Review: UD Quon 8-wheeler

By: Steve Brooks

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  • Plant & Equipment

With Christmas delivering the startling news that Volvo Group is selling its UD business to Isuzu, there’s no shortage of speculation about what the future might hold for UD operations in Australia. Right now though, it’s ‘business as usual’ and that includes the upcoming launch of an impressive Quon eight-wheeler engineered exclusively for the Australian market. Ironically, the prime target is Isuzu. Steve Brooks reports from UD headquarters in Japan

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The UD Quon 8-wheeler

If Joachim Rosenberg doesn’t play poker, then he probably should.

Like, across a table in a quiet upstairs meeting room at UD headquarters in Japan late last October, he sat confident, considerate and calmly poker-faced as questions were dealt. Simple enough questions at first, but as the interview moved up a few notches and Isuzu came casually into the discussion, his manner and mannerisms didn’t flinch. Not one iota.

It was much the same in mid-December when he visited Australia for a media event at the handover of a big batch of UD Quons to Linfox chairman Peter Fox. Despite the pleasantries and the plaudits, there was absolutely nothing to even remotely hint that little more than a week later, massive moves would be announced. It’s questionable whether even Fox knew what was coming.

Of course, Rosenberg is no aspiring executive waiting for a chair at Volvo’s ‘high rollers’ table. He’s already there, big time, and what he lacks in lofty stature is vastly countered with the corporate clout defined by a business card that reads ‘Chairman and Representative Director of UD Trucks’ as well as ‘Executive Vice-President and Executive Board Member of Volvo Group’.

As such, by necessity and design, he plays his cards close to the chest. Very close, but perhaps never more than during the last year or so when he was almost certainly up to his armpits in negotiations which would ultimately lead to the astonishing announcement on December 18 that Volvo Group was forming a strategic alliance with Japanese giant Isuzu Motors.

Arguably the biggest and most surprising commercial vehicle deal of the decade, senior Volvo Group Australia (VGA) executives appear to have been caught completely off-guard by the announcement, largely because it’s a deal which will deliver UD ownership in its entirety to Isuzu. That eventuality was not on the VGA horizon in any shape or form.

Nonetheless, interviews at Rosenberg’s level don’t come every day and besides, Isuzu wasn’t even much of a topic back in October. Not by a long shot. In fact, the only reason for any question on Isuzu was simply to ask why UD was providing an apparent commercial advantage to a powerful competitor by using a badge-engineered Isuzu model to replace UD’s retiring Condor medium-duty truck in the Japanese domestic market.

According to a succinct, even off-handed Rosenberg, UD is a relatively small player in Japan’s medium-duty market so it was simply "more economically beneficial" to allow Isuzu to supply a suitable model rather than adapt UD’s new Thai-built Croner to Japanese standards. Yeah, right!

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Joachim Rosenberg. Played his cards very close to the chest in the lead-up to the announcement of a ‘strategic alliance’ which would see UD ownership transferred to Isuzu Motors

Again, there was nothing to suggest that behind the scenes, mammoth events were being planned and processed. Or was there? In hindsight, perhaps there was a brief passage when a sharper mind than mine might’ve twigged to something greater afoot. For instance, with the chatter turning briefly to future prospects for independent makers such as Isuzu, Rosenberg shrugged and asked, "What do you think?"

It wasn’t hard to fire a candid reply: "I can’t see how Isuzu can remain entirely independent given the strength of the conglomerates around it, particularly on future engine development and technologies in things like automation and electric power."

"Interesting," he smirked.

Like I said, a mind smarter than mine might’ve twigged to something bigger on the boil, but by then it was time to move on to the main question: Why UD was prepared to spend several million dollars on development of a Quon eight-wheeler designed and engineered exclusively for the relatively small volumes of the Australian and New Zealand markets?

He was perhaps happy for the change of tack, grabbing the opportunity to pinpoint a few modern highlights in UD’s proud 80-year history. Not least the fact that UD was first in Japan and arguably first truck brand in the world to adopt selective catalytic reduction (SCR) as its main emissions platform. Even more pronounced, Rosenberg was quick to boast the brand’s technical ascendancy in automation and advanced powertrain technology since becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Volvo Group in 2007.

So, too, was he keen to point out that despite its relatively modest standing on the world stage – with 8000 employees producing around 20,000 trucks a year – UD’s smaller size provides a level of ‘agility’ in the development of new technologies and systems which is actually an asset over its bigger Japanese competitors. Especially when that ‘agility’ has access to the powertrains and electronic architecture of a global giant like Volvo Group.

Moreover, and as recent statements have plainly indicated, it is UD’s advanced technology and access to elements of Volvo’s group powertrain systems which are justifiably appealing to Isuzu’s long-term ambitions. Indeed, there’s little doubt these were the major attractions for Isuzu in a deal currently presented in corporate-speak as "… a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with the intent to form a strategic alliance within commercial vehicles in order to capture the opportunities in the ongoing transformation of the industry."

Put simply, a deal which on one hand proposes to deliver Isuzu the advanced technology it needs to remain a viable force on a dramatically evolving world stage, and on the other, gives Volvo a massive financial injection of around US$2.3 billion to help fund its own plans for the future.

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Pictured at UD headquarters in Japan, the first pre-production Quon eight-wheeler for Australia. The load-sharing twin-steer assembly is a proven design from the same corporate closet as Volvo and Mack

CLOSER TO HOME

Exactly where the new Quon eight-wheeler and the medium-duty Croner ultimately sit in all this corporate complexity remains to be seen. Right now, there are more questions than answers but as reported in our previous issue, Volvo Group Australia (VGA) insiders sternly refute any suggestion that UD is about to become a corporate castaway.

Sure, as a Volvo press release states: "… ownership of the complete UD Trucks business globally will be transferred from the Volvo Group to Isuzu Motors." However, as VGA spokespeople eagerly emphasise, the statement also reads: "Volvo Group and Isuzu Motors have awarded each other private importerships in selected markets, including Australia."

Furthermore, says a confident VGA statement: "… nothing will change in the set-up for the Australian market or for our customers in the Australian market. Hence, we at Volvo Group Australia will continue to distribute the UD brand and support our UD Trucks Australia customers and dealer business partners."

Consequently, the Australian launch of both the medium-duty Croner and the Quon eight-wheeler will go ahead as planned in the first half of this year.

In the meantime, Isuzu Australia insiders would be justified in being concerned about the potential of UD’s Quon eight-wheeler to significantly encroach on the established success of their 8x4 range.

Indeed, the build quality, design and safety features, and Euro 6 powertrain of the four-axle Quon seen and driven in Japan last October appear to be absolutely spot-on.

How the contest between the two brands plays out in the long term is anyone’s guess but UD folk certainly aren’t hiding an intention to spoil Isuzu’s party in the eight-wheeler class.

And for good reason. Quon is already regarded by many as the best heavy-duty Japanese truck on the Australian market. What’s more, UD’s local operatives over recent years have not been shy about expressing a desire for an eight-wheeler version to broaden Quon’s horizons and in the process, capitalise on the rapidly diminishing presence of Iveco’s ACCO and equally, infringe on Isuzu’s rampant success in the four-axle agitator business.

Development of a suitable Quon eight-wheeler was, however, no quick or cheap exercise, with the ‘8x4 for Australia’ project officially starting in early 2018 after groundwork dating as far back as late 2016.

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At the helm. Volvo veteran David Moore drove the ‘8x4 for Australia’ project from UD head office in Japan. "Absolutely satisfied with the end result."

Japan, of course, has its own four-axle twin-steer Quon but lacking a load-sharing twin-steer assembly and designed for applications notably lighter than Australian operations, the Japanese version falls short of the mark for duties Down Under.

Furthermore, UD in recent times has been making a fervent effort to concentrate on its heavy-duty roots, with Quon at the core of what has been described as a determined return to the market UD does best.

Accordingly, it was an upbeat Rosenberg who asserted: "It was an easy decision to make the investment in a Quon eight-wheeler for Australia."

Declining to put a figure on the development exercise, he at least conceded it’s a sizeable investment that runs well into the millions.

Yet despite the dramatic events about to unfold just weeks later, it was a candid Rosenberg who emphasised in late October: "I sincerely believe the UD brand in Australia should be double digits." That is, 10 per cent or more of our highly competitive and crowded heavy-duty truck market.

A big call indeed, first for the fact that UD finished 2019 with a modest 451 deliveries for a slim 3.5 per cent stake of the Australian heavy-duty sector, and secondly, the customer caution almost inevitable in the wake of the ‘alliance’ announcement.

"Yes, our expectations are high but we have many good reasons for that," he continued, obviously aware that the next few years will write an entirely new chapter in UD history.

"We have a good understanding of that (eight-wheeler) application and in recent years there has been a shift to Japanese, so why wouldn’t we use that knowledge and technical ability to develop an offering which is perfectly suited to that segment?

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Light and lively. With a 360hp 8.0 litre engine stirring through an Allison auto, the short 4.5 metre wheelbase version is aimed squarely at the agitator business.

"Of course, there’s a business case behind it but I’m confident we will surpass that business case. I’m very confident. We will make it happen."

Critical to ‘making it happen’ were product manager Neil Carey in Australia and at UD headquarters in Japan, vice-president of product and projects within the UD Trucks Technology arm, David Moore, working closely with chief project manager for UD Trucks, Takayuki Tsuchiya.

Earlier at VGA head office in Brisbane, Carey and vice-president of sales at UD Trucks Australia, Mark Strambi, outlined plans for what’s called the CG range of 8.0 litre and 11 litre eight-wheeler models.

All variants are configured as rigid trucks and while the 11 litre units – at 390hp (291kW) and 420hp (313kW) driving into UD’s Escot automated transmission – will be aimed primarily at what UD calls ‘heavy construction’ roles, it’s the 360hp (268kW) 8.0 litre models which hold the greatest potential and were subsequently subject to the highest levels of attention in the 8x4 project.

What’s more, as Carey commented before returning to Volvo in his Irish homeland, gross vehicle mass (GVM) ratings are generous but vary according to the engine type – 32 tonnes GVM in 11-litre models, 30 tonnes in 8.0-litre versions. At this stage, a prime mover derivative seems highly unlikely and similarly, there are no plans for a 10x4 version.

Yet while both 8.0 litre and 11-litre versions are available in 5,200mm and 5,700mm wheelbases, only the 8.0-litre model is offered at the short 4,500mm wheelbase which provides UD with the appropriate platform for a determined crack at the 8x4 concrete agitator market. And be in no doubt, UD’s main focus is the concrete business.

Importantly, the hi-tensile steel chassis rails are single skin, meaning there are no chassis inserts (other than along the engine bay), thus limiting the risk of corrosion between the rails and vitally, facilitating use of the low centre-of-gravity mixer bodies developed to substantially improve the handling and stability of agitators.

In fact, input from leading engineers within some of Australia’s top concrete companies was critical to the entire exercise, said David Moore, a 40-year veteran of Volvo projects in Australia and elsewhere, sequestered at UD Japan for the past seven years.

Likewise, the support of Japanese engineers at UD’s Ageo headquarters was critical to what Moore insists is a product designed exclusively for the Australian (and New Zealand) markets.

"It was," he explained, "a challenging project within the Japanese mindset to build something targeted so comprehensively to the Australian market (but) the fact that the Ageo factory and its engineers were entirely ‘on side’ with the exercise was hugely satisfying."

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Ironic! Prime target for the four-axle Quon is Isuzu’s super-successful eight-wheeler.

TARE WEIGHT

However, defining the right wheelbase for the agitator business was just one detail of many, with arguably none greater in the minds of customers and UD insiders alike than tare weight and for the first time in the 8.0 litre Quon, the standard inclusion of the 3200-series Allison automatic transmission.

As Moore put it: "The Allison was a no-brainer behind the 8.0 litre engine but tare weight was the real challenge. The goal was to get to an almost magical eight tonne tare on the short wheelbase version.

"We eventually got it down to 8.005 tonnes," he smiled. "We’re all happy with that."

Another hot item equally critical to tare weight as well as handling and ride quality was the choice of front and rear suspension.

In Japan, the 8x4 Quon uses an airbag front suspension but as Moore remarked: "Its capacity is only 10 tonnes and it’s not as easy as it may seem to go to the 12 or 13 tonnes capacity we wanted, so we went with the leaf suspension from within the (Volvo) group."

Also from ‘the group’ was the eight-bag rear air suspension, a well-proven assembly in everything up to roadtrains yet still offering a relatively light tare weight, he continued.

Perhaps the biggest asset to emerge from ‘the group’ inventory, and certainly a major engineering consideration, was installation of the twin-steer load-sharing design already used under Volvo and Mack eight-wheelers.

Delivering a kerb-to-kerb turning circle of 8.74 metres, it’s a load-sharing layout David Moore knows particularly well, with an enviable durability record. It is, after all, effectively the modern derivation of the same assembly he and another Volvo engineering veteran, Mal Brown, employed in the mid-’80s as they developed Volvo’s first Australian eight-wheeler.

So now, around 35 years after Volvo’s first ‘homegrown’ eight-wheeler, the Quon 8x4 project is entering its final phase with a few pre-production units set to arrive in Australia sometime around March for local validation and assessment, followed in May by the first production units.

Speaking in Japan in October last year, the usually laconic and reserved Moore answered eagerly when asked how this project compared to so many others in his long and diverse tenure with Volvo.

"I’m absolutely satisfied with the end result," he replied thoughtfully. "There have been a number of challenges but we’ve achieved a lot and it was a very satisfying moment to see the first pre-production unit roll off the Ageo line."

Quiet for a moment, he added earnestly: "It’s probably one of the better projects because I’ve seen UD evolve greatly, taking more of a global view these days rather than an inward Japanese view."

As for the future, well, it’s a case of wait, watch and wonder as an entirely new chapter in UD’s history gradually unfolds.

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