After all the rumours, ‘off-the-record’ hints and sneaky spy shots, Mercedes-Benz’s all-new Actros has finally broken cover. So was it worth the wait? DIESEL’s Brian Weatherley was at the world launch and after a steer of Stuttgart’s latest creation, reckons it was worth every second.
The Best of Benz
Make no mistake, there are some VERY high hopes riding on Mercedes-Benz’s new Actros, and especially on those who’ll have to sell it.
Yet every time you bump into a senior Mercedes executive in this part of the world you can’t help detecting a tremendous air of self-belief in their new baby. Not that the ‘World’s Biggest Truck Maker’ has ever lacked confidence … it’s just that for a manufacturer which traditionally launches new products with all the stops ‘in’, the arrival of New Actros has been communicated in a rather, well, ‘un-Mercedes’ way.
Witness, for instance, the remarks of Andreas Renschler, Daimler board member and head of Daimler Trucks: “Let me put it simply,” he said, “This truck just rocks!”
Having driven it exclusively for DIESEL I can assure you ‘rock’ is the last thing it does. It is actually very stable, but that’s just me being a picky Pom.
So let’s get on with it: ‘New’ Actros has a new cab (in three heights), a new interior, a new chassis, a new line-up of 13 litre OM471 engines – derived from the Detroit Diesel DD13 – with both Euro 5 and Euro 6 emissions credentials, and a third generation of the 12-speed, two-pedal PowerShift automated transmission known logically enough as PowerShift 3.
As exciting as all this sounds, it’s still a brave manufacturer that changes everything at once. Traditionally, European truck makers first unveil a new cab above an existing driveline, then some time later shove a new engine underneath it, so there’s always a 50 percent comfort factor in play. But not Mercedes!
Having originally flirted with the idea of putting the OM471 engine beneath the previous Actros cab – which is still the current cab in your part of the world – Mercedes’ board members concluded that nothing less than a ‘blank sheet of paper’ would do.
Now while you might think the ‘all-new’ proposition is perhaps a gamble, Mercedes-Benz Trucks chief Hubertus Troska retorts, “This is either the best idea we’ve ever had, or a risk. We had some long discussions of this but we’re convinced this is going to be a very good investment. We’re convinced that only by optimising every single part of the truck we will be able to exploit best fuel economy and this is why we touched every single part of the truck.”
Clearly it’s cost them a shed-load of money to bring New Actros to market; more than €1 billion (Aus$1.33 billion) on the truck’s complete development plus a further €1 billion on the production facilities, equipment and tools to build it. Also, Mercedes engineers spent 2600 hours in the wind tunnel perfecting the aerodynamic shape of their striking new cab. In fact, word has it that no Mercedes-Benz truck has ever had so much air blown on its face in the course of its development.
Yet recent over-the-road fuel trials with the new model appear to have validated the board’s decision. In a strictly-monitored test the Germans recently ran two identical New Actros prime movers (one certified at Euro 5, the other at Euro 6) against an ‘old’ V6 Euro 5 Actros in a 10,000km shuttle back-and-forth between Rotterdam in Holland and Szczecin in Poland. After seven days the Euro 5 New Actros – an 1845 model – showed a 7.6 percent saving in fuel versus the ‘old’ Actros, while the new Euro 6 version delivered an equally impressive reduction of 4.5 percent.
What makes these figures (available on http://www.record-run.com/en.html) all the more impressive is that at the official launch of New Actros, cautious Mercedes bosses actually quoted smaller fuel savings of six percent and three percent respectively for the Euro 6 and Euro 5 New Actros.
But even when it’s standing still, the new Actros’s stylish cab commands attention. The largest flat-floor variant called the GigaSpace offers a cavernous interior volume of 10.6 cubic metres, almost one cubic metre more than the old MegaSpace Actros and which, by any measure, is a huge increase.
As for first impressions, well, I recently spent some time punching New Actros around the hills of Southern Spain and can confirm that whether you’re climbing into the lowest height ‘StreamSpace’ model, the intermediate ‘BigSpace’ or the aforementioned ‘GigaSpace’, it takes just four steps to get up and into the flat-floor cabs. The other good news is that someone in Stuttgart has finally taken the hint and layered the entry steps more, so they’re easier to see, especially when climbing out.
Furthermore, entering through the wide door aperture you quickly appreciate the New Actros’s more airy interior. Whether drivers will consciously notice the separate trim colours that differentiate the working and resting/sleeping ‘zones’ is debatable, but fleet buyers will certainly appreciate that those areas most likely to attract dirt – around the dashboard, lower bunk, floor and overhead lockers – are finished in a practical anthracite grey. However, a lighter ‘almond beige’ trim around the rear side walls, roof, bed and co-driver’s seat alleviates the darkness and adds a touch of class. More importantly, there’s a sense of strength to the interior that bodes well for long-service.
All three cabs are 2.5 metres wide and headroom inside all is impressive, with even the smallest Stream/AeroSpace version offering almost two metres of headroom which is more than enough for the average-size driver. We certainly had no trouble moving around in it. All cabs also come with plenty of storage space including a pull-out fridge and locker under the bunk.
Of course, with a new cab there’s also a new dashboard and controls too. The old ‘Telligent’-style gear selector on the arm-rest has gone, replaced by controls for the PowerShift 3 automated shifter on a steering column stalk. Although it’s hidden by the steering wheel, drivers will find the shifter intuitively easy to use. A simple slider switch changes from full-auto to manual mode and to change gear you simply paddle the lever up or down. The stalk also controls a powerful exhaust brake and if fitted, a retarder.
On the road, the Powershift 3 transmission is even quicker and smoother than its predecessor, and more willing than ever to select the fuel-saving Eco-Roll function. In fact, the beauty of auto boxes in Europe these days is that hardly a day goes by without a manufacturer introducing a new software program that makes their two-pedal box even quicker, smoother and smarter.
Meanwhile, the old Actros’s cruise control functions have migrated to the steering wheel as a set of command buttons, with there are similar buttons for the driver information display which is gratefully easy to use and understand.
Taking a leaf out of its car division, there’s no key-start; you insert the coded key fob into a slot in the dash and press the stainless-steel start button which also acts as the engine stop. Okay, it’s a gimmick, but a classy one at that.
Aficionados of the old Actros V6 and V8 engines will clearly miss their unmistakable burble, meaning the new OM471 engine certainly has a ‘different’ sound which is doubtless the result of its high-pressure X-Pulse common-rail injection system. However, there’s no doubting its flexibility at low revs, with plenty in reserve around 1000 rpm and an almost immediate awareness that the OM471 ‘talks’ well to PowerShift 3 and seldom seemed out of step with the 12-speed transmission.
Throughout the launch of New Actros, Mercedes’ senior engineers went out of their way to talk about its superior dynamic stability and ‘car-like’ driving characteristics. While one doubts whether a top-weight truck will, or even should, ever be driven like a car, the Germans are definitely on to something with New Actros’s ride and handling. In fact, they seem to have managed the clever trick of increasing the New Actros’s roll stiffness without making its ride harsh or uncomfortable.
Indeed, the isolation of the new cab’s floor and steering column from imperfections in the road surface is particularly striking. The steering is also very direct, and requires none of the minor ‘see-saw’ adjustments found on some rivals when cornering.
The result is a sure-footed truck with impeccable road manners that gives a driver confidence but without compromising his security. That superior ride is down to the new, stiffer chassis with wider spring centres, improved damping and cab mountings, new ‘open’ end V-rod locating the back axle, and revised front and rear anti-roll bars. But when Merc’s engineers told me the cab’s air suspension isn’t electronically-controlled (apparently too expensive and too complicated) I suddenly had even more respect for New Actros. Believe me, to get this quality of cab ride without electronics has taken some real engineering skill.
Put simply, New Actros displays the same kind of taut handling characteristics normally found on fleet trucks with lower-mounted coil-sprung cabs, but with all the comfort you’d expect from a big cab. And that’s some achievement. But don’t take my word for it. Visit http://www.roadtransport.com/blogs/big-lorry-blog/2011/08/new-mercedes-actroshow-good-is.html to see for yourself on a short Biglorryblog video clip how much lateral stability the new cab has.
At the end of any test drive there’s always that embarrassing moment when the company minder puts you on the spot and asks, “Is there anything you don’t like?” Frankly, I struggled to come up with anything. I thought maybe the large mirror clusters create a lateral blind-spot, but so do similar units on rival European models which is, of course, caused by European Union regulations. And perhaps the steps could have been more ‘layered’, but beyond these things, anything else would be just nit-picking.
The simple fact is Mercedes has plenty of very good reasons to have such high hopes for its new Actros. When it arrives Down Under, you’ll know what I mean.