Wheels vs. Tracks: The Debate Over Compact Loaders – Part 3

April 4, 2015

Freewheeling Toward the Future
Together, the skid steer and the compact track loader are an integral part of the industry, making up 40% of the construction and excavation market. Despite the rising popularity of the CTL, skid steers remain the top seller—although that might be changing. Pointing out that the CTL is newer, Hughes believes the industry is just beginning to understand how to utilize it and suggests that track loaders should supplement fleets, not replace skid steers. The industry seems to be catching on. “Growth [of the CTL market] is starting to outstrip skid steers,” he says.

However, the advent of the CTL era doesn’t ring the death knell for the skid steer. Giorgianni considers it the “Swiss Army knife” of the construction industry and a vital entry-level piece of equipment for new contractors. He still believes skid steers may be better suited for long-term jobs. “Maintenance costs are lower, they’re faster, they can do tight turns and they minimize ground disturbance, which makes them particularly good for landscaping applications.” Landscaping is a common application for skid steers, but Steger says they’re also adaptable to perform “some residential excavation” and are suited for agricultural applications, from feedlots to vineyards.

Caterpillar is the only manufacturer that can provide a best-fit traction solution from one of three traction platforms: a skid-steer loader, a multiterrain loader, or a compact track loader. These options allow a customer’s application to be matched with the correct machine in order to provide the solution offering the highest productivity, for his application, with the lowest owning-and-operating cost. Whether tracks or wheels, each solution provides unique advantages.

Popular Case models 450 and 465 are also effective for work on roads or bridges, according to Hughes, because of their mechanically self-leveling loader linkage. In addition, he says, they have the fastest cycle times on the market, and their high-horsepower engines—83 net horsepower—provide exceptional torque and lift capacity.

Skid steers continue to offer many advantages. Because they can do “spin turns,” they can speed up work and work in tighter areas, adding to their versatility. Hughes says they’re simply more effective in ground conditions that are more damaging. “Stone wears out track, but wheels roll over it.”

Another advantage they have is in the used market, where resale values are well established and names are known. “The used market for skid steers is visible and dynamic,” Murphy says.

Fitzgerald considers the skid steer a better choice for multitasking, multi-operator, utility duties, as opposed to the CTL, which “tends to be more of a production machine.” Murphy agrees. “If versatility is key, a skid steer is the best choice. If production is important, a CTL is the better choice. The more specialized and consistent the application, the more a CTL makes sense, but for versatility, transport and modest investment, a skid steer is the place to start.” In fact, he recommends most contractors start with a skid steer, eventually graduating to a compact wheel loader if they get big enough. “A compact wheel loader [CWL] can do things a skid steer can’t.”

The skid steer can’t stockpile, because it’s too closely coupled, but a CWL can. The compact wheel loader can load and carry because of its wider wheelbase, which also provides a smoother ride and more stability. It features a higher payload and larger bucket capacity, and has higher ground speed—more than double that of a skid steer, up to 22 miles per hour. They are more stable and have better lift because of the amount of track on the ground and the weight of the undercarriage.

Popular New Holland compact wheel loader models include the W50B and W80B, although Murphy estimates that they still sell track loaders 20 to one over wheel loaders (and skid steers seven to one over track loaders). “It’s new in North America,” he says. “The market is only one-tenth of the skid-steer market. There’s some growth, but not as fast as the CTL.”

Maybe that’s because “it’s big and expensive,” he speculates. It’s about one-and-a-half times the cost of a skid steer, and maintenance is more expensive than on the skid steer or the CTL. Because it’s 10,000–15,000 pounds heavier than a skid steer, it needs a different trailer; however, it can drive a couple miles to a new jobsite.

On the plus side, the CWL offers a great deal of productivity. Because crawler loaders have a 35% tipping load, they can lift more than skid steers. “It does a better job truck loading because of its reach and wheelbase.” Its longer wheelbase also gives it an advantage over the skid steer in hard digging applications. “The harder the digging,” Murphy says, “the less benefit a skid steer is.”

In addition, Murphy says, it has a nicer cab arrangement for better visibility and there’s more distance between the bucket and operator, enhancing both visibility and safety, particularly at transfer stations, where operators are moving boards and rebar. Since the operator sits high, he can see the work area better. Its superior suspension and enhanced creature comforts provide a better operating environment in poor conditions such as dusty transfer stations or contained agricultural applications. He considers it a valuable addition to a fleet, particularly because it is designed to accept universal skid-steer attachments.