Monday, 16 December 2013

How Much Torque? Too Much Is Just Enough

How much torque does your 4X4's engine produce? 180Nm? Over 200Nm? That's so last century. Over 300? Now, you're in the 21st Century. Over 500Nm? That's serious. 750Nm? Touareg V10. More, more, more ...

There's no substitute for size when you want to haul lots of stuff around. “No replacement for displacement,” as the Yanks love to say.

So, you want to do some serious shopping? Buying in bulk to save money? You need a big vehicle, then, and they don’t come much bigger than the Mercedes Actros, which may be just the choice for heavy-duty shopaholics.

While the average sedan can probably lug around 200kg or so of shopping without running out of puff, and any self-respecting pick-up can pick up 800kg to a tonne, the Actros hauls up to 80 tonnes without so much as a bead of sweat.

Of course, having a large boot or cargo compartment is just part of the story. Once your bargains have been safely stowed away, the vehicle’s engine needs to have enough grunt to get you and your newly-acquired belongings home.

The average 1.6-1.8l family car can call upon 110-120 horses, and around 160-180 Newton-metres is considered healthy torque for toting loads about. Volkswagen Touareg V10 Diesel, 750Nm.

The Mercedes Actros’ V6 engine pumps out 1,850Nm, and redlines at 2,500rpm. (No, the figures are not typo errors.) If you like horses, it delivers about about 395.  BHP, that is.

I guess you can figure out by now that the Actros is one special vehicle. It is, and even getting into the driver’s seat requires a special technique. You grip the two grab rails provided, climb up the steps and swing your behind into the spacious cabin.

The cockpit is roomy and offers a commanding view of the road ahead and out the driver’s side, but rearward visibility can be awkward, depending on the accessories fitted. The large side wide-angle mirrors do help quite a bit, though.

The high position takes a little getting used to, but anyone who drives a 4X4 will appreciate the advantage of being able to see further. The front seats are designed to be comfortable over long periods while rear passengers get a well-padded seat that’s as comfortable as a mattress (and even looks like one).

The controls are well sorted out ergonomically but, at first glance, there are many more switches and stalks – some with unfamiliar functions – than in most other vehicles. There sure are a lot of gauges and dials in the wrap-around dash.

The gear shifter is a tiny T-bar perched at the tip of the left armrest, conveniently placed for easy operation. Playstation fans will find changing gears a breeze, although choosing the correct gear for the occasion may be perplexing because the Actros has a 16-speed transmission. (That’s right, eight gears multiplied by two because it has a high and a low range.)

The driving procedure is also a bit unusual, and needs getting used to. You select the gear first, then depress and release the clutch lever to get the vehicle moving.

Next, you push the spring-loaded gear lever forward to shift up, and the indicator in the dash shows which gear you’ve selected. But, the shifting is not actually done until you depress and release the clutch pedal, whereupon the gearbox electronically moves the cogs.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Actros is a truck. And not just any truck, but one powered by a massive 11,946cc diesel engine! How about that for displacement?

The Mercedes Actros is not the fastest vehicle I’ve ever tried, but it certainly is one of the coolest vehicles and the heaviest I’ve ever had the privilege of taking for a spin.

It’s also a real heavyweight when it comes to bragging rights. Imagine telling your friends, “Hey guys, I drove a truck today!” They’ll probably roll their eyes and wonder what the fuss is all about, with the thousands of 4X4 pick-up trucks all over the place. Then, you show them the picture.

That cute chimp may have had something to do with the popularity of the TV series, BJ and the Bear, but much of the credit must surely go to the 18-wheeled big rig and the romantic image of the rugged, macho trucker that is so much a part of modern American folklore.

After all the anticipation and the physical effort of climbing up into the cab, getting the behemoth moving turned out to be surprisingly easy.

Many of the controls are similar to those you’d expect to find in a car, even if the shapes may be slightly different from what we’re familiar with. The parking brake, for example, looks like a miniature manual gearshift lever.

The parking brake is a very important feature in prime movers because they have to be able to hold the entire rig – tractor head as well as laden trailer – on a slope, even if the trailer’s brakes fail.

There are also a few controls that are not found in cars, such as the exhaust brake lever.

After a quick briefing by Salleh, a 15-year trucking veteran, my head was spinning with all the details. It sounded so complicated, and the consequences of getting it wrong could be catastrophic.

But, we were on the wide, smooth tarmac of the RM100mil Automotive Centre of Excellence in Kuala Langat, Selangor, and there was nothing around to hit or run over, except journalists and several potential Actros customers.

Following Salleh’s clear, concise instructions, I got the juggernaut moving without undue fuss, and with impressive smoothness, even if say so myself.

“See, it’s so easy a blind man can drive this,” Salleh exclaims. “Nowadays, truckers are so lucky … got power steering, not like the old trucks, which you have to steer like this,” he added, demonstrating the full-body exertion that many of us have seen truckers go through to turn their vehicles.

I’m sure a visually-challenged person can, indeed, get it moving, but how can he manoeuvre the Actros, with a trailer, through traffic on a public road?

Its specifications – all-round disc brakes, parabolic springs in front and air suspension at the rear, ABS, EBD, ASR and even airbags – sound remarkably like a modern car’s, and show just how far the trucker’s lot has improved, thanks to technology.

If you’re thinking of rushing out to buy one, the good news is that the Mercedes Actros – priced from RM275,000 to RM340,000, depending on options – is cheaper than any model of the Mercedes E-Class. Also, you could actually make a living from it.

But, if you want it for a toy, road tax for a privately registered 12,000cc “green” diesel would be around RM85,000 a year. The JPJ probably wouldn’t allow it anyway. And, can you imagine the look on your neighbours’ faces if you parked a 2640 LS 6X4 (that’s three axles and six wheels, four of which are driven) in the side lane?