Conventional wisdom

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Hino Diesel Trucks (HDT) U.S.A. recently announced that it would no longer supply the North American market with low-cab forward trucks but would produce a new line of conventionals. Well, break out your Crayolas and color me surprised.

Although a giant in the world market – selling about 70,000 trucks per year – and the largest truck builder in Japan, Hino enjoys only a modest market share in North America, a situation the company hopes to remedy with a product more in keeping with truck operators’ preferences here.

The decision is especially gutsy, since the new line isn’t something Hino can sell in its domestic market, which is virtually 100 percent cabover. “It is a bold move,” agrees Hino U.S.A. President Mitsuo Kikuchi. “But we think we have the right product and the right partners to be successful.”

I certainly can’t argue with the company Hino keeps. It has entered into an investment agreement with PCP Holdings, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Penske Corp., while retaining existing partners, HDT Japan – in which Toyota has controlling interest – and Mitsui & Co. These aren’t companies known for involvement in unsuccessful enterprises.

And the trucks didn’t look too shabby, either, when Hino rolled them out at a press event at the California Speedway in October.

The new line – to be built initially in Japan and in the United States next year – comprises six models, with GVWs ranging from 14,040 to 33,000 pounds, and wheelbases from 147 to 253 inches. All sit on 80,000-psi, 34-in. wide frames with Huck bolted crossmembers.

Power comes from a Hino 175-hp, 4-cylinder diesel in the lighter models, with a torque rating of 347 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm, and from a Hino 6-cylinder that makes 220 hp with 520 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm in heavier trucks, and 260 hp with 585 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm in the heaviest. All engines are variable-geometry turbocharged and aftercooled, and use high-pressure, common-rail fuel injection and cooled EGR to meet 2004 emissions requirements.

Most of the rest of the powertrain and running gear is American made, which Hino hopes will further entice operators here. Manual transmissions include Eaton 5- and 6-speed, synchronized boxes, and automatics include Aisin 4-speed and Allison 5-speed units. The trucks also use Eaton clutches, Dana driveshafts, Meritor axles, Hendrickson suspensions, TRW steering gear and Accuride wheels.

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Four-wheel, hydraulic disc brakes are used on all but the heaviest entry in the line, which uses a full-air, S-cam/drum arrangement.

As is typical of Japanese-designed vehicles, the interiors smack more of passenger car than truck, with good visibility over steeply slanted hoods and amenities like a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, CD player and cruise control standard.

I can’t tell you much about performance, given a very limited ride and drive, but Hino says turning circles are actually better than those of its cabovers, making the conventionals more desirable all around.

Hino has a three-year sales goal for the new vehicles – 3,500 units in 2004, 5,600 in ’05, and 10,000 in ’06, according to Derek Kaufman, senior vice president of sales, marketing and customer support. To that end, the company plans to expand its dealer network from the current 85 to 120. Moreover, says Kaufman, dealers will be interconnected within defined areas called CityPaks. Dealers in each CityPak will have sales and support enhancements, such as Internet-based visibility of each other’s truck inventories, interconnected parts inventories and regular meetings to review mutual care of key customers.

The new vehicles will be available next month as ’05 models. Watch for a new face in town.