Big foot

Vijayendra Vikram Singh Updated: May 09, 2013, 04:12 PM IST

I have been testing motorcycles at OVERDRIVE for over three years and for the longest time I believed that anything with more than two wheels occupies too much space on our roads. But I have to admit, over the past year or so, a natural graduation has taken place in my mind, one that has had me wanting to try something new. Cars, obviously, but then driving cars is something that a lot of other people do as well. I wanted to try something different, just as I had done few years back when I chose stunting over touring on motorcycles. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always wanted to try my hand at ...ahem... driving a truck. Might not be everybody's idea of fun especially since most of us (read bikers) find trucks to be a nuisance on the road. But the monstrous on-road presence of a heavy commercial vehicle and the prospect of controlling this big a machine gelled with my idea of wanting to do something different.

And AMW is definitely a different slice of cake from its peers. It is amongst the newest players in the Indian CV space only beginning operations in 2008 and even today you don't see too many of these chrome-laden trucks with their jazzy graphics on the road. There is of course another reason for it which I will get to.

AMW is Asia Motor Works and apart from trucks they also have a thriving component manufacturing business. Their first offering was in the 49ton segment, a segment that was set to boom due to legislation changes in the trucking space. That space is actually at the core of AMW's business model. "We offer modern trucks at an affordable price, not a very basic conventional truck. We saw a window of opportunity to bring products ahead of its time and that's what we did with the 49-ton truck", says Anirudh Bhuwalka, MD and CEO of AMW.

He adds: "Earlier mining trucks were only 160hp, we were the first to bring high powered trucks ranging from 180-235hp". Today AMW is the second largest player in the tipper segment with a 28 per cent market share (led by Tata Motors) and counts all the top 50 construction and infrastructure companies in India amongst their customers. AMW's focus on the construction and mining segment is also the reason why you don't see too many AMW tractor-trailers. Says Anirudh, "We have been limited in our ability to produce more. Rather than spread all over we decided to focus on one segment and dominate it completely. We are not limited to pockets in the country but tomorrow if there's a big road project in Bihar, you will see a lot of our trucks!"

AMW's range includes the 4018 and 4023 tractors (the nomenclature is the same as Tata Motors - 40 is tonnage, 18 is the horsepower in hundreds. Thus 4018 is the 40ton truck with a 180PS engine), the 2523 Rock and Box body tipper (25ton capacity, 230PS power), 2518 tipper (25ton capacity, 180PS power) and a transit mixer. AMW is also unique in that it manufacturers the tipper and trailer in house at their Bhuj facility (Why Bhuj? To take advantage of the Gujarat government's Kutch incentive scheme.) The plant has an installed capacity of 50,000 units annually though currently the production is 1000 units a month. They also manufacture pressed steel rims and have an installed capacity of 15 million rims annually.

Now no CV business in India can survive on imported components and AMW's trucks are 90 per cent localised. The panels for the cabin however are sourced from China though by next year they too will be stamped and painted in India. The gearboxes are also sourced from ZF and Eaton which currently comes from Germany but the vendors are localising it. The engines however are locally sourced from Cummins.

The value proposition then. All AMW trucks, right from day one, have air-conditioned cabs. They are usually more powerful than equivalent trucks in the segment. And contrary to what you'd expect they aren't cheaper than the competition. The 4923 Tractor and 2518 Tipper both costs Rs 22-23lakh which is two lakhs more than the equivalent Tata products. "We target customers who do not mind shelling additional capital for better return for money", says Anirudh.

I got behind the wheel of the 2518 Tipper and climbing into it was a new feeling, given the fact that we are normally used to looking down at door handles. Here the handle was well above my head and I had to reach way up to open the door. As I climbed up and made myself comfortable in the driving seat, the towering view had me smiling. So too did the posh black and grey interiors, which is leagues ahead of the dingy, smelly cabins that we are commonplace. This is a modern dash that also has a music system (no CD player or aux connectivity if you are curious), height adjustable drivers seat and tilt-adjustable steering wheel. Only thing missing are power windows.

Visually its Chinese origins are given away with the garish chrome grille and colourful flame like graphics on the sides, but it is disntictive and eye catching. This truck was shod with 20 inch crossply JK tyres, not radial tyres as on the Volvo and Tata Prima trucks and these add more height and mass to its size.

Twist the key and the engine starts just like a normal car engine would and the NVH in the cabin is good enough to not require screaming at my passenger. Since the tipper was unladen there was no need to set-off in first gear, something we are naturally used to doing in cars. As instructed, I directly slotted the gear lever into third in the nine-speed ZF gearbox and set off, being ultra-cautious with the long travel throttle pedal. Contrary to expecations the clutch, throttle and gear lever felt as easy to use as in a regular SUV and reflects the close attention CV manufacturers are paying to reducing driver fatigue and thus improving safety and productivity.

Very quickly I felt more confident and realized that driving a truck is not that different to driving a car. I was soon shifting up through the gears of the 9-speed synchromesh short-ratio gearbox like a veteran.

Power for the 2518 Tipper comes from the 5883cc, 6-cylinder, in-line, Cummins turbo diesel engine, that produces 180PS of power. More important from a load lugging perspective is the 650Nm of torque. This engine also serves on some of Tata's Motors trucks as well. For higher load applications this engine is boosted up to produce 235PS and 800 Nm of torque. Acceleration is not a key requirement from a truck, load lugging and the ability to maintain a steady cruising speed is and the 2518 excels on that front. The acceleration was of course perkier because the truck was unladen and that also made the ride quality very bouncy - truck suspensions are setup for full load conditions; an unladed truck is just wasting money for the operator. Suspension is multiple leaf springs at the front and rear and a super-rigid ladder frame chassis to take all the over loading that trucks are typically subject to in India.

The pneumatic brakes that use compressed air feel wooden and though they do offer decent retardation it required a solid stomp on the lever to make it stop. I assumed the most difficult part would be making U-turns but the turning radius was not as huge as I thought, the only problem was the view from the rear-view mirrors. But I have to admit this was a world away from what I expected a truck to be - comfortable to drive, easy to manoeuvre, good ergonomics, good power - trucks today have come a long way and AMW's trucks are keeping pace if not leading the times and thus have found wide acceptability. Today there are over 18,000 AMW trucks on Indian roads and as Anirudh says "Not one is without an AC. If you don't want air-conditioning, don't buy an AMW."

Truck drivers - they're finally getting their due and as I got off the truck and back onto my bike I realized that trucks like the AMW will only make our roads safer. My ride back home that day then was more peaceful.