Test Driving Your Next Tractor

A small tractor can be a versatile
piece of iron. Ask any farmer, landscaper or large estate owner — a
compact utility tractor is a great way to tackle that long “to do” list
hanging up in your garage. Cut the grass, mulch the flowerbeds, bale
hay, spread gravel, level a field, install that sprinkler system and
then pick up dinner — it can tackle almost all of those labor-intensive
chores.

If each Monday brings a whole new set of daily duties and odd jobs,
then a tool-carrying tractor (with a nice set of attachments) might be
the perfect solution. In fact, compact tractors (classified as compact
utility tractors under 40-PTO hp) are one of the largest segments of
compact equipment on the market today. In 2004 alone, approximately
160,000 compact tractors were sold in the North American marketplace,
according to the manufacturers CE surveyed, and this year sales seem to
be holding steady.

“In 2003, the industry experienced dynamic growth — it exploded. In
2004, it was still growing, but at a little bit slower pace. And this
year it’s flattening out a bit.

We’re thinking around 160,000 for
this year as well,” explains Sean Sundberg, brand manager of compact
utility tractors with John Deere’s Worldwide Consumer & Commercial
Equipment Division.

According to the Association of Equipment Manufacturer’s (AEM) June
2005 U.S. AG Flash Report, compact tractors sales have been slightly
down this year — 67,976 were sold from January to June, while
72,923 were sold from January to June in 2004 (that’s a percentage
change of -6.8 percent). But even with that small drop in sales,
manufacturers are still selling loads of machines.

“We’ve had excellent growth this year,” says Sean Bifani, Kubota
product manager for compact tractors. “But the compact tractor market
on a whole appears to be down a few points, depending on what
statistics you look at.

I think the last two years of growth have
been staggering for the market. This year is seems to have leveled off,
but I’d have to say Kubota is doing very well right now.”

Industry sales are still huge and a growing number of companies are
looking to cash in on those big numbers. The three market leaders are
still Kubota, John Deere and New Holland — all three of which have
decades of history in the compact tractor business. But over the last
few years a number of manufacturers have been growing their market
share in the industry — companies such as KIOTI, Mahindra, Cub Cadet,
Case IH (a sister company of New Holland), Allmand, Massey Ferguson,
McCormick, Branson and Homier. And not only is the number of manufacturers increasing in the industry, but so are the numbers of models and choices.

“You look at the choices out there and go, ‘Wow. How do I pick the
tractor I want?’” says Bifani. “Well, we don’t make it complex for our
customers. We offer a tractor for almost every need at a variety of
different price points. The best buying tip I could possibly give is to
consult your local dealer and dig into their experience and find out
what is going to best fit your needs.”

In fact, finding a qualified and convenient dealer will be the first
step to buying a good compact tractor. CE suggests you drop by a
variety of local dealers and test different brands to help jumpstart
your selection process and give you a good idea of what makes a quality
dealership.

“The dealer should have the interest of the customer as a top
priority,” says Jackie Proctor, marketing coordinator for KIOTI. “They
need to be willing to advise the customer on proper maintenance and how
to properly operate the machine. And it’s important for your dealer to
be able to provide parts and routine maintenance to your tractor [in a
timely fashion].”

There are many ways to judge a good dealer. How long has the dealer
been around? Do they have a good service department? How fast is
maintenance turnaround? How friendly is the staff? What kind of local
knowledge do they have (from ground conditions to equipment hauling
laws)? Will they work with you on financing and warranties? And hey,
can you get a demo?

“I’m going to want to at least put that tractor in the environment of
where I’m going to use it to make sure I’m comfortable with it and to
make sure it’s going to do the job,” says Sundberg. “Most of your
better dealers will have a demonstrator unit at the dealership lot.
Some dealers have a loader pile or an area where you can cut some
grass, so you can play with it. Or make a request and ask, ‘Would it be
possible to bring this machine out to where I’m going to use it and
make sure it can do what I want?’ Not everyone will do that for you,
but that kind of tells you who you want to do business with as well.”

Jumping in the Driver’s Seat

Getting the chance to test drive a tractor is the perfect opportunity
for buyers to explore their options — crunch those specs, quiz your
dealer and get hands-on understanding of each tractor’s features. The
best place to start is in the driver’s seat. Jump on the machine, strap
on your seatbelt, wait for operating instructions from your dealer and
then take it for a spin.

Take at least 15 to 20 minutes to get a good feel for how the unit
operates. How easy are the controls? How simple is PTO engagement? How
quick is the tractor? What kind of pushing power does it have with
gravel or mulch? How safe does it feel? How high does the loader go up
(and how quickly)? How complicated is the transmission? Overall, how
easy is it to use?

“Ease of use is an important factor to consider,” says Sundberg. “There
are a lot of baby boomers who are now buying these machines and being
older, they don’t want to struggle with a rotary cutter or other rear
implements, trying to put a driveshaft on. We’re looking at ways to
make that easier to do and we’re also looking at ways to make this
machine more user-friendly — more automobile like — so they can start
using it almost immediately.”

Tracking performance features like ease of use is just as important as
getting out and kicking the tires of your demo unit (while grilling
your dealer with questions). A good place to start is horsepower range
(both PTO and engine horsepower). AEM categorizes compact tractors by
PTO horsepower — the rating of the power take off system for implements
off the rear of the machine (i.e. how much power goes to the
attachment). Typically 40 PTO hp and below are considered compact
tractors, although some manufacturers will categorize 50 or 60 hp and
below as compact.

The most popular PTO horsepower range for compact tractors is 20 to 25
PTO hp, according to the manufacturers CE surveyed. The most popular
engine horsepower range is 25 to 30 hp (machines typically in the
$15,000 to $20,000 range). But manufacturers know that every customer
needs a distinct machine, so they make multitudes of horsepower
categories for every type of buyer.

“There are a lot more competitors in the marketplace than 10 years ago,
and there’s a lot more choices now in terms of horsepower,” notes
Bifani. “If you look back 20 years, you had only a 17-hp tractor, a
25-hp tractor, a 30-hp tractor and a 34-hp tractor. The selections were
a lot less abundant than they are today.”

Today, Kubota offers
more than 20 different PTO horsepower choices in its L Series (24 to 44
PTO hp) and B Series (12.5 to 23 PTO hp) compact tractors. To decide on
the right PTO horsepower for your compact tractor, you will need to
consider your application, implement size and jobsite.

“You must consider the size of the job that you will be performing with
your tractor — the terrain, soil and turf conditions — and match your
tractor according to gross engine horsepower and PTO horsepower,”
explains Proctor. “When choosing an implement, you should consider the
PTO horsepower of your tractor, the tractor’s weight and consider the
category of the three-point hitch. All tractor three-point hitches are
classified as a category [typically from Cat 1 to Cat 4] to ensure that
the implement will fit the tractor. Implement horsepower requirements
should never exceed the horsepower output of the tractor.”

A good rule of thumb is to make sure your engine and PTO horsepower are
similar. There will always be a discrepancy between the two specs (some
parasitic loss of energy from the engine to the implement is
unavoidable), but the smaller the discrepancy, the more efficient the
tractor.

Along with
questions on horsepower, make sure you ask your dealer about the
tractor’s transmission choices — gearshift or hydrostatic? Today’s
compact tractors come with two main transmission choices. A gearshift
transmission is where an operator needs to manually use a clutch to
change gear ratios between the engine and the drive wheels to lower and
increase speeds and change direction, while a hydrostatic transmission
doesn’t use a clutch — like an automatic transmission on a car.

With an infinite amount of speeds and no clutching, hydrostatics are
much easier to drive for novice tractor operators, which has made them
the most popular choice. But hydrostatic transmissions tend to be a
little bit more expensive (typically about $800 to $1,000 more) and
some might argue less efficient in certain applications.

“Consider carefully the choice between a gear-driven or hydrostatic
transmission,” says Bifani. “For certain applications — like box
blading — a gear-driven transmission may be a better choice. In
ground-engaging applications, you might find a lot of strength and more
versatility in a gear-driven transmission. It’s going to give you more
power to the wheels at a greater number of speeds. It’s going to offer
more control, depending on your soil conditions and departure angle.
There are a lot of benefits outside of price where a gear-driven
transmission is going to come in handy and a lot of people prefer them
from a traditional sense.”

Trimming Down Your Options

Besides horsepower and transmission, good compact tractors will have a
long list of other features and options to inspect — wheels,
attachments, price, safety, maintenance and those bells and whistles
(like comfy cabs and air conditioning). Consult your dealer about
jobsites and applications and the staff can help you trim down your
choices when it comes to outfitter options.

A good place to start is with the tires. Picking the right set of
wheels will keep jobsite restoration to a minimum and traction and
speed to a maximum. The worksites of your compact tractor can help you
select from one of the three main tires options: Ag tires — a
heavy-duty tread designed for traction in muddy and tough terrain
conditions; turf tires — a less aggressive tread meant for applications
such as mowing and well-manicured grassy surfaces; or industrial-tread
tires — a tread with excellent traction, yet soft enough to do minimal
damage on turf surfaces.

“Our standard tire is typically an agricultural tire. You can also
select an industrial tire, a great all-around tire, or a turf tire, for
sensitive mowing functions,” explains Bifani. “An Ag tire, for example,
is not a good selection for turf applications. An industrial tire is a
less aggressive, very durable and more versatile. It’s going to be good
for a wider variety of purposes away from the field, including
residential or commercial applications.”

Coordinate your tires with your jobsite and application — same goes for
your selection of attachments. A tractor is a pretty useless machine
without a good set of attachments, so decide what jobs you need to do
and then pick your perfect set of implements. The most popular
implements today are backhoes, landscape rakes, mowers, posthole
diggers and loaders.

Backhoes:
Designed to dig deep holes and trenches, backhoe attachments can be
used to help excavate for drainage, septic tanks, trees, sewer lines
and other underground services. Tractor backhoes typically dig up to
8.5 ft in depth and cost between $8,000 and $14,000.

Landscape Rakes:
Used to clear an area of debris, landscape rakes can remove rocks,
brush, limbs and other material from a rough patch of land. They are
also used to perform a final surface finish for seedbed preparation.
Most compact tractor landscape rakes come in 5- and 8-ft widths with
price ranges from $500 to $1,300.

Mowers: The
most common compact tractor mowers are either finish mowers or rotary
brush mowers. Finish mowers are used to maintain yards and well-groomed
grass (belly or rear-mounted), while rotary cutters are used for
maintaining pastures and fields. Finish mowers range from 5 to 22 ft in
width and from $1,800 to $27,000 in price. Mowing widths for rotary
cutters are typically 5 to 20 ft, ranging in price from $1,300 to
$18,000.

Posthole Diggers:
Posthole diggers bore narrow, but deep holes for fences, deck footings,
trees and other excavating applications. Most tractor augers dig 3 or 4
ft in depth and cost between $230 and $1,900. Augers are available in
various sizes, lengths and auger drives (hydraulic or planetary).

But the most popular implement would have to be the loader for the
front of your compact tractor. Most units sold today come standard with
a loader.

“It’s on
nearly every tractor now,” says Sundberg. “And you can get different
buckets — say a clamshell bucket that you can operate hydraulically.
You can get heavy-duty buckets and larger, high-volume buckets for
moving mulch. There are all types of different things you can do.”

Buckets and attachments are just another piece of the tractor puzzle.
Safe and maintenance-free operations are two other pieces of that
purchasing formula. Make sure the compact tractor you demo is designed
with a variety of quick check maintenance items. Check for engine oil,
hydraulic oil, air filters, fuel filters, battery, radiator and a
simple PTO system. If you can’t readily get to things like dip
sticks and filters without flinging off panels, you should consider
that heavily into the purchase price. Safety is just as important.

“If you are not buying a cab tractor, the machine is required to be
equipped with a ROPS [roll over protection structure], as well as a
seatbelt,” points out Proctor.

“The customer should be
comfortable sitting on the tractor. Controls should be in easy reach
and easy to understand. You should be able to reach all safety devises
such as engine and PTO stop. Be sure to consult your owner’s manual for
safety features and be sure to abide by your manufacturer’s safety
guidelines.”

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