May 11, 2012 by By James Menzies
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – “The best way to sell a Western Star, quite candidly, is to give people the opportunity to drive them,” Michael Jackson, general manager of Western Star Trucks told a gathering of trucking industry journalists this week.
And with that in mind, the company has set up shop in the Nevada desert for a two-week customer and dealer demonstration event, which will put on display the full breadth of the Western Star product line.
The newest addition to the family is, of course, the 4700, which was introduced last spring but didn’t go into production until December. The first of those trucks are making their way to dealers and customers and Jackson said the reaction has been positive.
“We’re in a ramp-up at the plant,” Jackson said, noting the plant has now added a second shift. “We’re taking orders and the trucks are hitting dealers’ lots. They’re being bodied up and I’ve actually seen a couple on the road, doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The 4700 is a ‘Baby 8,’ meaning it’s designed for lighter Class 8 applications, or for work that’s too rugged for Classes 6-7 vocational trucks. The truck is on back order through July, Jackson said, and the company has just announced the availability of a tractor version of the new model. Initially launched to serve six core vocational segments (dump; mixer; crane; roll-off; snow plow; and sewer vac), Jackson said dealers are finding the truck to be more versatile than first thought. They’re now expanding the applications the truck can be put into and the tractor version takes it into a whole new realm.
“This will further expand our dealers’ capabilities to attract people that want to pull trailers with fifth wheels,” Jackson said.
The 4700 tractor will be targeted towards bulk haul, local delivery and construction applications. It will be available in both set-forward and set-back axle configurations with a day cab. The tractor is available with the Cummins ISC and ISL engines or the more powerful Detroit DD13, with power ratings from 260-470 hp. Despite its ‘Baby 8’ moniker, the 4700 boasts a full-sized, expansive cab, which is also highly functional. This is a pure work truck, and was designed with serviceability in mind. To access the wiring system, for example, all you have to do is remove a few screws and then the entire dash panel folds forward to provide unfettered access to all the wires.
A twin-steer 4800 tractor was one of many trucks Western Star made available to drive on a makeshift construction site set up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was nimble and maneuverable, turning on the proverbial dime and climbing over a steep incline with ease. The 4800 is a new designation from Western Star; previously it was known as the 4900 with 109-in. BBC.
As for the 4700, its exterior appearance is pure Western Star, with a distinctive grille and bold stance. While it’s unmistakably a Star, the 4700 has its own unique DNA and is easy to identify from other models within the family. It does not, by any stretch, appear to be a pared down version of an existing Western Star model.
In addition to the twin-steer 4800, I drove a 4700 oilfield service truck and another 4700 mounted with a crane. I took the service truck on a course designed to showcase its maneuverability and ease of backing. The truck’s sloped hood provided excellent forward visibility and the truck’s steering was ultra-responsive. Coupled with an Allison transmission, the service truck was both easy and comfortable to drive.
I took the crane-mounted 4700 out on the road where it was so nimble and responsive that in some respects it drove like an oversized pick-up truck. It did not have to be manhandled through the corners like you’d expect from a Class 8 vocational truck.
With the launch of the 4700, Western Star is feeling pretty good about itself. Jackson admitted launching a new model in 2011, amid so much economic uncertainty – particularly in the construction segment – was “daunting.”
“There were a lot of naysayers,” he admitted. However, the gamble appears to be paying off, with orders for the new model being incremental to Western Star’s business.
“They haven’t taken anything away” from sales of existing models, Jackson said.
Western Star continues to enjoy a loyal following here in Canada, partly because of its Canadian heritage and also because so many Canadian customers put their trucks to work in the harshest of conditions, where only a premium, custom-built truck can survive. Here in Canada, Western Star’s market share sits at a healthy 7 per cent while it’s only 1 to 1.5 per cent in the U.S. The company has an ambitious plan to improve its North American market share, but it’s challenging for a brand that sells mostly to customers with less than three trucks.
“Every time we make some progress, it seems the large fleets make an order and that dilutes our progress because that’s not where we play,” Jackson explained.
Indeed, Western Star sells 64 per cent of its trucks to customers with less than three units, while its sister company Freightliner sells the majority of its trucks to customers operating more than 100 units.
Still, Jackson said there’s plenty of pent-up demand out there in the construction and municipal markets – vocations where Western Star is traditionally very strong. He noted there are 435,000 trucks within the construction and municipal segments that are nearing 15 years of age and will soon need replacing.
This presents a welcomed opportunity for Western Star’s newest offering. Jackson said about half of the 4700’s orders to date have come from the construction services segment, while utility and P&D follow in that order. The company is already strong in the forestry, mining, specialty heavy-haul, petroleum and vehicle transporter markets. It sees its chief areas of growth coming from the general freight, government, Haz-Mat, agricultural and construction segments.
Going forward, Jackson said Western Star plans to better promote the benefits of being part of the Daimler organization.
“I think this has been a missed opportunity over the past couple of years for Western Star,” Jackson admitted. “Being part of Daimler gives us an advantage I don’t think a lot of other people have. You’re going to hear us talk more in the future about our connection with Daimler.”
For example, being part of the Daimler organization means Western Star has access to proven, existing technologies without having to spend a fortune on research and development. It can also adopt Daimler programs such as the recently announced Elite Support dealer service network, which sets standards and benchmarks for dealer service excellence.
“Our dealers get to take advantage of all those things that the bigger Freightliner and Daimler can invest in,” Jackson said. “Our dealers are pretty happy right now.”
And when they get to drive the selection of trucks Western Star has lined up for them in Las Vegas, they’ll probably be even happier.