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Truck or treat

Shubhabrata Marmar  | Published: August 26, 2011, 05:49 AM IST

The growth of the commercial vehicle industry is staggering enough to jolt you out of your socks. In the heavy duty truck segment alone 16-tonne plus) which constitutes a very small number of the overall market, sales have shown a strong 40 per cent growth. Meanwhile the scope to grow even larger is driving manufacturers to develop and manufacture more contemporary equipment.

But why contemporary when an age old formula has worked for decades? Well, in 2001 Volvo entered the market and showed the way forward by introducing its range of commercial vehicles. What Volvo clearly indicated was that better equipment guaranteed higher profits for everyone. Each of the tractor-trailers it offered could do the job of two equivalent competitive vehicles thereby consuming lesser fuel, was more reliable with lesser downtime and best of all offered stress free environments to drivers thanks to state-of-the-art cabins with proper sleeping areas, power steering, power windows, ABS, air conditioning, comfortable seats and entertainment systems.

In fact, and I'd like to delve a bit deeper here, truck drivers have a miserable time in their cabins. If you had to sit on a seat which had nylon cords wound around it for support and bare basic forms of cushioning, (most often tattered rags stitched together) and had to drive one of those overloaded monstrosities without power steering for hours on end and yet never made your target destinations in time because of some breakdown or the other, I bet even you'd be swigging the hard stuff down neat to relieve the physical ache at any and all hours. Eventually things would get messy and unsafe.

So better interior comfort along with all the attributes of these new age trucks allowed quicker turnaround times and for any fleet operator/owner there really can't be anything more lucrative than your commercial vehicle being able to generate more business quicker.

So it's easy to see why Tata Motors recently introduced the Prima and now Mahindra has stepped in with the Navistar MN40. Mahindra Navistar Automobiles Limited (MNAL) was formed in 2005 as a joint venture between Mahindra & Mahindra and Navistar International (America) in which the majority stake (51 per cent) is held by Mahindra. The company boasts of a wide range of commercial vehicles in its portfolio and produces them at a newly built plant in Chakan. This new plant boasts of a state-of-the art Schuler press line that is so modern that only three are in operation around the world. This plant has a 9000 square metres body shop that has the capability of handling 83 different vehicle variants and over a hundred robots and auto welding machines handle critical assembly and welding operations. The paint shop also boasts of many firsts in the industry like oven-exhaust drying and solar energy utilisation for heating and drying purposes. This plant can roll out 12 vehicles per hour at full operational speed.

The Navistar is currently available as five variants, the MN 25 tipper, the MN 25 tractor-trailer, the MN 31 tractor tailor, the MN 40 tractor-trailer and the MN 49 tractor-trailer. The numbers denote the vehicle's maximum load carrying capacity. All these trucks are powered by the MaxxForce family 6-cylinder engine with power output ranging from 210PS to 260PS. This enables easy maintenance and availability of spares as all the trucks use the same engine in various power and torque configurations. This engine is assembled in Chakan by MNAL and has been tested for over a million kilometres in India over a variety of terrain. The one that I drove was the MN 40 tractor-trailer, which has a 7.2-litre common-rail diesel engine, which produces 260PS of maximum power at 2200rpm and 970Nm of torque at 1400rpm. The MN 40 has ten gears in all, nine forward and one reverse along with one ultra low ratio crawler gear for steep inclines. The MN 40 is also available with a 210PS engine and is two lakh rupees cheaper than the 260PS variant costing Rs 17.2 lakh while the latter costs Rs 19.2 lakh.

In terms of appearance, the MN 40 is a real good looker. The grille has the typical Mahindra vertical gills but chrome or polished steel would have added to the look. Even though the plastic quality on the grille is nothing to complain about it doesn't go well with the rest of the trucks appearance. Also, the same dull plastic look is carried on to the bumpers and makes you wonder whether there are, like cars, two variants where the cheaper one gets a black bumper while the more expensive one gets a body coloured finish. In profile too the MN 40 sheds the usual boxy appearance of conventional trucks and has a well contoured door with lines that run across the length of the cabin. The Navistar range of trucks also boasts of a car-like smooth and glossy finish on the paint job and it is evident when you see the MN 40.

On the inside you will find a car-like dashboard that is good on quality and provides ample storage space. The centre console houses the music system and the optional air-conditioning. The MN 40 doesn't feel as well equipped as the Tata Prima and that is because the Prima comes with many features which are provided as standard such as air-conditioning and power windows. The Prima range is also a lakh rupees cheaper than the MN 40. Even though the absence of these features as standard is not a deal breaker, it could have certainly helped.

Driving the truck, as it has always been with me, was an exciting experience. I'm not under pressure to test the truck's handling and suspension characteristics as this is not a road test and it will never be. Being seated way high up and with the grunt let out by the inline-six diesel at the slightest movement of your right foot is certainly ego boosting. Brings to mind the track 'diesel power' by Prodigy. Just like the track, this roar let out by the engine instantly gives me the goosebumps. The ride certainly is stiff but that is only because it was unladen tractor. The response on an unladen trailer isn't disappointing though. I avoided the extremely short ratio initial gears and moved from a standstill straightway into fifth gear and the truck jumps ahead as if an even stronger force has nudged it from behind. The braking takes some time getting used to as the air brakes are not as responsive as the hydraulic discs in cars. The brakes feel either on or off with no feel and there's a loud hiss of air released when you let go of the brakes.

So why bother with the trucks if I'm not going to test them? Is it to bring to the notice of a wider audience the evolution of trucking in India? We've come a long way from the rickety old trucks and it's time fleet operators pay heed to safety, reliability and efficiency of trucks like the MN 40.

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