Licence legislation changes has seen demand for 7.5-tonners dwindle, but for those wanting a vehicle in this weight category there are two distinct choices – a small ‘big’ truck or a big ‘small’ van chassis. Trucking took out both options to assess the pros and cons.

The humble 7.5-tonner has to some degree fallen out of favour in recent years, mainly due to legislation changes. For many years, these trucks could be driven by anyone with a car licence, but in 1997 the law changed and the maximum weight category a car licence-holder could drive was reduced to 3.5 tonnes.

Drivers who had passed their car test before then had grandfather rights, but it meant gradually there has been less demand for 7.5-tonners, mainly because a 12-tonner was a similar, yet ultimately more efficient truck – and if you needed an HGV licence for a 7.5-tonner, you could drive a 12-tonner.

But 7.5-tonners haven’t been dropped from manufacturer portfolios altogether and they still remain a useful tool for many applications. And there are also two ways operators can address specifying a truck for this weight: either the biggest of small van-type chassis, or the smallest of big truck chassis. 

The former offer a much better payload – as much as a tonne more – but lack refinement and cab space. The latter have a better working environment, with the option to have sleeper cabs, and they just feel more like a ‘proper’ truck. But they are heavier when unladen and also more thirsty with fuel, plus they cost more to buy.

Manufacturers in the 7.5-tonne market are Mercedes-Benz, MAN, Iveco, DAF, FUSO, Isuzu and Renault – and only Iveco really has both options. DAF, Renault, MAN and Mercedes are small ‘big’ trucks, while Isuzu and FUSO are big ‘small’ vans!

Trucking went to Wentworth Park in Barnsley to test drive the two types of 7.5-tonners – a Mercedes Atego 818 and a FUSO Canter 7C18. The Japanese manufacturer is wholly owned by Mercedes, so while they are two solutions to the 7.5-tonne conundrum, they are part of the same stable.

The Atego

Mercedes has a rich history of 7.5-tonners with its venerable LP813 model a good seller in the 1970s. By the early 1980s it was dated, but Merc rose to the challenge with its superb LN2 range that broke cover in 1984. It was initially available as 809 and 814 models. It was sold alongside the 811D and 814D 7.5-tonners with the beefed-up T2 van cab.

The LN range was the one of the first – if not the first – 7.5-tonner to offer a factory-built full sleeper cab. The LN2 was replaced by the Atego in 1998 with a wholly new cab.

In the 22 years since, the Atego has had a number of facelifts, following the trend set by the Actros. But whereas Actros got a wholly new cab in 2012, the lightweight truck was simply given another facelift to make it look like the new Actros.

So the cab is no spring chicken – but that, actually, is not a major issue because it is still very good, both modern looking and fit for purpose.

The Atego we drove had the ClassicSpace S-cab with a 230 mm engine tunnel and two seats. It is available as an extended day cab, sleeper and a high-roof sleeper, although of course that will increase unladen weight and eat into payload. However, remember that payload is not actually a major factor for many 7.5-tonners, as often these trucks are needed for their size, rather than payload. 

Under the cab is the 5.1-litre OM934, four-cylinder engine which produces 177 bhp and an impressive 750 Nm of torque. The truck is available as the 816 at 156 bhp and 650 Nm, the 822 at 211 bhp and 850 Nm, and 823 at 231 bhp and 900 Nm. 

Wheelbase options are 3020 mm, 3320 mm, 3620 mm, 4220 mm, 4820 mm and our truck was the 4220 mm version. It was fitted with a Lawrence David curtainside body with a 1000 kg Dhollandia tuck-away tail-lift. The body measured 6100 mm in length, 2440 mm wide, and the side and rear aperture height was 2300 mm.

There is a choice of six-, eight- or nine-speed automated transmission, and our truck had the G70-6/5.94-0.74 PowerShift 3 six-speed automated manual gearbox.

The rear axle ratio was 3.417:1 and the axles were plated at 3.8 tonnes front and rear, although their design weights were both 5.7 tonnes. The truck was shod with 235/75R17.5 tyres and had a 120-litre fuel tank and a 25-litre AdBlue tank.

As you’d expect with a press demo truck, the vehicle had more than a few optional extras, such as as air conditioning, CD radio with Bluetooth, driver’s airbag, driver’s comfort suspension seat, factory-fitted air deflector, FleetBoard Eco Support, LED light pack, remote central locking and reverse warning.

 

The Canter

The Canter 7C18 differs to the Atego most notably in the fact it’s bodied with a dropside tipper, rather than a curtainsider. The truck had the Comfort Cab with three seats – often a requirement for trucks like this which are used by builders, tradesmen, utilities and county councils. It does mean it can be rather cramped, especially if three fully grown, fry-up loving men are expected to be shoehorned into it. 

Under the cab is a 3-litre, 180 bhp, four-cylinder engine; but while the power is a fraction above the Atego, the torque is half that of its bigger stablemate at just 430 Nm.

The transmission on our truck was the 6-speed Duonic 2.0 Automated transmission with dual clutch. The front axle was rated at 3.1 tonnes and the rear at 5.9 tonnes. The truck had rear steel suspension, while its wheelbase was 3400 mm with a 1395 mm overhang. The Canter had a smaller, 100-litre fuel tank and 12-litre AdBlue tank. 

The truck had a factory-fitted Scattolini rear-end tipper with automatic tailgate, and also came with a 200 Nm transmission PTO with hand-throttle speed control.

Aids for the driver includes lane departure warning system, reversing warning device, cruise control, hill-start assist, automatic climate control and heated rear-view mirrors. Optional equipment fitted was a radio and CD player with Bluetooth and a toolbox compartment.

On the road

Despite the age of the design, Mercedes has continually refined the Atego cab and it is still one of the best on the market. It has the feel of a big truck and comfort to match. It’s a nice place to work, and if you need more room you can have an extended day cab or a sleeper. 

The truck handles well and even on a hilly Pennine route. We took the truck on a good workout, taking in a lengthy route through Huddersfield and Wakefield to put it through its paces on the stiff climbs, but also a good mix of town traffic with the likes of the cramped streets of Holmfirth and the town centre of Huddersfield. And the truck coped impeccably well; it didn’t struggle and the steering was very light and easy to handle.

The visibility from all angles on the Atego was good – the rear view mirrors are clear and the deep windscreen affords an unfettered view. There is no lower window on the cab door – a big requirement in London and no doubt, soon to be the case in other cities – but this can be specified as an option.

For most town running, either the 816 or 818 are more than ideal. Only really hilly terrain or long distances where time might be an issue would lead us to think you’d need to opt for the two more powerful engines.

Merc won’t commit on whether the MirrorCam and Multimedia Cockpit will be an option – or indeed a standard feature – on the Atego range any time soon. Logic suggests in the fullness of time, it could well be, but for the time being we think it’s a case of seeing how these new systems bed in on the Actros and Arocs before making it available on the smaller trucks.

The Canter is less refined than the Atego and it certainly has the feel of a big van. The cab is naturally more cramped and also lacks the quality of the Atego. Storage space is very limited – but again, it’s horses for courses and the cab is fine for most applications the truck is aimed at.

However, the engine is good enough and the truck certainly didn’t labour when we tackled some hilly terrain – not that we expected it to with 175 bhp under the small cab. The brakes were also pretty impressive, as we found out first-hand when we were greeted by some very steep 25 per cent descents in the hilly area south of Penistone, and it coped fine.

For the town running, it handles superbly and is very manoeuvrable. The steering is light and precise. The mirrors aren’t as sturdy as the Atego, but they do the job just fine. Being low down means visibility is pretty impressive.

A short-wheelbase Canter would be ideal for anyone delivering to the likes of Cornish villages, where anything bigger than a van simply can’t get through, yet you still need some semblance of a decent payload.

VERDICT

So which is best? The Canter has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s going to be cheaper to buy and run. Its payload is also much better – it has 4200 kg to play with for its body and payload, so spec it correctly and you’ll be looking at being able to carry 3.5 tonnes. The Atego is more likely to be three tonnes, if that.

We didn’t measure fuel, but the Canter should do better in that respect as well. So in true earnings potential, the Canter comfortably wins hands down – and it’s why this option is finding so many fans. A while back I spoke to a fuel haulier in Cornwall who used small trucks like this at 7.5-tonnes and he could not speak highly enough of the them.

But if you are doing longer distances and more driving, and you are not desperate for every kilo, then the Atego starts to edge into the lead as the best option. It oozes quality, it handles well and, above all, it just feels like you are driving a proper lorry. Where you will have to pay attention is the purchase price; it’s up against stiff competition and we’d venture those from Italy and Leyland may be cheaper.

It is worth mentioning that if payload is a concern and you do want an Atego, then the 12-tonners – the 1218, for example – might be a better bet. It’s not too much heavier, thirstier or more expensive than an 818, and it will give you a much better payload.

In fairness, this is a bit like comparing chalk with cheese. The Canter is by far the more efficient of the two, but it’s also more ‘budget-like’. We prefer the Atego because it’s a nicer drive and feels more like a lorry, but the plain bottom-line economics weigh heavily in favour of Canter. The Canter is also available in electric versions, which are now being marketed in the UK.

Much simply depends on what work are you planning to do with the truck. Lots of driving, especially over long distances – go for the Atego. Town-only driving, local work and multi-drop city work – go for Canter.

In short, both are good trucks and both will do the job – providing you spec them right. The onus is on the operator to decide exactly what it is they want!

SPECIFICATION

Model: Mercedes-Benz Atego
• Design GVW: 7500 kg
• Chassis: 4220 mm wheelbase
Front axle: 3800 kg capacity
• Rear axle: 3800 kg, 3.417:1 ratio, 235/75R17.5 tyres
• Gearbox: G 70-6/5.94-0.74, PowerShift 3, six-speed automated manual
• Engine: OM934, Euro 6, 5.1-litre, four-cylinder
Max power: 177 bhp @ 1800 rpm
• Max torque: 750 Nm @ 1200-1600 rpm
• Cab: S-cab ClassicSpace, 2.30 m, tunnel

Model: Fuso Canter 7C18
• Design GVW: 7500 kg
• Chassis: 3400 mm wheelbase
Front axle: 3100 kg capacity
• Rear axle: 5900 kg rear, 205/75R17.5C tyres
• Gearbox: Six-speed Duonic 2.0 Automated transmission with dual clutch
• Engine: 4P10-HAT6, Euro 6, 3-litre, four cylinder
Max power: 180 bhp @ 1900 rpm
• Max torque: 430 Nm @ 1000-1300 rpm
• Cab: Day cab with three seats

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