Desert dancers!

The all-new Actros and Arocs will be launched in South Africa in May and September this year respectively. CHARLEEN CLARKE jetted to Dubai to get a sneak preview of both of these vehicles.

In South Africa, we always talk about the demanding conditions in which trucks operate. This market isn’t for sissies, we say (rather proudly). Having just been to Dubai and experienced operating conditions there first-hand, I can categorically state that we are wrong!

I was invited to Dubai by Mercedes-Benz Trucks Middle East, North Africa and Central Africa (MENA for short). While there, I drove the very latest Actros and Arocs, which will be launched in South Africa in May and September this year respectively. I also gained a fascinating insight into this region – and local operating conditions. It was a trip that I will never forget – for very many reasons…

The starting point for my trip was the Dubai Autodrome, a 5,39-km circuit that is sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (or the FIA, as it’s commonly known). Once there, I met with Marc Legeay, general manager of Mercedes-Benz Trucks MENA, and Michael Dietz, vice president and head of global marketing for Mercedes-Benz Trucks. They told me a bit about Mercedes-Benz Trucks MENA and also about operating conditions in the region.

According to Legeay, the MENA region is extremely important in the Daimler world. “This regional centre sold over 35 500 units in 2017, representing more than seven percent of global Daimler sales,” he revealed. A comprehensive vehicle range is on offer – Mercedes-Benz vans and trucks, Daimler buses as well as Fuso trucks and buses.

Many of the customers are family-owned businesses. “You see Mercedes-Benz trucks of all generations on the roads within this region; many families have been buying our products over many generations,” he told FOCUS.

This is because Mercedes-Benz has had a presence in this market for many decades. “The first dealer outlets opened in the Middle East in the 1950s. In 1959, we launched the famous Mercedes-Benz bonneted truck generation here (it’s still fondly referred to as the “Abu Bouz”). The SK truck was introduced in the region in 1988.

“In 1997, the first-generation Actros was introduced in this region. In 2001, DaimlerChrysler opened a regional office in Dubai. In 2015, Daimler Commercial Vehicles MENA was formed, and, in 2016, we handed over the 100 000th Actros sold in the MENA region,” Legeay related.

Dietz explained that the Actros and Arocs are perceived to be the most reliable trucks available in this region. “This is important all over the world – and even more so here in the MENA region where conditions are challenging, to put it mildly,” he commented.

Specifically, the trucks are loaded to the hilt (100 t is perfectly legal), it’s very hot and humid (think above 50oC), there is lots of fine dust and mud, the spread of driver qualification is extremely wide, the terrain is difficult at best and the quality of fuel varies greatly.

Naturally, the Mercedes-Benz team wanted to ensure that its trucks were up to these challenges and so the vehicles were tested extensively in the region. “We have a test centre in Abu Dhabi, and we completed over six-million test kilometres with the new vehicles,” Dietz revealed. This is in addition to tests conducted in Germany, Latin America, China, Australia and South Africa.

The Actros and Arocs passed the Abu Dhabi tests with flying colours, which is extremely significant. “A truck that performs here will perform anywhere in the world,” Dietz noted.

More than 300 000 Actros and Arocs trucks have already been sold – mainly in Europe. “They are proving exceptionally popular thanks to their low fuel consumption, which is guaranteed thanks to the vehicles’ fuel-efficient engines, the fitment of PowerShift 3 as standard and optimised aerodynamics. Furthermore, our trucks are efficient, reliable and robust,” Dietz told FOCUS. Safety features – which we were about to experience – are exceptional, too.

The chatting concluded, we headed out to the track to experience the trucks. We kicked off with a test drive around the track (the trucks were not loaded, so we couldn’t really get an indication of their ability), a demonstration drive (professional drivers took us around the track, never using the foot pedals) and a demonstration of the vehicles’ safety features (we watched as an Actros braked automatically when it encountered a stationary vehicle and a pedestrian).

Then we dashed off to the desert – for some dune driving in a G-Class. We also experienced the incredible off-road capabilities of the Arocs. I was especially impressed to see the optionally available turbo retarder clutch in action. It combines a hydrodynamic starting clutch and a retarder in a single component – and it’s quite amazing. Compact in design, it is also lightweight and serves at the same time as a very powerful retarder. It enables wear-free starting with fine control as well as manoeuvring at slowest speeds.

We experienced the turbo retarder clutch on a hill in the desert and it’s just astounding – because the driver is able to work in a relatively high gear without clutch wear. The use of the turbo retarder clutch for manoeuvring also allows using longer final-drive ratios. This, in turn, lowers the noise level, fuel consumption and consequently, at the same time, CO2 emissions when driving on the road.

That night, we hopped onto a boat and – along with VIP customers from the region (who were aboard a much bigger and swankier boat) – witnessed the official reveal of the vehicles. In typical Dubai fashion, it was a sensational and very flashy launch; the vehicles were parked on a barge floating out at sea. It was a case of lights, camera, action! I’ve never seen anything like it before…

However, the following day was the highlight of the trip for me – because only four journalists (from the whole world) had been given the thumbs up to drive the trucks out on the public roads, and (cue the trumpets) I was one of those four! While I really do appreciate swanky reveals, my true love is getting behind the wheel…

It was thus that we drove out of Dubai and met up with a convoy of Actros and Arocs trucks, hooked to loaded trailers. These were the actual vehicles that had been used during testing in Abu Dhabi, and Walter Klatte, who runs the test centre, stressed that we needed to bear in mind that they had completed many, many test kilometres. “Don’t expect to drive trucks in pristine condition. These vehicles have been driven long and hard,” he warned.

Testing in Abu Dhabi started in 2013 – and Klatte revealed that the team had actually completed 6,7-million test kilometres to date. “This is the perfect place to test a powertrain – because the conditions are so harsh. Every 10 000 km, we take oil and coolant samples, and we analyse them carefully. Accordingly, we define the correct service intervals for the region. We take these trucks to the extremes; sometimes we overdo it. We have destroyed five or six engines along the way. That’s the point of the testing; we need to establish the limit.”

Klatte said that there is very little overloading in the region. “This is because of the tyres. If you load to over
100 t, the tyres blow up,” he pointed out. On the other hand, operators aren’t quite as ethical when it comes to driver hours. Drivers are paid unreasonably low salaries and they are sometimes required to drive 20 hours a day.

Despite these conditions, there is no shortage of truck drivers – 99 percent of the drivers come from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Jordan, Syria and Egypt (the only local drivers are those employed by the government).

Given these ridiculously long shifts, I would imagine that drivers in the MENA region will welcome the incorporation of features such as PowerShift 3, which is expected to be widely adopted in the region.

In keeping with this trend, 12-speed PowerShift transmissions were fitted to three out of the four models we were about to test (the Actros 3343 with a GVM of 70 t; the Arocs 2043 with a GVM of 60 t, Arocs 3363 with a GVM of 100 t and an Antos that’s used during Formula 1 events, which has an Actros grille, also with a GVM of 100 t).

The Actros 3343 was equipped with a 470 hp Euro-6 engine; the other trucks were equipped with Euro-3 powerplants (although Euro-4, -5 and -6 engines are available in the MENA region).

We spent most of the day behind the wheel and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I was expecting the engines to battle with the enormous loads – but they didn’t. In fact, I could easily overtake slower-moving traffic on the highways (which, incidentally, are quite superb).

The PowerShift 3 transmission makes driving a breeze; it allows for fast, correct and precise gear changes. Fully automated 12- and 16-speed PowerShift 3 transmissions are standard in the MENA region.

A 16-speed manual transmission is an option – although, quite why any operator would ever opt for a manual transmission, I just do not know. It makes absolutely no sense. I’m delighted to report that the clever chaps at Mercedes-Benz at South Africa seem to agree with me – when we get the latest Actros in May, it will come with the 12-speed PowerShift 3 as standard. Bravo, boys!

My friends call me a glomad (a global nomad lest you don’t get it). That’s a particularly apt word, because I am always trawling all corners of the globe, looking for stories. As a result, I have slept in some seriously strange places – on a bed of ice in the Arctic circle, on the floor in a traditional Japanese hotel, on the sand dunes in the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan … and even on the floor of a Thai cargo ship. Mostly however I tend to sleep on aircraft (if I had a dog, he would bark at me when I eventually come home). I am passionate about trucks, cars, travel, food, wine, people and hugs – so I write about all these things. Except the hugs.

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