Are your loaded vans and one-ton pickups sitting down on their springs? Do you go through brakes at an alarming rate? Are you making too many trips to pick up supplies? Are you the guy with the trailer that holds up traffic on the hill? Yes? It’s time to look at medium-duty vehicles for your fleet.

With stronger frames and transaxles, bigger, stronger engines, a wider stance and larger brakes, the medium-duty truck has the muscle and axle capacity to hump highway hills and shoulder heavy loads without working up a sweat.

Medium-duty trucks are purpose built for an application and an industry. While most light-duties are manufactured as one unit, medium duties start with a cab and chassis and have a specialized body added on by a separate bodybuilding company.

Cab designs are divided into conventional cab and cab-over-engine (a.k.a. low-cab forward). Most manufacturers offer both designs in regular cab, super (extended) cab and crew cab.

Numerous body types sit on top of chassis. Traditional van, platform and dump bodies are segmented into specialized vocational bodies such as landscape, catering, wrecker, utility, crane and bucket, dry freight, snowplow, armored, refrigerated and more.

Your medium-duty dealer will scientifically specify a truck by defining these variables through a detailed set of questions on how you run your business vehicles.

Spec’ing the Medium-Duty Truck
Your primary considerations are type and size of load, operating environment and annual mileage/years in service. Driver skill-sets come into play as well. Be prepared to give detailed answers, as they will dictate the cab style, body type, engine, transmission and fuel type.

“A good salesman will get a great understanding of the customer’s application, not just sell him something on the lot,” says Larry Savage, a marketing manager for Ford Commercial Trucks.

Medium-duty trucks start at $60,000 (and go up quickly from there) for a new cab, chassis and body. The good news is you’ll make that up in lifecycle cost. Medium duties start old age at 500,000 miles; most last a lot longer.

Paying for Payload
The first question the dealer will ask is “what are you hauling, and how much?”

The type of load determines body type. The weight of the load helps clarify horsepower needs and type of cab and chassis. Payload weight is determined by GVWR, or the weight of the base vehicle plus occupants, cargo, additional equipment and tongue weight (if trailering). Payload capacity equals GVWR minus curb weight (the weight of the unloaded truck).

Payload capacity and towing numbers assume no options such as a liftgate, snowplow or hitch. The maximum payload weight available goes down by the weight of these items. Choosing a four-wheel drive option will also lower your available payload.

Really large loads — over 20,000 lbs — require a tandem axle, found on high-end medium duties and Class 8 tractor-trailers.

Don’t let your head spin with calculations. Through vehicle specification software, the dealer will help you estimate payload weights right down to the cubic foot on anything from dry gravel to sorghum syrup to live sheep.

The truck frame is another consideration. The frame is the backbone of the truck because it carries the load. Frames are measured by resisting bending moment (rbm), meaning the ability of the frame to twist to a point before it bends and stays that way. A frame’s tensile strength is rated in pounds per square inch (psi). Medium duty frames start at 50,000 psi; 80,000 and 120,000 psi are common intervals.

Towing Safely Means Stopping Safely
Ever see a trailer being towed in an unsafe manner? It often looks like the “tail is wagging the dog.” Truck and trailer experts recommend stepping up to a medium duty if you’re towing a fifth-wheel trailer greater than 28 to 30 feet or more than 27,000 lbs.

In cowboy parlance, your old one-ton pickup might give you the “giddyup” but not the “whoa.” Stopping ability is just as—if not more—important than payload capacity. The smaller caliper brakes of the one-ton will not stop the truck and trailer as efficiently as a medium duty. “It’s the coming down the hill where medium duties matter,” says Doug Acker of Mark Christopher Chevrolet in Ontario, Calif.

Air brakes are generally not needed for trucks under 26,000 GVWR, though they are an option. An exhaust brake option is highly recommended with a diesel engine, though, especially when trailering. Exhaust brakes help decelerate the truck without wearing out the brake pads.

Savage says Ford recommends that trailers over 1,000 lbs have their own braking system. Some states require them over a set weight, while other states use the type of trailer and/or number of axles as guidelines.

Gear ratios are a factor in towing. Medium duties benefit from more gear package choices than light duties, which helps medium duties achieve equal or better fuel economy when towing. The lower the gear ratio, the more torque for hauling, but the slower the wheels turn. Dealers will configure the best gear ratio for your payload and application that will hopefully keep your highway rpm out of gas-sucking range.

Know Your Operating Environment
Are you operating in the city, suburbs or country? Will you be making a lot of stops in tight environments or taking the load a longer distance? Is the terrain flat or hilly?

If you’re using the truck in the city, giving up a foot or two in body length will get you better maneuverability. For trucks doing a lot of highway miles with few stops, consider extending the wheelbase to carry additional product. A longer wheelbase means more comfort and less bouncing, but at the expense of turning radius.

Cab-overs, with their visibility, maneuverability and operating ease, are good for residential neighborhoods and narrow city streets. Though some models can carry up to 13,000 lbs., they may not have the torque required to haul loads over hilly terrain. And, as the name suggests, you need to tilt the cab forward to get to the engine. Unsecured items in the cab will spill.

Gas or Diesel?
Trip distance, annual mileage and length of time in service affect the choice of a gas or diesel engine.

Diesel engines cost at least $4,000 more than gas, though they hold their value better than any option — sometimes more than 100 percent of purchase price. And a diesel engine can last twice as long.

But when it comes to fuel economy, the old math on diesel has recently been thrown off. Diesels still enjoy 20 percent to 40 percent better mileage than a comparable gas engine. But with diesel costing $.30 more a gallon, the savings don’t add up as quickly.

Buyers must also beware of the 2007 diesel emissions regulations, which will add even more to initial cost.

Choose diesel for its towing capacity and brute pulling force. The torque advantage of a diesel is suited to pull heavy loads up steep grades. Choose gas for lighter loads and shorter trips. Go for diesel if you’re running a lot of miles annually and plan to keep the truck for a long time.

Acker asks buyers to consider the driver “bonehead factor” when it comes to purchasing diesel engines. Any inexperienced driver stupid enough to put gas in a diesel tank, or simply misuse and abuse a vehicle in general, will cause a much higher repair bill on a diesel engine compared to gas.

Who’s Driving the Truck?
The problems of hiring and retaining drivers these days are not lost on the truck makers. Driver turnover is high, and “the number of companies that have drivers with a commercial driver’s license is almost nil,” says Acker.

Most trucks fall under 26,000 lbs. GVWR to avoid the CDL requirement, and most medium duties are built these days for the inexperienced driver. Automatic transmissions are standard to prevent clutch burnout. They also improve resale value.

Options such as tilt wheel, cruise control and air ride suspension make driving easier. Larger wheels are better for ground clearance and comfort. Heavier springs are good for heavy loads but deliver a rougher ride.

When making the jump from a one-ton dually to a medium duty, Acker says inexperienced drivers appreciate the familiarity of a conventional cab. Cab-forwards offer a tight turning radius. Some conventional cabs, such as the GMC Topkick/Chevy Kodiak 4500, have turning radii even tighter than a standard wheelbase truck, and a sight line from the cab to the ground that rivals a compact pickup.

Ford Super Duty users who are ready to step up into the Medium-Duty F-Series benefit from the commonality in styling, cab design and features found in both sets of trucks.

If you’re teetering on the CDL weight range, spend the extra money to have your drivers CDL certified, recommends Howard Lange of Bill Heard Chevrolet of Antioch, Tenn. It’s not only a safety protection, “It’s a liability issue,” Lange says. “You’ve got trouble if something bad happened to that truck and an attorney finds out that you specifically bought something below [26,000 lbs] to avoid having to pay a CDL-certified driver.”

Ordering-Last Minute Won’t Work
The small fleet purchasing mantra “I need it yesterday” does not apply to medium duty. Though large volume dealers will stock some common cab/body configurations such as dump bodies, tow beds and flatbeds, most medium duties will have to be ordered.

Dealers may stock a standard cab and chassis that can be upfitted with your body preference in two to three weeks. If they don’t stock the chassis but can find it in a manufacturers’ or bodybuilders’ pool, a dealer can upfit the truck with a body and have it delivered within four to eight weeks. Acker says Mark Christopher can get a stakebed or van body delivered in two weeks, and a dump truck in four to six weeks.

A cab and chassis that needs to be factory-built, then shipped through to a bodybuilder, is a different story. Factories need time to build. Savage says Ford’s order-to-delivery time for a medium-duty cab and chassis is six weeks as of December. Acker has had some custom $30,000 bodies built in three to four months, though a six-month turnaround for a custom job is not unheard of.

The Dealer Relationship
If you don’t have much experience at dealerships, this may come as a shock: the people in the commercial truck department really like their jobs. They’ll tell you they like not having to deal with the whimsy of retail customers. They like the business-to-business transaction, one based on need and relationships, not color and price. “The medium duty truck market is about a pure a business as there is,” says Acker. “[Medium-duty customers] simply want to accomplish a task. They expect you to be as good at your business as they are at theirs.” It behooves them to treat you well, as your repeat business is their bread and butter. With that in mind, be as prepared as possible with answers to the questions posited here. Any “oh yeah’s” after the truck has been spec’d can throw everything off.

Don’t fight the dealer by overloading and under spec’ing the truck to achieve a lower initial cost. Optimizing a truck for its intended application will provide the lowest overall cost of ownership over its lifetime.

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