How well will the pint-sized tipper trucks favoured by operators
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in Asia fare in rural Oxfordshire? CM puts them to the test We've seen how five 32-tonne trucks compare head-to-head; now it is the turn of the 3.5-tonne light commercials. A compact footprint and tiny turning circle make these miniature cab-over tippers the perfect urban workhorse. A favourite of builders and landscapers, they are frequently required to carry heavy payloads, tow trailers and go off-road.
Their proliferation in the bustling streets of Asian mega-cities such as Tokyo and Seoul underlines the importance of pint-sized trucks in an urban environment. But how well does the Oriental recipe travel to northern Europe? We put models from Fuso, Isuzu and Nissan to the test in leafy Oxfordshire, loading each of them with one tonne of sand at the Smiths of Bletchington quarry in Duns Tew, before taking them around a country and town-centre route to see which is best suited to life in the UK.
The 3C13 single cab is the smallest model in a Canter range spanning 3.5 tonnes to 7.5 tonnes GVVV. Fitted with a Tipmaster aluminium body, our test model tipped the scales at 2,300kg, allowing a maximum payload of 1,200kg. Its six-speed Duonic automated manual gearbox makes this Canter 30kg heavier than the five-speed manual version. Its four-cylinder, 3-litre engine (sourced from Fiat Powertrain Technologies) produces 129hp at 3,500rpm. That makes the Canter the least powerful of the three, but peak torque of 300Nm is not so bad. It comes in very early at just 1,300rpm and goes all the way to 3,100rpm, giving good flexibility.
Although the double-clutch Duonic transmission has a 'creep' mode, it does not allow the power to be fed in gently, hampering low-speed movement. This is particularly noticeable in reverse, making the Canter trickier to manoeuvre than its rivals.
Tipmaster's body is a solid construction, with twin dropsides and a double-hinged rear tailgate. A side step is incorporated into the body at the top end of the load bed, and protection for cab occupants is provided by a steel mesh headboard. The electro-hydraulic underfloor tipping ram is controlled using a simple two-button handheld remote control on a wander lead. On the road, the Duonic gearbox switches seamlessly between ratios. Under gentle acceleration the upshifts are almost imperceptible. Up-changes occur around 2,100rpm, but engaging Eco mode brings the shift point down to about 1,700rpm. In many ways the Duonic is a model example of a dual-clutch gearbox, shifting smoothly, responding with a kickdown promptly, and downshifting at sensible intervals.
But it all goes pear-shaped once you reach sixth gear, where the Duonic holds onto the ratio for dear life. Hitting a slight incline in sixth, Duonic allows the engine revs to drop, forcing the Canter to shudder its way down to just 800rpm before engaging fifth. During the test we regularly allowed it to dip below 1,000rpm, leaving it powerless and forced to make a jarring change as we pounded the throttle for a kickdown shift. This engine is flexible but pulling from 1,000rpm in sixth is asking too much.
The ride is acceptable and seat and seating position comfortable enough, but steering is the Canter's real strength. Direct, firm and communicative, it makes the Canter feel truly connected to the road. It offers good steering angles too, allowing our 2,500mm wheelbase model (the shortest of four available) to execute taxi-style U-turns within a kerb-to-kerb turning circle of 8.8m (10m wall-to-wall).
A minor gripe inside the Canter is the design of the steering wheel. Its two spokes join the rim quite low down, and while this is comfortable for a relaxed four-and-eight driving hand position, when it comes to turning the wheel, the joint between rim and spoke which you would use to help grip the wheel is harder to find. It's a quirky, but irksome feature of an otherwise sensible dash layout. ISUZU GRAFTER N35.150 What sort of a name is Grafter? Well, it is an aptronym, a name that is apt for a particular role, rather like calling your child Lawyer or Multi-millionaire in the hope they will fulfil your expectations. Yes, the Grafter is a hard grafter. Shorter and narrower than its rivals, with a comparable payload, the smallest turning circle and a gutsy engine; the Grafter punches above its weight.
Our Grafter's kerbweight of 2,460kg meant it had the lowest payload in the group, but that is largely due to the fact it is the only one with a body of steel rather than aluminium, fitted on Isuzu's Portuguese production line. It also came with a spare wheel/tyre and a toolkit. If weight is really critical, you can always opt for single wheels rather than twins on the rear axle. That saves 75kg but cuts axle capacity from 2,200kg to 2,000kg.
We had to slightly reduce our one-tonne test weight to accommodate the driver, but that still left the Grafter running at 3,490kg GVVV, nearly 300kg heavier than the Nissan. Despite that, its 3-litre engine made easy work of our test route. At 1,300rpm the Grafter matches the Canter's 300Nm of torque but while the Canter cannot improve on that, the Grafter gives you another 25%, with 375Nm on tap from 1,600 to 2,800rpm. Peak power of 147hp at 2,800rpm is also the best of the bunch and the engine is relatively quiet and unfussed throughout the speed range.
The Grafter's steering felt too light, providing little feeling. Road-holding is good, and while there is slightly more body roll than with the others, the Grafter absorbs bumps in the road admirably. It rides on 16-inch wheels; the other two have 15-inch rims.
This is the only one of the three tippers with five rather than six forward gears, but the overall gearing when running in top is no shorter and the engine's flexibility means it copes easily with one less gear. The gearbox's gate pattern puts reverse where you expect to find first and you have to make a dog-leg movement to go from first to second. Not engaging reverse at every standstill does take some getting used to, but Isuzu sensibly fits an alarm to warn when reserve is selected. On the upside, moving between first and reverse while manoeuvring is really easy. Driver comfort is aided by a supportive seat that complements the suspension, but we found the seat base length rather short. While the cab has a functional layout, with clear dials on the dash, plus two much-needed overhead storage slots, it does feel tight on space. The narrow cab makes you feel hemmed-in and sitting three abreast would be a squeeze. It is the passenger in the middle who really feels the pinch because of the intrusion of the engine tunnel.
Access to the cab is, however, surprisingly good for a cab-over configuration, with sufficient room between the seat and steering column to slide into position. There is also a decent-sized grab handle (large enough for a gloved hand to use) on the A-pillar. Rearward seat travel is limited by the cab's length and might be an issue for larger drivers. Although there is no footrest, there is enough space for a booted left foot to comfortably reside.
NISSAN CABSTAR 35.14 MWB Arguably the most familiar of our test vehicles, countless Cabstars are in service with a multitude of local authorities and building contractors who value its payload capability. Even this medium wheelbase Cabstar at 2,900mm it's 400mm longer than the others can handle a payload of 1,300kg including the driver, easily the best of the bunch. This is due to the combination of the chassis-cab's 1,710kg kerbweight and an aluminium body supplied by Northern Truck Bodies. The double-skinned tipper body has dropdown sides and a double hinged rear tailgate, as well as a substantial steel safety grille.
On the road we were less convinced about the merits of lightweight construction. With a one tonne payload we could feel the rear wagging as the combination of a light body and chassis flexed. The body squeaked frequently under the strain.
We were even less impressed by the engine noise. When cold, the engine is apocalyptically noisy — far worse than the usual diesel clatter — and it has a turbo that chimes in with an emphatic whine. Fortunately, the din subsides once the engine warms up, but the Cabstar is still noisier than the Fuso or Isuzu.
We feel sure that at least some of that noise stems from the fact the Cabstar's engine is working harder than the others'.With a swept volume of 2.5 litres it is half a litre smaller and with only 270Nm of torque from 1,600rpm, it has a noticeable lack of get-up-and-go. That deficit is enough to cause trouble if accelerating up an incline when fully laden. This is despite Nissan using shorter gearing: at 50mph in top gear the Cabstar's engine speed is 2,080rpm, compared with the Canter's 1,815rpm and the Grafter's 1,875rpm.
Aside from the attack of the wobbles mentioned earlier, the Cabstar's ride is exemplary, particularly at low speeds, when its suspension rebounds and settles quickly.
Like the Grafter, the Cabstar cab feels cramped, but the feel and layout are the best of the group. Dreary grey plastics feature heavily in all three models, but the Cabstar pulls off the look the best, and feels genuinely smart inside.
The dials are clear, and the stalk control layout is intuitive. The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, with a good range of movement, and the gearstick is positioned close to the driver at a sensible height, contributing towards the smooth shift action for the six-speed box.
Storage, too, is the best of the bunch, with two decent gloveboxes and several DIN slots. The latter are a mixed blessing because they are not always useful and do nothing for the appearance. There's also a fold-down worktop with clipboard, plus storage for paperwork behind the seat. The tipping function is activated using switchgear on the dash, rather than controls on a wander lead.
Getting into this well-intentioned cab is not so easy. The A-pillar grab handle, like the entry step, is far too small, while the steering column intrudes into the floor space and inhibits entry. One final observation is the vulnerability of the indicator repeaters. The Grafter and Canter repeaters are incorporated into their wraparound headlights, but the Cabstar's ultra-square design means its lamps are forwardfacing only Nissans solution: an exposed stalk, jutting out from the side of the cab. • Conclusion Despite having the best interior, the level of noise and paucity of performance from an engine lacking in low-down torque makes living with the Cabstar harder than necessary. In fact, most of the Cabstar's shortcomings are related to its engine, so a city tradesman who doesn't have to travel too far might well tolerate them. But if heading out of town — particularly up hills — the Cabstar cannot match the Canter or Grafter.
The Isuzu and Fuso each have their plus points. The Grafter's engine and ease of entry into the cab score most highly, while the Canter's balance and steering are its strongest characteristics. Despite the serene shifting, the additional cost of the Canter's Duonic automated gearbox (£1,200) and the difficulty we experienced at slow speeds count against the Canter in a tipping environment. If this was a test of box vans, the Duonic Canter might well prove more effective, but in an area that requires precision and control it failed to deliver.
Some might be frustrated by the Grafter's dog-leg gearbox, but we appreciated its practicality when manoeuvring in the quarry. The comparatively low payload on our Grafter could deter some buyers, but when allowance is made for its spare wheel, tool-kit and steel body, its potential productivity is on a par with the others.
One area in which it is much better than equal, however, is its engine. Low-down torque is fundamental to vehicles in a role where large payloads and towing are commonplace. Here, in the sands of Oxfordshire, the Grafter excels.