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Muscle and Might

The new Zetros 3643 AS launched in the Middle East last year, Construction Business News travels to Germany to find out why it is proving to be popular with construction and oil and gas companies in the region.

By Matthew Treanor

Construction Business News Middle East magazine was treated to a driving experience courtesy of  Mercedes-Benz during its recent visit to the IAA commercial vehicles event in Hannover and got to experience first-hand why the Zetros is building a reputation for robust reliability in the oil & gas and construction sectors in the region.

The Zetros was first launched in 2008 with military and extreme off-road applications in mind. Check the original spec-sheets and you will see that it needed to be able to fit inside a C-130 Hercules air carrier and bears a rounded roofline suitable for the giant aircraft’s hold. It’s front-end also boasts a distinctive cab behind the hood design that one test driver told Construction Business News Middle East has helped protect United Nation crews from mine impacts.

Put it in civilian clothes however and the two features ensure superior ride comfort, permanent car-like control and the possibility of using the roof to install equipment like radio antennae or a tachograph. Eight years on from its first introduction, you are essentially left with the best of both worlds: the robustness of a military-grade vehicle with the versatility of a commercial off-roader. It is incredibly versatile too and is an able workhorse for remote construction, mining and oil and gas operations. Two early Mongolian buyers of the 2733 A even outfitted the 6×6 version of the all-wheel drive truck with a marble-floored bathroom, bedroom and seating for eight passengers (as well as two flat screens and a gun safe). But that’s a different story.

Mercedes-Benz feels the Zetros is the culmination of its decades-long experience of developing its truck line. In the Middle East, the German truck-maker describes its distinctive look as Abu Booz-style meaning a serious-looking face, and up close it resembles a square-jawed muscle man.

The German company also says the Zetros demonstrates “its superb ruggedness and reliability wherever paved roads are scarce and extreme weather conditions are the norm. And the many attachment and body variants make the Zetros a professional which meets any goal you set for it”. With a new variant (the Zetros 3643 AS, more on that later) recently launched in the region, Construction Business News wanted to take them up on the challenge.

Just a few minutes into a ride up, over and beyond the near-vertical cliffs of Mercedes-Benz’ test track in Oetigheim you realise why the Zetros tears over the parts other trucks would never reach. Indeed, while Mercedes-Benz recently celebrated its 100,000th sale of the Actros in the Middle East only its Zetros boasts the grunt to be able to travel across the entire continent.

Mercedes-Benz has designed the Oetigheim track to replicate the many conditions its heavy trucks are expected to negotiate. It was almost disappointing then that the 1833 4X4 version of the Zetros negotiated the course’s rocky paths, 60% inclines and deep water pools (fording is rated at 0.8m and can be modified to 1.19m) with consummate ease despite a 2t payload – in admittedly dry ground conditions.

It helps that you have an engine capable of 326hp and torque of 1,300Nm at your disposal. In the hands of an expert driver able to run through the 2-stage gearbox like a Rubik’s Cube in the hands of Usain Bolt, you have a vehicle that can confidently take on most conditions.

At the heart of the Zetros’ driveline and transmission is the VG 1700 transfer case which has been — and is — used on the all-wheel drives of the Axor and the Atego for on-, off-road and differential lock purposes. The off-road gearing has been tuned to a ratio of 1.69 from 1.403 on their beefed up cousin giving the Zetros a Gorilla Tape-like traction at low speeds and on steep inclines. At one stage at Oetigheim, the Zetros veered over a huge slope only to grab hold of the track beneath. Feeling 10t crawl to a near stop while peering over its nose was breath-taking.

Supporting remote oil and gas or construction operations in the Middle East pushes some drivers to exhaustion and here is where the Zetros excels. Fitting the engine in front of the cab means it remains relatively steady when rolling over rugged terrain. Mercedes-Benz also believes that placing the driver so far back improves handling and keeps hazards away from the windscreen. You also gain easy access to the engine components with a further knock on benefit of a more even weight distribution between the axles than, say, placing the driver over the engine.

The Zetros is equipped with three mechanical differential locks as standard, and these were easily selected by the driver using a rotary control during the ride. (This rotary control shows the logical sequence in which the locks should be engaged as the terrain becomes more difficult: first inter-axle, then inter-wheel at the rear and finally inter-wheel at the front.)

Most workshop managers will be pleased to learn that in terms of service, maintenance and repair, the truck uses standard Mercedes-Benz truck parts and components.

Clearance at the front also lends the vehicle a 34o approach angle gifting you extra space on steeper dunes and mountain tracks.

The test track was also a good opportunity to test the optional tyre pressure control system which showed reassuring deflating speed on the run, an important consideration when traversing sandy conditions. A differential lock, which is controlled via a rotary switch on the dashboard, can be applied to both the rear and front axles ensuring nippy and continuous movement even in adverse conditions.

A 6X6 version of the Woerth plant-built vehicle, the Zetros 3643 AS, launched in the Middle East last year (it went into production in May 2015) for non-military applications. Christopher Grigoleit of Mercedes-Benz Trucks tells Construction Business News: “(The Zetros was) launched in the MENA region as a truck for civilian special applications, such as oil and gas and heavy construction in 2015.”

The 3643 AS shares much of the same rugged structure of the base 4X4 model tested in Germany, including its steel-based suspension, but features a more powerful 16-speed, 12l (listed displacement is 11,697ccm) Euro 3 engine. Torque has also been improved too with the 6 cylinder inline engine producing a muscular 428hp and 2,100Nm. Meanwhile the gross vehicle weight stands at 36t with axle loads of 9t possible on the front axle and 16t on each of the rear axle.

Several different PTOs (power take-offs) are available for the Zetros range. The manual transmission PTOs are gearbox-dependent and ‘shiftable’, which Mercedes-Benz claims is a low-cost variant for driving a hydraulic pump without an additional propshaft. The installation of larger hydraulic pumps, should you require them, is possible thanks to the large centre distance of the spur gear drive. The automatic transmission PTOs utilise a deployment-oriented system solutions, and feature individually selectable PTO gear ratios, selectable available permanent PTO torque.

Cabin variants can be altered to suit two to seven passengers and strapping the extra axle to the chassis opens a number of possible variants and applications. As you might expect the crew cab is much larger than the standard ‘M-Cab’ with it extending as far as 2.53m in length compared to the latter’s 1.92m. Both cabs have an interior width of 2.05m and a height of 1.4m.

As the run-out in Oetigheim proved, vibration on the inside remains low even in back-twisting environments and the visibility is excellent — as you might expect from the elevated seating position. Once again, the cab-behind-the-hood design is an advantage, taking away the need for an engine tunnel and granting the cab even more room.

According to Grigoleit, the cooling system of the engine and the filters have also been designed for the extreme conditions in the MENA region.

The Zetros has been warmly received by a number of sectors since launch with the three-axle semitrailer truck able to be configured to suit the needs of fire and rescue teams, material transporters and much more.

The previous flatbed version of the truck peaked at a maximum weight of 27t but by supplying the tractor head into the region, Mercedes-Benz is able to meet demanding loads at far higher weights. In theory this is a truck that can pull a gross combination weight in excess of 110t (Mercedes lists it at 116t) placing it into the realms of mining and quarrying as well as some haulage operator’s needs.

The new Zetros received its major launch in the region at the Idex 2015 defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi, and according to Grigoleit, the truck is beginning to prove popular in the Middle East region.

“We received the first orders for the newly launched product shortly after the launch but the first larger volume deals we received during 2016,” he says.

Grigoleit describes the buyers of the trucks as being diverse, suggesting the German automaker has succeeded in its goal of broadening its appeal. Mercedes is offering a boxed and tanker version of the truck to transport operators. Oil and gas owners can also use the truck for equipment transportation and mining operators may want to use it for material extraction. For heavy construction purposes, the tractor head can be hitched to a tipper as well as function as a dump truck. This could be your next truck if you are working on remote and demanding projects.

“The vehicle is designed for perfect off-road driving conditions with a special re-enforced chassis and extremely high ground clearance, big approach and departure angles. The vehicles are suitable and used for heavy construction operations in very challenging environment (off-road) with all kinds of bodies including tippers, drilling machinery and many others.”

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