also tasked with conducting research for the highly respected FOCUS on Excellence Awards. Being a man who shoots from the hip, he pointed out that launches are a “sensitive issue” with him. “I always look at the cost of a launch as compared to the amount of direct contact with customers that could be achieved with the same amount of money. But I suppose that launches are part of the industry culture,” he noted with a wry smile.
Having said that, he admitted that he thought the event was superb. “One aspect of this event that’s right on target is that hands-on contact with each of the trucks is available to everyone. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the industry coming alive again after 2009! Our comparative customer satisfaction monitor tells us that tried-and-tested brands will enjoy even greater market penetration this year if they genuinely make the effort to support their customers. Isuzu is one of these and we wish them success with their new range,” Byers commented.
After we’d had our fill of the gymkhana, we travelled to the handling track at Gerotek. This particular circuit is not for the faint-hearted; I was there in February and a colleague totally destroyed a vehicle (and his right arm) while navigating one of its bends. It therefore came as no surprise when we were told we would be driven around the track; only a handful of professional drivers were allowed to commandeer the trucks around this circuit themselves.
But that was fine; it meant that I could join other drivers and chat to them about their impressions of the new truck range. One was Peter Crous, a co-owner of bulk cement transport operator WLC Transport. He was particularly positive about comfort levels in the F-Series cabs and also gave their mirrors the thumbs up. “If you can’t see, you’re either blind or you need to go for glasses,” he remarked.
At first, some other drivers experienced difficulty in selecting first gear, commenting that the gate between first and third gears on vehicles fitted with multi-speed transmissions was too close.
Later I met two farmers – Flip Cronje from Bloemfontein and Norman Erasmus from Klerksdorp. “I’m impressed with the economy of the range,” remarked Cronje. Erasmus, on the other hand, liked the cab and fuel consumption. “I run Hino trucks, but I think these are better,” he reported. He did, however, have one negative comment. “There are only two hinges on the doors and that’s a problem; they’re not strong enough for agricultural applications. In fairness, this is a drawback with lots of trucks, not just these vehicles,” he added. He was nevertheless particularly impressed with the FVR 900, which he described as “peerless”.
I needed some extra photographs, so Vic Oliver drove around the circuit while I snapped away. Afterwards, I asked him about his experiences around the torturous track. “I found all the controls to be light and driver-friendly. However, because the clutch pedal operation is especially light, I am concerned that, with such a light pressure needed to depress the pedal, if a driver uses it as a resting place for his left foot while driving this could cause expensive clutch damage,” he warned. “To eliminate the damage and ensure that the trucks are correctly and safely driven, proper training will be essential when customers take delivery of each new vehicle.”
When I chatted to another FOCUS colleague, Frank Beeton, he also spoke positively about the new range. “I was surprised there was no mention of automated transmissions, which they punt so hard on the N-Series. But, apart from that, the new F-Series cruiserweight range – which follows on from highly successful predecessor models dating back to the legendary SBR 422 of the late 1970s – is very impressive,” he commented.
Clearly, the new F-Series is, indeed, flippin’ fantastic. At the beginning of 2010, there were already over 17 244 Isuzu F-Series trucks trawling South Africa’s roads. Given the launch of the new range, it seems fair to expect this number to escalate. Dramatically.
• Isuzu ranks among the top four medium- to extra-heavy truck manufacturers in South Africa, with an annual retail market share greater than 10%.
• There are over 36 500 25-year-old or under registered Isuzu trucks on South Africa’s roads.
• Isuzu is Australia’s leading truck supplier – a position the company has held for 20 consecutive years.
Isuzu’s medium and heavy truck models are equipped with common cab parts, including doors, lights and dashboards. This simplifies parts inventories for large fleets.
Big dealership big deal
Although truck dealerships are easy to find, complaints about after-sales service are common and really good dealerships are seldom awarded the dues they deserve for service excellence.
What makes a truly great dealership? Is it the size? If that’s true, Barloworld City Deep certainly fits the bill, occupying
3 500 m2. “Our commercial vehicle workshop is 1 100 m2 in size, enabling us to service around 12 trucks per day and about 169 per month,” says Jacque Gericke, service manager. “My service centre is designed to minimise down-time by employing state-of-the-art service equipment, and is a 22 m superlink driver’s dream. It also offers seven double drive-through service bays, trailer facilities, and a rolling bed computerised brake tester,” he adds proudly.
The dealership has ten productive servicing staff and eight support staff, whilst housing South Africa’s largest parts wholesale warehouse with a floor space of 2 300 m2. ”We have a total stock holding valued at approximately R35 million, with around R8.7 millions-worth of truck stock at any one time,” says Vernon Meakin, the dealership’s general manager. This speeds up parts replacement to the point of being virtually instantaneous in most cases. “Isuzu Truck SA has just awarded us Dealer of the Year on the service side for 2009 in the large vehicle category,” says Gericke, adding that he took the award for best service manager. The dealership offers a 24-hour break-down service and Saturday servicing by appointment, and boasts a 470-kVA on-site generator for Johannesburg’s all-too-frequent power outages, ensuring that service deadlines are always met on time. Barloworld also offers sleep-over facilities for long-haul drivers, proving the dealership’s dedication and commitment to the industry.
“Being part of a very large motor group provides us with huge backing, and Barloworld’s integrity is beyond reproach. This makes it easy for us because there are no grey areas, so we must get it right from the very start,” Meakin concludes.