To Skid or To Swivel?
When it comes to compact loading, choosing between a skid steer loader (SSL) and compact wheel loader (CWL) typically comes down to the mindset of “this is what we’ve always used.” Given the updates in technology and growing versatility and attachments for these machines, it might be time to reconsider which will work best for your application.The most obvious difference between the two is that skid steer loaders use a synchronised mechanical lock to turn, whereas compact wheel loaders have an articulated joint allowing the axles to rotate. The differences don’t stop there,though.To help us decide which is best, we will compare the advantages and disadvantage of each against 10 key criteria.
Being able to access and operate safely and efficiently on a worksite is critical. Physical limitations of small or confined worksites that limit manoeuvrability might be a deciding factor for which loader you choose.
SSL: With a compact size, low height and ability to counter-rotate for a turn on the spot, the skid steer has unmatched manoeuvrability. Such manoeuvrability comes at a cost though, as soft ground and turf can easily be damaged by skid steers.
CWL: Longer, taller and with a greater turning circle, the compact wheel loader is limited when compared to the skid steer for tight manoeuvres and restricted access, however scrubbing and surface damage is minimal and a higher ground clearance can be an advantage over certain terrain.
Whilst purchase price is the cost that stays top of mind, differences in upfront costs may be dwarfed by differences in operating costs over the life of the machine. Fuel and tyres/tracks are the biggest operating costs.
SSL: Skidding can be an expensive way to turn. More horse power is required, which results in more fuel burn and tyres or tracks wear faster as they slide under the weight. Operator technique can have a significant impact, but even the best technique won’t beat an articulated system.
CWL: Smaller engines burn less fuel and articulating front ends ease wear on tyres, therefore the two biggest operating costs are reduced with the compact wheel loader.
Stability goes hand in hand with lift capacity and operator confidence, but working on slopes and turning with a load can alter stability characteristics.
SSL: A lower centre of gravity means skid steers offer more stability on cambered surfaces, especially with the wider track profile and stability won’t change when turning. However, in general the shorter wheel base and less counter weight reduces stability and lift capacity for skid steer loaders.
CWL: A longer wheel base provides exceptional stability and lift capacity where stability fore and aft won’t change between loaded and empty. Articulation can move the load laterally and reduce stability when loaded, however Cat® compact wheel loaders are engineered and designed with class leading full turn tipping stability.
We always like to see more ponies when comparing spec sheets, but how a machine transfers power and the fuel costs are equally important.
SSL: Hands down, a skid steer will have more flywheel power than a comparable compact wheel loader. More power is needed for the skid steer drive train, and a benefit is greater hydraulic power for high-demand attachments such as mulchers and cold planers, and other operations can be achieved at lower idle.
CWL: By transferring power to the ground more efficiently, loading operations with a compact wheel loader require less power, therefore typically have smaller engines. With the growth of coupler and attachment options however, Cat compact wheel loaders have hydraulic systems and engines to match these increased demands.
If cycles require large travel distance or material needs to be transported, speed can have a significant impact over a full day’s productivity.
SSL: Travel speed on a skid steer loader is limited, even with 2-speed the 242D will only reach 18 kph. If, however, cycle travel is short, the rapid change between forward and reverse may be highly beneficial for the skid steer, and on many worksites travelling any faster may be dangerous.
CWL: The 906M high speed option enables 35 kph, roughly double the travel speed of a skid steer loader. If travel time is a productivity limiting factor, this difference could mean close to double the output.
Loading is the most fundamental function of both machines, but loading requirements can be quite different based on the material, the source and where it is dumped or placed.
SSL: The hinge pin on a skid steer loader is at the rear of the machine and quite high allowing a high dump clearance. The position also allows a vertical lift linkage design and exclusive Cat sensors enable perfect parallel lift, which is useful for loading barrels and precarious materials.
CWL: Larger buckets and lifting capacities provide greater output per cycle and the higher seating position can provide better visibility. Greater reach allows loading over walls or placing material deeper onto a tray. It won’t come with loader sensors, however exclusive to Cat compact wheel loaders is a mechanically enabled parallel lift when paired with Cat forks, permitting only 5° degree of variation, racking back slightly for safety.
Loading might be the primary function of these machines, but auxiliary hydraulics, quick couplers and a huge range of Cat attachments allow them to tackle any job.
SSL: The traditional multi-function Swiss-army knife, skid steer loader couplers have the largest range of compatible attachments, and the auxiliary hydraulics and electrical connectors to operate them. The larger horsepower provides the hydraulic flow and pressure to drive even the most demanding tools.
CWL: Cat compact wheel loaders now come with a skid steer coupler option, high-flow hydraulics and attachment controls in the cab, so if attachment options were limiting your choice, now might be a time to reconsider a compact wheel loader.
Better visibility improves safety and performance and while you can’t judge it on paper, it will be the first thing you notice when hopping in the machine.
SSL: With the coupler so close to the operator, skid steer loaders offer excellent visibility to the bucket cutting edge, forks or attachment, however loader arms can restrict lateral visibility at certain heights. With a panoramic rear-view mirror and optional rear-view camera, Cat skid steer loaders still offer exceptional all-round visibility.
CWL: Sitting up high, it is very easy to see all around the Cat compact wheel loader and thanks to its refined design, there is minimal obstruction at the rear. Whilst the coupler is further away from the operator, the updated optimised Z-bar linkage provides excellent visibility of the front loader.
Getting in and out of the cab and operating all day can quickly raise comfort levels to one of the top priorities and form the basis for which machine you want to use.
SSL: Gone are the days of a harsh ride, aching arms and a dirty cab with skid steer loaders. Cat skid steer loaders have a one piece, sealed and pressurised cab to keep out dust and noise, the track system is a suspended undercarriage and the controls are electronically coupled for minimal effort. One downside of the skid steer loaders front entry is you have to step over the bucket or attachment to get in and out.
CWL: Even without the updated deluxe cab, the electro-hydraulic controls and dual side entry, the compact wheel loader is a more comfortable machine to work in. Add these Cat features and the advantage is clear, however the skid steer loader is narrowing the gap.
“How much does it cost?” It’s often the first question asked and can greatly influence a purchasing decision. The total cost of ownership, including consumables, parts, servicing, downtime and productivity can have a much larger impact on the pocket, even though it is not so obvious at the start. While a skid steer loader will often have a lower purchase price, it may not provide the best value given total cost factors.
The application is key to deciding which loader is best. Having a good understanding of the above criteria and prioritising them for your business and applications will help you maximise productivity and minimise the total cost of ownership. If you’re still on the fence as to which machine is best for you, contact your local Cat dealer for professional advice and a demonstration.
Current Role: My current role as the BCP Wheel Loader Product and Application Specialist for Europe, Africa, Middle East, CIS and Australia/ New Zealand involves me working with customers, dealers and machinery on an almost daily basis which is something I absolutely love.
Channeling the wants and needs of customers and operators from around the world into future product development is a key function of my role. Regardless of the model, I really enjoy promoting and showcasing the value that the BCP Wheel Loader product portfolio has to offer be it through training, marketing or on social media.
Previous Roles: I've worked at Caterpillar since 2004 and have held various positions that have taken me around the globe ranging from a BCP Industry Sales Rep for Scandinavia and the Netherlands, a Cat Finance Rep based in Nashville, TN, USA, and the Leicester Visitor & Training Centre Manager.