Wheels of Fortune

On the great work plains of North America, the skid steer has ruled the urban jungles of construction when it comes to small loaders for nearly 50 years. Its size, versatility, maneuverability and price have given the skid steer an uncanny ability to adapt to most markets with success (farming, construction, landscape, municipal work, rental, private use and onward). Not to mention, it’s a great American invention — engineered out of the venerated Ag industry of North Dakota.

But just because a machine is popular doesn’t necessarily make the skid steer the right machine to rent or purchase for your operations. When it comes to compact styles of loaders, there are many choices — compact utility loaders (those walk-behind or stand-on units), compact track loaders (those skid steers on tracks) and perhaps the most underrated machine in the compact U.S. market — the compact wheel loader — which is superior in many ways to the skid loader.

“Compact wheel loaders have many advantages over a skid steer,” explains Kevin Coleman, senior marketing project engineer for Caterpillar (a company currently marketing the 904H, 906H, 907H and 908H model compact wheel loaders). “Higher lifting forces and heights, less tire wear [articulation vs. skidding], lower fuel consumption, higher travel speeds, a larger more comfortable cab and 360 degree visibility — these can all be advantages when working in tight areas. Of course, one of the disadvantages of a compact wheel loader vs. a skid steer loader would be initial purchase price.”

The price of compact wheel loaders is fairly far and wide as there are a variety of units on the market (from the small Yanmar V3-6s up to the big Volvo L45s and L50s), which can range from $30,000 to $150,000 (though most fall in the $50,000 to $60,000 price category). When compared to a skid steer, which ranges from $20,000 to $50,000, that’s a significant sticker shock. The purchase price may be higher, however, the total cost of ownership should be considered — that’s the small wheel loader pitch. A compact wheel loader will provide many benefits, including a longer ownership period, lower owning and operating costs and greater productivity when compared to a skid steer in lots of applications.

“Compared to a skid steer loader, the initial investment of a compact wheel loader is larger. However, looking at repair and maintenance costs over the life of the machine, especially tire wear, gives compact wheel loaders an advantage,” says Chris Price, product marketing and communications specialist at Volvo Construction Equipment North America. “When comparing costs for an owner operator in routine maintenance for example, most compact wheel loaders require no additional specialty tools to get to fill points, filter changes, etc., thus requiring less time and meaning more uptime. Also, the operator’s station in a compact wheel loader is much larger and much more comfortable, not to mention more breakout force, dump height and reach with forks — all with the ability to use attachments — just like a skid steer.”

Primed for Loader Growth?

The market for small wheel loaders in North America is modest, but it’s maturing. The manufacturers we surveyed for this article (Cat, Volvo, Wacker Neuson, Komatsu and Gehl and Mustang) shared a variety of industry sales numbers, ranging from 300 to 3,000 units being sold each year in North America. The majority fell in the 2,000-unit range over the last few years, each noting the unique products and sizes in a market without much definition.

“Over the last six years, the market average has been approximately 1,885 units for compact wheel loaders ranging from 0 to 80 hp,” says David Caldwell, product manager with Komatsu (which began importing its WA30-5 and WA50-3 compact wheel loaders from Japan in 1999). “The compact wheel loader market in 2007 was approximately 2,100 units and approximately 1,800 units in 2008. In 2009, we anticipate the market to be approximately 1,350 units due to the current economic climate.”

Brian Rabe, product manager of all-wheel-steer loaders at Gehl (which began distributing its 18 and 21 Series models of compact wheel loaders in 2002), concludes: “Roughly 1,500 units will likely be sold in the 0- to under 100-hp classes in 2009 resulting in a 58 percent decrease in sales [noting 2,600 units sold in 2008]. It’s definitely not a growth market.”

Those numbers are small, but that also means that compact wheel loaders have plenty of growth potential in the United States — in much of the same markets as skid steers. An interesting comparison is Germany, which counts for, on average, 15 to 20 percent of the total market for compact wheel loaders worldwide. The innovation and design of compact wheel loaders began there, and there is a long history with Germany and the compact wheel loader; much like that of the U.S. market and the skid steer loader. There are many industries still untapped in both countries.

“We have been seeing a great deal of success in a wide variety of applications such as landscaping, golf courses, cemeteries, construction sites and municipalities, as well as commercial and industrial material handling applications,” says Jay A. Baudhuin, product manager of compact equipment with Wacker Neuson (a German company whose wheel loaders have been jobsite proven in Europe for over 60 years). “The compact wheel loader market is very small today compared to the skid steer market. The potential for this market is very significant as more operators use and become familiar with the compact wheel loader; they will migrate from skid steers to compact wheel loaders for many applications. Also as individual jobs demand more field and financial efficiencies, the opportunities for loaders will continue to grow.”

Today, the American market offers quite a collection of units and manufacturers, considering the small size of the market. Caterpillar, Volvo, Wacker Neuson, Komatsu, Gehl, Mustang, Takeuchi, Terex, JCB and Yanmar all offer unique models and technologies for customers. With a sturdy design, durable wheels and a quick-attach plate to handle a variety of attachments, compact wheel loaders are becoming prevalent as both pick-and-place machines and tool carriers in North America. Whether it’s loading dirt or plowing through snow, placing pallets of brick or augering under the summer sun, a compact wheel loader is able to roll onto the jobsite and take on demanding projects.

Built with a large cab for premium visibility, four-wheel drive and articulating bodies, compact wheel loaders can easily maneuver tight situations with a solid boom arm for lifting materials around a jobsite and running attachments. The compact wheel loader is designed for small access to heavy-duty applications in a plethora of projects. Wheel loaders are categorized by horsepower (typically anything under 80 hp) and bucket size, which is measured in cubic yards (1 to 3 cu yd). Boasting an operating weight between 4,000 to 20,000 lbs and a lifting capacity range of 4,100 to 12,000 lbs, compact wheel loaders are stable and sturdy.

With compact wheel loaders, operators have the option of choosing an articulated or all-wheel-steer machine. An articulated loader excels in indoor applications, narrow spaces and on sensitive terrain (like pristine lawns). An articulated loader is easier to control and maneuver, navigating tight corners with heavy loads. An all-wheel-steer loader is known to have more stability and maneuverability on uneven grounds, such as slopes, and boasts a rigid frame similar to a telescopic handler. There are plenty of options, sizes and models on the market; U.S. contractors just need to realize the cost benefits beyond that big purchase price before these mini loaders begin to gain more popularity.

“The key for compact wheel loaders to become more popular is awareness of the features and benefits that a compact wheel loader can bring to your business,” explains Coleman. “For the most part, the North American market hasn’t fully realized the potential of these machines. Compact wheel loaders are great machines that provide great value, quality and performance advantages over a skid steer loader or a larger wheel loader in many applications.”

The Manufacturers and Models

Along with a nice summary of the overall compact wheel loader market, understanding each manufacturer’s product group, unique technologies and machine options will be helpful when shopping around dealer lots and demoing units. Below are some short summaries of the biggest manufacturers of compact wheel loaders in the North American marketplace.

Volvo Construction

Volvo has three basic groups of compact loaders under 100 hp — meaning they are built on the same platform and have the ability to use each other’s attachments. The L20B and L25B are .75- and 1.0-cu yd capacity machines. The L30B Pro and L35B Pro are 1.3- and 1.4-cu yd machines, and the L40B and L45F are 1.6- and 1.8-cu yd machines. The L20B/L25B feature parallel linkage, which gives the operator good breakout force and parallel lift throughout the lift arc. These machines feature an option of the Volvo hydraulic attachment bracket or the universal skid steer attachment bracket for increased versatility. The L30B Pro and L35B Pro feature Z-bar linkage for excellent rollback angle and breakout force when digging, and parallel lift with forks due to the linkage’s geometry. The L40B and L45F feature Volvo’s patented Torque Parallel Linkage (TP), which provides excellent breakout force throughout the lift arc, as well as parallel lift.

Komatsu America

Komatsu is currently importing the WA50-6 from Japan for the North American market. The WA50-6 replaces the WA50-3 and features a Tier 3 compliant Komatsu engine that generates 38.6 net hp. The loader features a newly designed exterior that features a rounded off rear end that greatly improves visibility to the rear of the machine, and the WA50-6 has a Delta boom loader design that improves visibility to the work equipment. Another new feature is the availability of a cab with an air conditioning option.

One of the most unique features on the new WA50-6 is KOMTRAX, which is a wireless equipment monitoring system provided by Komatsu at no charge to the customer for the first five years of ownership. Another standard feature on the WA50-6 that differentiates it from the competition is (three) mode travel control that adjusts rim-pull depending on the application. P Mode provides a burst of rim-pull on demand for applications like grading and excavating. N Mode is appropriate for loading operations such as V-shape loading, aggregate loading and load and carry. And S Mode is used when operating on soft and slippery ground such as snow and mud.


Caterpillar entered the compact wheel loader market in 1998 with the 902 model. Today, the company currently markets the 904H, 906H, 907H and 908H model compact wheel loaders. The machines range from the 904H, which is a 52-hp (net) machine with a full turn static tipping load (FTSTL) of 5,511 lbs, with bucket capacities ranging from 0.8 to 1.3 cu yd, to the 908H, which is a 79-hp (net) machine, using a FTSTL of 7,518 lbs, with bucket capacities ranging from 1.2 to 2 cu yd.

Cat’s 904H is the company’s smallest model and differs from its competitors in that it is an industrial loader that was structurally designed for longevity and durability. It is also built for comfort, with an available enclosed cab with heat and A/C, ride control and creep control. The 906H, 907H and 908H provide a high-speed option (21.7 mph) that allows for greater productivity when used in applications that require traversing larger work areas. The standard skid steer loader-style hydraulic coupler also makes these machines very versatile. The 906H, 907H and 908H models also offer optional high-flow auxiliary hydraulics (33 gpm and 3,400 psi) to increase work tool performance.

Wacker Neuson

Wacker Neuson introduced wheel loaders to the U.S. market in 2007, and today not only offers several sizes but two different styles of compact wheel loaders. The articulating compact wheel loaders are the WL18, WL25, WL30 and WL50. The all-wheel-steer compact wheel loaders are the 280, 850 and 1150. Bucket capacities range from 0.26 to 1.5 cu yd. Wacker Neuson points to its units’ fuel and tire economy as huge assets in what has become a more competitive and necessarily more efficient marketplace. Additional ergonomic efficiencies are gained on these units with a more comfortable operator’s platform that allows 360 degree visibility and a bird’s eye view to be more efficient in digging and grading, but also much safer on the jobsite when loading and unloading materials. Add to that the smooth hydraulics and automotive style steering that will help a new employee be able to get into a wheel loader and be productive immediately.

Kubota Tractor Corp.

Today Kubota offers two compact wheel loaders — the R420S and R520S. Equipped with state-of-the-art features, the versatile Kubota R-Series wheel loaders offer better visibility, more power and outstanding productivity. The R420S wheel loader comes with Kubota’s own 43-hp E-TVCS diesel engine, while the R520S model comes with 49 hp. Kubota’s wheel loaders are loaded with capabilities, including electric shuttle shift lever to allow on-the-go directional change without clutching or braking, as well as Load Sensing Transmission (LST), which automatically adjusts speed and torque in response to load conditions. With standard four-wheel drive, limited slip differential and rear frame oscillation, Kubota compact wheel loaders are known for their excellent traction and stability.

Gehl Co.

Gehl launched the AWS36 and AWS46 models in March of 2008. The AWS36 and AWS46 have rated operating capacities of 3,600 lbs and 4,600 lbs, 60- and 78-net-hp engines, 10-ft, 8-in. and 11-ft, 6-in. bucket pivot pin heights, respectively. Both models have all-wheel-steering, front and rear locking differential axles and spacious, comfortable and ergonomically correct operator stations. Gehl has been selling all-wheel-steer loaders since 2002 with much success. The concept of the all-wheel-steering models allows for a best-in-class turning radius, best-in-class stability and best-in-class lift capacity. The all-wheel-steer design keeps the machine’s center of gravity in the same location regardless of steering position. This means the unit does not lose any lifting capacity while turning, contributing to improved productivity while being safer.

From such manufacturer interest and investment, it’s obvious compact wheel loaders are here to stay, primed for expansion and looking for acceptance in the U.S. construction, landscape and rental industries. Despite the variety of pros for compact wheel loaders, these machines are still a relatively newer player in the North American market. Skid steers have reigned supreme in the U.S. compact equipment industry since the 1960s. As with any machine purchase decision, a multitude of factors can come into play. But most experts — and users — likely will agree that it’s always the ideal machine that is the one that meets the requirements of your specific job.

Keith Gribbins is managing editor of Compact Equipment, based in Peninsula, Ohio.

Purchase Advice

Five Leading Product Managers Give Buying Insights

For the owner/operator, if it is a price issue, look at the comparison with the skid steer. Over time, the compact wheel loader will save you money on overall lifetime maintenance and holds a better resale value. If the owner currently has a skid steer, an L20B or L25B would be a great up-sell due to the fact that many pre-existing attachments will fit on the loader’s universal skid steer attachment bracket. — Chris Price, product marketing and communications specialist at Volvo Construction Equipment North America Inc.

The customer needs to understand all applications the machine may be used in and once this is determined, he should work with his local dealer to establish what is needed to ensure the correct machine can be quoted for his particular set of tasks. — David Caldwell, product manager for Komatsu America.

On the financial side, make sure to check fuel economy; this can be done easily with a demonstration in your application. Also get feedback about what you can expect for tire wear, maintenance and resale value. Make sure you understand what the specs are telling you. Typically, wheel loader specs talk about tipping capacity, where skid loaders specs usually deal with operating capacity. How your equipment will be transported is always a key consideration; the good news here is that pound for pound of capacity wheel loaders are typically lighter than skid steers when it comes to transporting them. Talk to a specialist about what type, size and weight of material you will be handling. — Jay A. Baudhuin, product manager of compact equipment at Wacker Neuson.

The industry classification for compact wheel loaders is by horsepower, however, there are a couple of other factors to consider when choosing a compact wheel loader such as bucket capacity, full turn static tipping load [FTSTL], any height restrictions, size [width/turning radius], breakout force, dump height and travel speed. — Kevin Coleman, senior marketing project engineer with Caterpillar.

As with any product that is more expensive than the current machine customers are used to, time and long-term value are the two key areas that require more exposure before customers can see the benefit of a compact wheel loader. Contractors who compare operating costs and cycle times will begin to see the long term value of wheel loaders. — Brian Rabe, product manager of all-wheel-steer loaders at Gehl.

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