MAIN TEST Ranui’s Guardians

In Tests22 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineAugust 15, 2017

Mark Fletcher‘s a relative newcomer to the Mercedes-Benz truck stable, but based on the run he and wife Rachael‘s Ranui Haulage have had from their first foray into the world of the three-pointed star, they‘ve wasted no time entrusting their hopes, dreams and aspirations to two of the brand‘s latest line haul flagships.

Johnny‘s truck, the second of the two Ranui Actroses, came with the top light ready fitted. The first truck will also receive a set.

First impressions count

Standing in a rest area in Gordonton on the outskirts of Hamilton on a cold winter‘s night, we suddenly see two spots of light in the distance that grow into a dazzling array of colour and gleaming reflections.

With a complete lack of noise and fuss that belies their enormity, Ranui Haulage‘s two new Mercedes-Benz Actros 2663 StreamSpace tractors and 6-axle B-trains arrive. I open the door and climb the five beautifully positioned and cascading steps into an opulent new world, lit in a subdued and relaxing blue-green light. “G‘day,” says Mark.

Handshakes are exchanged, and settling into the passenger seat there‘s barely an audible tone from under the floor, and all of a sudden the ground, way below, begins to move under us. The rate and silk-like smoothness with which the 23m/50 tonne mass accelerates to 90km/h is nothing short of startling. And it all happens at a little over 57 decibels.

The whole experience was surreal, like some encounter with a pair of sylphs, the mythical silent creatures of the sky. “Not bad is it?” he asks.

The wait is over

For those of us who have been exposed to the new generation Actros for a couple of years, the wait for them to get here has been long.

Readers will recall our first encounter with one of the evaluation units in 2015 at the Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Melbourne. Our closing remarks on that visit were “Mercedes may have something special on their hands here, a great new product and they‘re setting it up for success”.

Subsequent encounters changed our minds not one jot. Mercedes-Benz have been vocal about lessons learnt from not previously preparing new models for antipodean life as well as they might have, and even more vocal about what they were doing with the new range to set the record straight.

At the time of the Australian launch last October the evaluation trucks had been subjected to 1 million kilometres of field trials across 35 customers in both countries. The truck that‘s won multiple truck of the year titles in Europe since its launch there in 2011, including a truck of the decade title, came up trumps with only regional tweaks to things like tank capacities and information systems required.

Not surprising considering a base line requirement Mercedes-Benz laid down when designing the new truck was a 20% improvement in the life of all components. The true benefit from the field trials however, was real world data. Mercedes can now give meaningful information to prospective customers on things like economy, service intervals, component life, and forecast productivity.

While the evaluation took place the support network in both countries also got the once over. This was a whole new truck with no componentry in chassis, cab or drivetrain interchangeable with its predecessor. As a result, an exhaustive behind the scenes preparation of networks, parts inventories, technician training, and service plans took place.

The result? Rarely has a new truck arrived to market with the distributor, dealers and large chunks of the customer base so well informed about its preparation and ability, or as confident in the aftersales network serving it. Now for the true test…

Top shelf

“I really wanted that GigaSpace cab but they‘re not going to be available down here,” said Mark. “This is bloody nice though,
there‘s no disputing that.”

The Ranui 2663 tractors are the pinnacle of the Actros line haul offering available here, sporting the StreamSpace cab, the 15.6-litre Euro VI OM473 engine, and the PowerShift-3 12-speed AMT transmission.

The OM 473, what it is and what it is not…

Dubbed the BlueEfficiency Power generation, a new family of inline sixes in 10.7. 12.8 and, as stated above, 15.6-litre displacements power the latest Mercedes-Benz stable. The big banger produces 460kW (625hp), and 3000Nm (2212lb/ft) of torque with 2500Nm (1845ib/ft) available from 800rpm. The torque curve is pretty much flat between 900 and 1400rpm. In short it‘s going to take a fair old lump on the deck to knock it off its perch. The engine has the company‘s X-Pulse variable high-pressure injection system and turbo compounding, the power transferred via shaft and hydrodynamic clutch to the engine‘s gear drive. The future-proofed emissions figure is achieved via SCR, EGR and DPF.

On road the engine is a rapid responder to any brush on the throttle pedal. Pulling away from a roundabout Mark demonstrates the responsiveness, easily spinning the drive wheels for a split second before the tech took hold.

“Regardless of all the technology it‘s not a truck you‘d want to pass over to the wrong hands,” he said.

In the rear are proprietary hypoid drive axles sitting on an 8-bag air suspension. The front sits on 3-leaf spring packs. Chassis on the new range have been widened and stiffened considerably, especially in the hind quarters, and that certainly translates to surefootedness in the corners. The Ranui trucks are shod with 385/55R 22.5 fronts and 275/70R 22.5 rears.

‘Cool as’ trailers…

Whoa there!

Interestingly there‘s no retarder as standard. Mercedes-Benz have made much of the engine brakes on the new trucks,  and when attending pre-launch events have stressed that in 95% of all situations a retarder won‘t be required. The three-stage engine brake develops 475kW of hold-back when fully engaged.

Mark‘s the perfect person to affirm the manufacturer‘s claims as his first Actros has a Voith retarder, which he says is “a beast!”

“I can sail off the Taihape divy at 50 tonne doing 85km/h in the old girl and the retarder will slow you down! The engine brake in these is not that good, but amazing for a compression brake. Tonight this came down the southern side of the Bombays at 2150rpm, 50 tonne and 80km/h – no problem and no brakes. That‘s bloody impressive.”

If only home was like this place…

Effortless redefined

On the run down, climbs and descents, once yardsticks for a truck‘s ability, were dispatched almost without being noticed. Earthquake gully climbed at 50km/h in 9th gear at 1450 rpm, Puketarata at 66km/h in 10th at 1500 rpm, and the Taihape Deviation descended in 8th gear at 50km/h, holding brakeless in retarder position three at 2100 rpm.

Again, all at noise levels that wouldn‘t attract the ire of a librarian. Mercedes-Benz have made much in the run up to launch on the development work done on the PowerShift-3 transmission, claiming a 20% increase in shift speed. We first encountered it on our Aussie drives and thought ‘Gee, that‘s quick‘.

Mark, who recently spent time in a Volvo Globetrotter sporting the industry standard I-Shift AMT, said, “Man, there‘s nothing in it now. This thing is quick! And seems to make great decisions. We take over in the sisters just because it can get a bit frantic, but other than that…”

There‘s a power and economy mode, the power mode holding on until about 1700rpm before upshifting rather than the usual 1300, and it also keeps it spinning a bit tighter coming back down the box. The Eco-roll function we‘re all now familiar with is there, letting the truck coast in rolling country, preserving every drop of the precious motor spirit.


Not one but two!

The initial plans were for one unit only to run alongside the first Actros on floating general freight work, towing a first of a kind chilled 36-pallet 6-axle curtain Roadmaster B-train. No sooner had everything been agreed on when Mark was offered an additional set run between Auckland and Wellington.

“I deal with Duncan Brown from CreidFlex in Taupo. He‘s an amazing guy. I‘ve never met anyone who works so hard for his customers. I phoned Duncan and told him what had happened. After he got up off the floor he said ‘I‘ll call you back,‘” laughs Mark. “Ten minutes later he phoned back and said ‘Yep, go for gold.‘ So I placed the order for the second truck immediately. As a rule if they run together it‘ll be pure coincidence.”


Tech fest

This night is our lucky night however. We‘re travelling south with Mark and Johnny Baker, driver of the second truck, and new B-train is right behind us. Johnny had the lane departure, Proximity Control Assist on the cruise control, and Active Brake Assist all set. If you‘re still unsure how far away the next generation of autonomy is, then wait no more. With these functions engaged we were essentially running as a platoon with Johnny not having to do anything apart from steer.

“The adaptive cruise control (Proximity Control Assist) on these works better than the old girl as there‘s a little car on the dash that turns blue when the truck‘s locked onto the car in front. That‘s handy,” said Mark. 

“I have a new driver coming to drive this one. He‘s coming off a K2 so it‘ll be interesting to see what he thinks. He‘s a top bloke, real fastidious. Johnny in the other truck is one of the best. I reckon this is the best and safest working environment I can provide the guys. I‘ll float between trucks covering for holidays, illness and the unforeseen. There‘s about 24 weeks a year in that alone.”

The trucks obviously come with the works in regard to in-chassis electronics that manage brakes (disc obviously), stability, and all that‘s become the norm under HPMV. The cruise function has a max-speed input also, meaning the truck won‘t exceed a specified speed parameter, handy on the hills when aiming down. When aiming up there‘s a hill-hold function for take-offs.

Rolling through the night, one of the most noticeable aspects of the truck is the 14 blue LED pin privacy lights dotted around the cab, and the two green anti-fatigue lights high in the ceiling. Their effect is most notable when turned off and the cavernous cab plunges into darkness. Immediately our eyes began feeling strained, irritated and tired.

However, as soon as the lights were back on, the irritation subsided and we soon felt we could drive on with no issues. Both Mark and Johnny are huge fans.

“It‘s all part and parcel,” said Mark.” The lack of fatigue comes from every aspect. It‘s just so relaxing, there‘s no stress, you‘re not driving the doors off it. It‘s actually a place you want to be.

“And that quality and thought permeates the entire machine. Butch and the team at Fleet Image have done an amazing job on the paint, but he told me they were the easiest trucks he‘s ever painted. Almost every bolt in the entire thing is the same size, so pulling it apart and putting it back together was a piece of piss.”

One of the real improvements to big Euros in the past quarter century is the elimination of cab wallowing and the retention of feel. The ride in the StreamSpace cab is no seat-of-the pants experience in the sense of feeling every bump in the road, but seasick tablets are not required like days of old.

The front and rear airbag set-up under the cab certainly doesn‘t over-insulate occupants from the outside world. There‘s ample feel through the corners. We did half the trip with Mark and half with Johnny. Both trucks looked and felt identical and so were both driving styles. That‘s an interesting indictment on the ultra modern Euro truck when driven well.

Neither Mark nor Johnny were attempting to impose themselves on the trucks, but instead monitored the inputs the truck can‘t manage, and simply adjusted the way it was going about its work. It‘s as if the truck‘s saying ‘I‘ll haul the load, you help with the things I can‘t see…yet‘. Trucking in these machines is more akin to piloting in a modern airliner.

Both trucks have run at 2.0kpl out of the box, so the fuel stop was quick.

Sleeping peacefully

Mark‘s gone for the Complete Cover service package out to 1.2 million kilometres. Ranui Haulage runs a five-star ORS and Mark‘s adamant he wants it to stay that way.

“I could go to annual COFs on these but I‘m a mechanic and I think that‘s ridiculous. Even though there‘s only four grease nipples, these things go across the pit every 10 thousand and everything‘s checked. It‘s the best money you‘ll ever spend. We have no trouble with COFs

“The first one was running at 2.0 kpl out of the box and so has Johnny‘s. That‘s fantastic at our load factor and likely to improve as they free up. This one‘s on 23,000 km.”

The Ranui Haulage trucks were purchased through Damon Smith of Trucks and Trailers in Auckland. “So far the trucks are performing fantastically well. Fuel consumption has been exceptional. We knew the new range would be a step up on their predecessor and that‘s
certainly been the case. We‘re also confident that the model range chosen for this market is on the money,” said Damon.

Closing comments

“I‘m pretty bloody proud of these things, eh,” said Mark. “Usually a truck‘s a truck, rolling equity. I like to keep them nice, but these…these I‘m really proud of.”

New and unproven they may be, but based on what we already know and continue to learn about this new Mercedes-Benz range, we think it‘s safe to say Ranui‘s guardians will do a superb job. 

Don’t just open the door… rip it off its hinges! Meet Mark Fletcher…