Loading zone: Skid steers vs. compact track loaders
By Riley SimpsonFebruary 17, 2021
Skid steer or compact track loader? The answer depends on several factors, not the least of which is cost, but at the end of the day, there’s room for both work horses in any stable.
According to the book Bobcat Fifty Years, the Melroe Manufacturing Company created the world’s first skid-steer loader, the M-400, in 1960, followed by the first use of the “Bobcat” trademark in 1962.
Since then, the Bobcat name has become synonymous with skid-steer loader, even though today there are dozens of brands to choose from and the rapidly advancing state of the art is a far cry from the simple loader that got the job done some 60 years ago.
For a classic machine that remains a constant on job sites everywhere, it’s a wonder that though an integral innovation produced the similar compact track loader (CTL) in the late 1980s – Takeuchi is credited with its development – skid steers’ popularity still endures, and the two loader types continue to coexist.
Chris Sleight, managing director of Off-Highway Research, said that skid steers’ popularity peaked in the mid-2000s, when sales were around 65,000 units per year.
Since then, CTLs have taken the lead, Sleight said, and last year the market was about 55,000 to 65,000 units, compared to approximately 30,000 to 35,000 for skid steers.
In the past decade, there has been an explosion in CTL demand, according to Adam Devins, global product manager with Wacker Neuson. He said the market used to favor skid steers, which made up two-thirds of loader sales, but that has now flipped with CTLs taking the lead.
But that shift has plateaued, Devins added, and although their popularity has declined, skid-steer loaders remain a sizeable part of the construction industry.
“You could also say that this type of machine is more popular than ever,” Sleight said, referring to skid steers and CTLs. “Combined sales are getting close to 100,000 units; whereas it was only 65,000 at the last peak, when the wheeled version was the only game in town.”
Let’s compare the two versions of this timeless and necessary machine through three lenses: areas in which CTLs excel, areas in which skid steers have an advantage, and what’s on the horizon for these machines.
Pros of compact track loaders
At their core, skid steers and CTLs are the same machine with one main difference: tracks instead of wheels for CTLs.
Wacker Neuson uses a modular approach for its loading machines’ designs, Devins said, and the cabs and engine bay are the same for skid steers and CTLs of similar sizes – although they differ when it comes to internals and interfaces.
“There’s a lot of commonality between the two,” Devins said.
Blane Burroughs, Kubota CE product specialist, agreed and said the mode of transportation is really the only differentiating factor.
“Track loaders and skid steers serve many of the same functions on a jobsite,” Burroughs said. “Choosing between tracks and wheels can boil down to the terrain you will be operating in.”
The consensus is that skid steers work best on solid ground and tracked loaders can work in almost any environment, thanks to their namesake mode of transportation.
Due to the low ground pressure and high traction force, contractors often use CTLs on softer terrains such as mud, sand, gravel or turf. Or as Burroughs put it: “CTLs can be utilized on any type of terrain.”
Not only can CTLs adapt to different terrains, but they are also flexible when it comes to conditions, according to Devins.
“Operators in general will go toward CTLs because they can operate more days of the year in most places, especially in a landscape setting,” he said.
So if CTLs can work anywhere, where do skid-steer loaders hold an advantage?
The value of a skid-steer loader
Although the skid steer’s wheeled design means a smaller surface area and more pressure on softer ground, as well as a higher chance of sinking, skid steers make their case by providing better value on harder surfaces, Devins said.
The Wacker Neuson global product manager said skid steers are faster and more agile on surfaces such as asphalt, concrete and hard-packed surfaces.
“Speed is going to directly correlate to your efficiency,” Devins said.
Repetitive tasks, such as traveling back and forth across a nursery yard to move materials, using a skid steer increases an operator’s productivity and efficiency, according to Devins.
There’s also the subject of price: skid-steer loaders are generally less expensive that their tracked counterparts, given their relative limitations. At Bobcat, the originator of these machines, the price range for skid steers is $23,000 to $70,000; CTLs range from $52,000 to $91,000.
Devins said that in addition to the lower initial investment, skid steers’ wheeled design makes them more efficient from a fuel consumption perspective.
Also, the cost of ongoing maintenance with CTLs can be higher because even though both tracks and wheels wear out over time, tracks are more expensive to replace, as there are more undercarriage components such as rollers, idlers and sprockets to consider.
Some of this can be operator-dependent, Devins said, but these price factors should be considered when making a purchase.
“In the right application, there’s a lower operation cost [for skid steers],” Devins said.
Changing trends for both loaders
Loaders have been fixtures on job sites for decades, and these machines have stuck around because of their willingness to adapt (see the rise of the CTL as the prime example).
But even skid steers have undergone changes while keeping their wheels.
As technology has improved over the years, manufacturers have advanced the engine and lift capacity, tipping load, hydraulics and other integral components of skid steers to keep them “from being becoming a thing of the past,” according to Burroughs.
“Although the skid steer market has been in decline over the last couple of years, these machines are still a very popular choice amongst owners and operators,” he said.
Updates over the past decade, as well as changes in the coming years, have been and will be implemented by both skid steers and CTLs.
Devins said some manufacturers have moved away from Bobcat’s original hand-foot controls, which require operators to drive with their hands and control the bucket with their feet. Now, many loaders come with hydraulic or electro-hydraulic controls that are more operator-friendly, according to Devins.
Patrick Baker, Kubota CE product manager, said key areas such as productivity, reliability and technology are priorities for the loaders. Skids steers can utilize more hydraulically driven attachments than ever before, and the machines are also beginning to feature smart attachment capabilities, in addition to options such as rearview and 360-degree cameras for safer operation.
Similarly, technological innovations including automation and smart attachments are key areas of focus in the CTL industry, Baker said.
Kubota recently launched the SVL97-2 CTL, which comes standard with the KubotaNOW telematics package, and operators can check on the new model with the telematics connected through myKubota app.
Although skid steers and CTLs are seasoned veterans in the construction industry, they’ve persevered for this long because of manufacturers’ willingness to be flexible on behalf of operators’ and contractors’ needs.
“Kubota expects growth in the skid steer and CTL market over the next several years,” Baker said.