Nick Johnson makes good use of the Customer & Training Centre at Desford to try out the new mini excavator range from Caterpillar.
Whilst Caterpillar is a very respected name it is up against some very popular and well-established mini excavator brands in the UK. The company entered the mini excavator market later than others in 1998 through the Shin Caterpillar Mitsubishi joint venture with machines made in Desford, Leicestershire. In subsequent years the range expanded and other Caterpillar factories around the world took over making different models.
Since 2010 Caterpillar has sourced its smallest (under 3.0 tonnes) mini excavators from Wacker Neuson in Austria under a badge engineering agreement. However, in 2016 Caterpillar announced that it intended to shift design and production of small minis to its own facilities and the new models that have appeared this year are the result.
The 1.5 tonne class 301.5 has standard tail swing and is fitted with a canopy. Other Next Generation models include the 301.6 (1.5 tonne class, standard tail swing, with cab), the 301.7 CR (1.7 tonne class, compact radius, with canopy), the 301.8 (1.8 tonne class, standard tail swing, with either canopy or cab) and the 302 CR (2.0 tonne class, compact radius, with either canopy or cab). All models are available with a variable width undercarriage.
These new all Cat minis all utilise a 14,3kW (19.2hp) Stage V emissions compliant Cat C1.1 three-cylinder diesel and load sensing hydraulics. An exclusive feature for the new Next Generation models is the stick steer system that Caterpillar has previously used successfully on its skid steer and compact track loaders. Now installed for the first time in an excavator, this system allows the operator to switch (with the touch of a button) from conventional lever/foot-pedal steering controls to left-hand joystick control.
The 301.5 standard tail swing mini excavator is only available with canopy – and is the entry level model in the range, but it does come with many of the new features – and industry firsts for this size of machine – including stick steer, an intuitive Next Generation LCD monitor and cruise control.
Caterpillar claims that its new 1 to 2 tonne mini excavators provide up to 15 per cent lower total ownership cost (compared to previous models) due to extended service intervals, more common parts, lower repair costs and the use of a tilt-back canopy/cab. The company also contends that the newcomers are up to 20 per cent more productive (versus competition) in travel and trenching aided by customisable operator settings and cycle time improvements.
I went trenching with the 301.5 at Desford and I was impressed by its performance. There was plenty of digging power and the slew was very precise. Fuel economy is added by the new auto idle function and there is a clear fuel gauge on the well-positioned LCD monitor.
The most interesting new feature on this and the other new generation Cat compact excavators is the stick steer function. By depressing a prominent yellow button on the top of the left hand joystick this control changes from the usual dipper and slew function to travel direction and steer.
The 301.5 retains the usual travel levers but using joystick steer means you can move the machine whilst still sitting back comfortably in the seat. No more hunching forward over the travel levers which, when traversing rough ground, is not good for operators with bad backs.
I found that the stick steer function helped me to more quickly backfill the trench that I had dug. The joystick control of the steering made it easier to do spin turns more comfortably. And, usefully, the mini also benefits from having both two speed (2.9 and 4.4km/h) tracking and dozer float as standard.