The Rise of the Phoenix | TRUCK REVIEW

David Meredith takes on the mighty 6×6 Tatra

On the corner of Miller Street and Pacific Highway in North Sydney is a tower that cloaks an immense underground car park. I know, because I used to peer into the deepening hole nearly every day when it was being built in the early 70s.

Restricted space meant the design had to be deep rather than wide, which meant a steep slope for the rigid tippers to get the dirt out. As the hole neared its base, the trucks couldn’t handle the gradient – not enough reduction and not enough traction. To solve the problem the contractor plonked a CAT D8 down the hole for the sole purpose of pushing the trucks up the ramp to the street.

The building practices have fortunately changed since then, but, around Australia, tippers, log trucks, drill rigs, service trucks, concrete pumpers and similar applications still demand a more agile truck chassis, traction trickery and deep reduction to get the job done.

That skill set is even more adaptable when it’s embedded in a prime mover, unlocking the additional payload or cubic capacity that a combination allows.

The configuration of a 6×6 prime mover remains rare in the Australian market, but Czech Republic truck manufacturer, Tatra, believes there is a future for this all-wheel-drive option Down Under. The result is the Phoenix, a 6×6 prime mover destined for those work roles where a single truck can do its job in the most adverse and testing conditions – all the while, pulling a trailer.

It’s obvious that the market segment for all-wheel-drive prime movers is not large, with the current bogie or tri-drive alternatives with diff and inter-axle locks being highly capable. Steering precision in this configuration, particularly with a lot of weight on the drives and while traversing soft surfaces, is another matter, especially when casually dropping a wheel on one side into a large hole pretty much stuffs your day.

Tatra’s unique driveline, with either three or four axles – or more if you wish – is aimed at those specific tasks where a single truck needs to handle all of the above, and still cruise at 100 km/h on the highway.

The new Phoenix 6×6 was released at a quiet and understated event in Perth by the factory’s Australasian distributor – Offroad Trucks Australia. It packages Euro 5 emissions systems, a bullet-proof driveline, and traction ability that is an undisputed market leader throughout those specialised global markets. Euro 6 compliance can be expected in 2019.

While not so well known within Australian circles, the Tatra chassis is the largest-selling truck chassis to the military in Europe, as well as a large chunk of Middle-East and North African forces. It’s not unlikely that wherever the arena of conflict exists, Tatra carted both the victors and the vanquished, plus the occasional rocket, to and from the battlefield.

The Phoenix isn’t the rebirth that the name implies, rather an expansion. The current Tatra cabs are by no means advanced, and, as far as styling is concerned, the word ‘functional’ comes to mind, but they are designed for toughness and durability. When looking for an alternative that was already in existence, Tatra turned for assistance to PACCAR, which just happened to have a cab package that sports the latest technology electronics, with styling that gives the impression of something other than a mobile machine gun emplacement.

The ex-DAF CF-series cab brings all the comforts, ergonomics and technology of a top-of-line European cab with a CAN bus that includes embedded upgradeability, critical over the next 10 years of development.

It’s set higher than it is in its native environment on PACCAR products, but that’s largely because of Tatra’s central chassis tube that extends from front to back, that supports each of the independent swing axle suspension units.

In Tatra’s Phoenix the air-cooled Euro V V8 is displaced by PACCAR’s Euro 5 MX-13 engine with 510 hp and 2600 Nm of torque. ZF’s 16S2530TO 16-speed manual gearboxes or the AS TRONIC 16-speed AMTs handle the power distribution.

Phoenix serves to cloak the bulletproof Tatra chassis and driveline in civility. Driving the rig with 25-tonnes of low-loader plus a 6×6 fire engine on the back for a couple of hours around Perth’s forest and dam environs clearly illustrated the Phoenix was capable of a seamless transition between working manoeuvres and on-highway cruising.

The DAF cab is recognised as one of the best, and with its current driveline the combination made for a comfortable ride.

Tare weight, however, is not a strong point for the Tatra. The 110-tonne GCM version weighs a solid 10.2-tonnes, and the front axle is just over 6.0-tonnes. But recent legislative changes in WA that took place in October 2016 raised steer axle weight limits to 7.0-tonnes when fitted with 375 mm tyres, effectively making the Phoenix more attractive for introduction to Australia in specific applications.

Most Tatras with auto transmissions use the ever-faithful Allison unit. Manuals have either a ZF or Tatras own 14-speed unit, which puts the range and splitter components outside the gearbox.

The Phoenix, with its Euro 5 engine and electronics, merges seamlessly with ZF gearboxes. The 16-speed AS TRONIC in the test truck is a fast-changing specialist, and delivered a smooth progression of torque exiting roundabouts and narrow, twisting forest roads. The test truck only had the engine brake activated, and, although ZF’s superb intarder is available optionally, it hadn’t been specified on the unit driven.

The standard braking system uses drums all round but disc brakes are available for specific applications where required, such as with TATRA fire appliances.

For Aussie Phoenixes, the engine brake is further assistance for the drum brake design, but I’m an intarder fan, so I’d always tick that option box.

Adam Lockhart is Tatra’s Technical support person and spends a few weeks each year in the Czech Republic with service personnel from key customers. He was my co-driver for the day and was able to outline the way Tatra has established a base of product support that is way more sophisticated than the volume suggests.

Offroad Trucks Australia logically focuses its attention on the key mining and construction states of Queensland and WA. There are two distributor branches, one in Maddington in Perth’s eastern suburbs, and another in Mackay, close enough to access the mine site infrastructure where Tatra trucks can find a foothold in the market.

A network of around 25 service dealers – a combination of dealers and CJD points for the MX connection – also back up the main distributor.

I recently visited the head office parts department in Maddington, located a few hundred metres away from the company’s head office, joining owner Larry Gill who drove me over – with the key. As Larry unlocked it and disarmed the security, I asked why it was unattended?

Stupid question! “We only come over when someone needs something,” he said. “And that’s not often enough to have someone sitting gazing out the window most of the day.” For trucks that spend their lives on the hard edge of hard work, that’s an impressive performance.

Inside I walked around a complete inventory of parts for every Tatra truck sold in Australia since inception. It’s a measure of how seldom new model cycles evolve at Tatra, but also the level of support on which a customer can rely. Complete suspension/axle units were stored alongside body panels, cab trim items, chassis components, transmissions, and complete engines, the latter being both Tatra’s air-cooled V8 and, surprisingly, the PACCAR MX-13.

“Why do you have an MX when the Kenworth/DAF dealer is just up the road,” I asked.

“I don’t like being dependent on anyone else,” was Larry’s reply.

As I wheeled the rig back into the depot, Adam noted that certification for the 8×8 Phoenix is already underway. The potential market for this highly specialised prime mover is about to expand.

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