Isuzu and Cummins: When opposites attract

By: Steve Brooks


News of Cummins and Isuzu agreeing to explore product sharing opportunities opens immense possibilities for both. Could a heavy-duty Isuzu punched by a Cummins X12, or maybe something bigger, be on the horizon?

Isuzu and Cummins: When opposites attract
Isuzu and Cummins. A dream team?

 

Timing, they say, is everything, and if that’s the case, the recent announcement that Isuzu Motors Limited and Cummins Inc. are putting their heads together on product sharing possibilities probably could not have come at a more opportune time for both brands.

Especially for our part of the world.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Cummins has something Isuzu Australia could put to very good use, and Isuzu has something Cummins South Pacific would very much like.

For Isuzu, that ‘something’ may well be the incredibly perky, technically advanced and exceptionally lightweight X12 engine.

For Cummins, the ‘something’ is a heavy-duty truck chassis the X12 can call ‘home’, most notably a home under Japan’s comprehensively refashioned Giga flagship.

Or maybe Cummins and Isuzu have something a bit bigger in mind. Hidden in the Cummins collection, for instance, is a 13-litre engine called the Z13, which Isuzu might find even more appealing than the X12.

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MARKET FOCUS

Anyway, let’s back up a bit before digging into the detail.

The simple, unequivocal fact is that Isuzu is the most successful truck brand to ever contest the hugely competitive Australian market. In a matter of weeks after this article is published, the Japanese brand will notch 30 consecutive years of Australian market leadership.

There has never been a performance like it, and there may never be anything like it again. What’s more, 30 years is not the end of the game. Not by a long shot. The way Isuzu Australia is performing, and barring any calamitous corporate collapse, this remarkably resourceful and defiantly durable outfit whose Japanese parent once endured a near-death experience before emerging stronger than ever, could easily go on to notch half a century of market domination in Australia. Maybe more!

As always, the numbers tell the story. To the end of the third quarter this year, for instance, Isuzu’s portion of the overall Australian truck market was a blistering 23.7 per cent, meaning that almost one in every four trucks sold in Australia this year bears an Isuzu badge.

Its nearest rival, Hino, was more than 10 per cent and 3,000 units behind.

Light-duty and medium-duty trucks are, of course, the rock on which Isuzu Australia has built its business, and its vice-like grip on these categories appears to border on unbreakable.

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HEAVY-DUTY GAP

Heavy-duty, however, is another story. A story far from fulfilment for those at the sharp end of Isuzu Australia’s operations, quietly harbouring an intense desire and deep-seeded determination to achieve the trucking trifecta; market leadership in all three weight categories.

There is, perhaps, no more passionate proponent of achieving such a goal than Isuzu Australia director and chief executive officer Phil Taylor.

These days a company man to the core, possibly with one eye on retirement and the other on notching a career-capping coup, Taylor is nonetheless a street fighter from the old school when the corporate cloth is stripped away. Early days of flogging new and used Ford Louisvilles to tough, uncompromising truck operators are etched deep in the memory, tucked right alongside the smarts to recognise an opportunity and the tenacity to go for it.

Consequently, it’d be short odds that if Taylor and his team were to get the right product, they’d go after the heavy-duty crown with all the many assets at their disposal, not least immense marketing muscle and a highly motivated dealer group.  

Some, of course, will scoff at the thought of Isuzu ever displacing heavy-duty market champions Kenworth and Volvo from first and second slots, respectively. They would, however, be well advised to take a long, hard look at how and why Isuzu now sits in third spot, well within striking range of the ultimate prize, just a couple of points behind Volvo on the heavy-duty leader board.

Quite rightly, Isuzu Australia’s stellar performance over so many years gives it plenty of credibility with its Japanese masters and there is arguably no more visible evidence of that credibility, and confidence, than the local development of heavy-duty rigid models that have boldly broken new ground for the Japanese maker. In the concrete agitator business, for example, Isuzu six, eight and 10-wheeler rigids have been a huge factor in the brand’s rapid ascension on the heavy-duty ladder. 

Simply put, no Japanese maker has ever notched the heavy-duty numbers now being consistently achieved by Isuzu Australia.

But for a brand whose success is achieved in large part by clever marketing and the ability to fill every conceivable gap in the market with a carefully targeted model, there remains a yawning void in Isuzu’s hardware.

To put it bluntly, Isuzu lacks a truck capable of being a seriously competitive prime mover or rigid and dog combination, and while that gap remains, then leadership of all three weight categories will remain little more than a pipedream, no matter how well its three, four and five-axle rigid models sell.

The plain fact is that the current Giga range doesn’t have the powertrain to cut it as a competitive prime mover or rigid and dog combination in a heavy-duty market saturated with advanced, highly efficient contenders from powerful European players.

What’s more, it’s a fair bet that both here and in Japan, Isuzu knows it needs something unique. Something outside the square of traditional Japanese heavy-duty hardware if it is to ever be a serious challenger to the continental brands and subsequently gain the numbers to claw its way past the market might of Kenworth and Volvo.

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WHAT’S NEEDED

In product terms, the keys to such an achievement are obvious and largely two-fold. First, a modern, well-appointed cab with the inherent features to satisfy a market spoilt for choice. Second, a powertrain with the performance, efficiency and emissions technology capable of matching it with the best in the business.

On the cab, early reports suggest Japan’s latest Giga is a vast improvement over the current model, tailored and trimmed to at least give the Europeans a run for their money in terms of driver comfort, operational features and perhaps even tare weight.

As for the powertrain! Well, that’s where it gets really interesting and where Isuzu’s greatest prospects sit outside the Japanese square.

It’s no secret, or at least no well-kept secret, that Isuzu Australia some years back bought and extensively trialled a 13-litre Volvo prime mover in a determined bid to gauge the levels of performance and efficiency it would need to become a serious challenger to its continental competitors. All the data from that trial was fed back to Japan and, from the outside looking in, it was apparent Isuzu was totally serious about eventually having a determined crack at the bigger end of the business in Australia.

However, it seems the costs of developing its own engine and transmission combination capable of achieving the required performance, efficiency and emissions standards for the relatively limited volumes of markets such as Australia was altogether prohibitive.

Behind the scenes, though, other options were being seriously considered and as the recent statement from Isuzu and Cummins confirms, the potential of a mutually beneficial arrangement between the two camps is simply too great to ignore.

As the statement explains: "Each company has committed to assign a team of individuals over the next few months to explore potential opportunities in product technology development, service and other areas of collaboration with the potential for a longer-term partnership for the next generation of diesel and natural gas based internal combustion powertrains as well as new powertrain technologies such as electrification.

"Diesel engines will continue to be the power leader for the foreseeable future in commercial vehicle and off-highway markets. A long-term partnership would enable both companies to grow globally."

On the local front, this is where engines such as the X12 or Z13, coupled to either ZF’s Traxon 12-speed automated transmission or Eaton’s new Endurant automated 12-speeder (let’s not forget, Cummins and Eaton are now firmly joined at the technological hip) have the undeniable potential to provide Isuzu Australia with something it has never had before: a powertrain capable of making the Japanese brand a serious contender for a vast range of heavy-duty roles, and in turn, market leadership.

LIGHT AND LIVELY

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By any measure, the X12 is a big hitter in a small package.

In fact, there are few engines around this displacement that have ever impressed me the way this 11.8-litre livewire did during an exclusive two-day drive of a test unit in a Kenworth T408 truck and quad-dog combination around Coffs Harbour in northern NSW late last year.

Sure, 500hp (372.9kW) and 1,700 lb ft (2,305Nm) aren’t remarkable in this day and age, but the throttle response and gritty determination of an engine with a dry weight just over 860kg – and arguably the best power-to-weight ratio in the heavy-duty arena – were nothing short of extraordinary.

Even more impressed was the truck’s owner, John Crampton, citing as absolute attributes the fuel economy and payload benefits of such a lean lump of iron.

He wasn’t shy. "If it was available, I’d buy another one, for sure."

But here’s the thing: despite Cummins’ best efforts and the overall success of extensive tests over several years in various Kenworth and Western Star models, in applications ranging from B-double shuttles to local and long distance fuel tanker work, the X12 simply doesn’t fit the corporate agenda of either truck brand.

Sure, operator and dealer interest in the engine has been exceptionally strong, no doubt buoyed by the appeal of Cummins’ extensive service network.

With these factors in mind, it wasn’t unreasonable to think Kenworth in particular might make the X12 optional in its upcoming T410 model, particularly given the strength of Kenworth’s existing association with the bigger X15 engine. However, it’s now apparent that Kenworth’s Paccar principals in the US would not allow the X12 to compete with their own MX-13 engine in the T410. End of story.

As for Western Star, well, it’s part of the Daimler Trucks group, which also includes Detroit Diesel, so no joy there either.

Still, in technical terms the X12 certainly ticks a lot of boxes. Produced in China in what Cummins insiders say is the engine maker’s most advanced production facility anywhere in the world, it is built around the ‘innovative architecture’ of a sculptured block design with the extensive use of composite materials bringing the engine’s dry weight down to just 862kg. There’s also the XPI common-rail fuel system derived from the X15 (generating injection pressures over 30,000psi to achieve high levels of fuel efficiency and engine response) and the relative simplicity of a waste-gate turbocharger, a single cam in-head design, and a rear gear-train to keep vibration and noise down.

Yet, in a critical announcement at the 2017 Brisbane Truck Show, Cummins reported that both the X12 and its X15 big brother would be able to meet the proposed Euro 6 emissions standard without any exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) input. In a market soured by the taste of problematic EGR systems – most notably in Cummins’ own 15-litre engine – the absence of exhaust gas recirculation is a huge attraction for any prospective buyer.


 Test drive: Isuzu N Series just got better. Read more, here


So, when it’s all boiled down, the X12 could well be the spearhead an ambitious and fiercely competitive outfit like Isuzu Australia needs to add the biggest notch of all to the corporate belt: leadership of the Australian heavy-duty truck market.

However, currently capped at 500hp (372.9kW) and 1,700 lb ft (2,305Nm) of torque, does performance of the X12 go far enough to appease a linehaul sector dominated by B-doubles and, in turn, satisfy Isuzu’s ambitions?

Probably not! Or more to the point, probably not in the minds of most B-double buyers.

And that brings back into focus the possibility of a Cummins engine known as the Z13.

Like the X12, it’s also built in a state-of-the-art Cummins manufacturing plant in China, and some years back I had the chance to drive it as part of an Australian test program.

In short, with Australia becoming a global field test site for Cummins, the 13-litre was sent here in 2012 for a two-year trial to validate reliability, performance and fuel economy in a B-double shuttle operation.

Essentially built for the burgeoning Chinese market, where Cummins has established vast business interests in joint ventures with the massive Dong Feng and Foton brands, the engine was secretly installed under the snout of a Kenworth T609 at Cummins’ Scoresby (Vic) pilot centre.

Cummins wouldn’t reveal the engine’s peak outputs but I’d hazard a guess around 560hp (417.6kW) and at least 1,800 lb ft (2,440.5Nm) of torque. Most importantly, trials with a major linehaul operator revealed the engine’s ability to cope comfortably with top-weight B-double shuttle work while delivering respectable fuel economy.

However, with local focus eventually switching to the lighter, more compact X12, the 13-litre engine that had slid secretly into the country, slid just as secretly back to the vast volumes of Cummins’ Chinese interests. 

So as things stand right now, the balls officially remain up in the air as Cummins and Isuzu go about finding mutually beneficial opportunities.

Unofficially, I’d be surprised if the balls aren’t already bouncing in the courts of Isuzu Australia and Cummins South Pacific.

Time will tell, but if ever there was the time and opportunity for Isuzu to have a serious crack at heavy-duty market leadership, that time and that opportunity are right on the edge of reality.

As Phil Taylor concluded in a recent press release on the agreement with Cummins: "We look forward to the potential benefits such a partnership represents for Isuzu globally and our customers here in Australia."

I’ll bet he does! 

 

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