Jump to: Standards in Africa and the Middle East, Euro rating downgrader, Is a road test legal?, Test drive, Vehicle specification, Market trends, Parts pricing, Verdict.
Click here to view all of the used Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor units we have in stock.
Africa is no longer the place that clapped-out export vehicles go to die. Customers have far higher standards these days.
This is by no means the first time we’ve arrived at the Mercedes-Benz Approved Used Commercial Vehicle Centre, just north of Sheffield at Wentworth Park. It’s also not the first time we’ve done so with the intention of writing a used buying guide about an Actros tractor, but that’s where the similarity ends, because this time we’re not here to look at something available on the UK market. We’re here to find out what you can buy if you’re an operator in Kenya or Tanzania.
If we’re going to talk export vehicles, the first thing we have to do is forget everything we think we already know. All those images of clapped-out old wrecks sat on the dockside at Tilbury, and of the export market basically being a dumping ground for anything no longer fit to try to sell in this country, are simply stereotypes of a previous age. Nowadays, export customers have high standards.
Tom Morris is Mercedes-Benz head of used trucks, a role he took up just six months ago. This means he’s had to learn about the export market from scratch, making him the perfect person to explain it to us.
Ten years ago an export truck was seven years old with a million-plus kilometres on the clock, but now he has customers that take trucks at as little as four years old.
Mercedes has always been a desirable brand in far-flung places, and not just because it has a reputation for reliability. “We have a global product so – no matter where you put it in the world – you can get parts for it, you can get it maintained and everybody recognises the three-pointed star,” Morris explains. For any operator buying a used vehicle, backup is almost as important as the truck itself, and this is just as true in Africa as it is here. But preparation is important too, and Mercedes doesn’t lower its standard for trucks going abroad. “We prep our vehicles to the same standard as UK used,” Morris assures us. “And that’s why we have customers who, last year, bought new-shaped Actros at four years old to operate in East Africa.”
To be fair, it’s not all about Mercedes itself. Trucks from the UK in general are sought after and the reason is simple. “Six-weekly inspections and an annual MoT. People know that British trucks are maintained to a particular standard,” Morris says. “This means a five-year-old vehicle can be as good as an equivalent three-year-old European example.” Although Mercedes mainly sends trucks to other right-handdrive markets, some truly mind-boggling things have been done.
“I mean, it sounds crazy, but it’s because of the level British trucks are maintained to.”
High standards of roadworthiness on delivery are expected by all Mercedes export customers, and Morris sees this as part of his responsibility. “I won’t let anything leave our site that’s not safe,” he says. “So we’ll check tyre treads, brake pad and disc levels and give a full service if it’s needed – though most of what comes in at end of contract has been maintained in our network to a good level.” All major damage is repaired too. “What I won’t do is send something out with half a bumper missing, or smashed lights.”
Standards in Africa and the Middle East
But perhaps the biggest surprise is that many export customers also require trucks to have a British MoT. “You’ve got to have an MoT to get into Kenya,” Morris tells us. “For Tanzania you don’t have to, but we send them with MoT because our customers ask for it – and a lot of the time they want at least six months. So it really is a similar level to the used market here.” The absolute minimum mechanical standard for any export vehicle leaving Mercedes’ site, if it doesn’t need an MoT and the customer doesn’t ask for one, is for it to have passed the equivalent of a six-weekly inspection.
As a result of all this, the way vehicles are chosen as potential exports has changed as well. While initially trucks coming into the Wentworth Park site are still placed into one of three categories – retail, trade and export – the latter is no longer necessarily the bottom of the pile, nor are all export trucks chosen in this way. “The other thing that dictates where a truck goes is our customer base,” Morris tells us. “A fantastic job was done in this business by my previous export manager who retired last November. He developed our export side and his legacy is the customers that are coming back to us repeatedly.” This means there’s also an element of knowing who will buy, for example, 100 trucks a year, and picking out vehicles suitable for them in advance as fleets arrive at the end of their contract.
Despite the advances, however, there are some modern technologies that simply cannot be exported, and this is where the vehicle we’re here to see becomes relevant. “What I wouldn’t do is supply a two-year old vehicle to an export customer because it wouldn’t be appropriate to that market. That’s a big thing for me – Euro-6 will be difficult to operate in the East African market,” Morris says firmly. “NOx sensors can fail, EGRs can build up with carbon, and DPF filters are far more prone to blocking.” It’s all down to fuel quality. The grading for countries both in the Middle East and East Africa is far lower than for Europe, the main issue being a high sulphur content, high water content and potential contaminants.
What isn’t necessarily an issue, however, is SCR. “MP3 Actros and Axors we send over as Euro-5, and customers run them with AdBlue,” Morris tells us. “The African market is pretty developed – we’ve got a technician over there now in one of our customers’ workshops and they have full Mercedes Star diagnostic machines, that’s how advanced they are and this customer is running 600 vehicles throughout East Africa!”
Euro rating downgrader
We ask what the highest Euro rating is that can be exported unmodified, expecting the answer to be Euro-3, or perhaps Euro-4, but again we’re wrong. “Old-shape Euro-5,” Morris replies. “However we do have one operator running new-shape Euro-5s over there, which I was quite shocked at,” he continues. “I would personally still downgrade them. I just think for the longevity of the vehicle you would be doing the right thing.”
Our test truck today is a 13-plate 6x2 Actros tractor with the Euro-5 12.8-litre OM471 engine and PowerShift 3 12-speed automated gearbox, to which a Mercedes downgrade kit has been fitted. This means it is now Euro-3, and theoretically there is a 6% reduction in power. The term “downgrade kit” isn’t a euphemism, by the way, it really does exist. We ask Tom Morris to talk us through it, without getting excessively technical.
“That involves a software change, which does things like switch off the ACM unit to stop dosing AdBlue. The big one is the DPFs,” Morris continues. “We actually take the DPFs out completely and replace them with hollow tubes. Then lastly there’s a secondary fuel filter we add on to the truck, a form of water separator, which tries to clean the fuel further.”
All these parts are genuine, carry the Daimler brand, and are created specifically for the downgrade kits. There are two available – Euro-6 to Euro-3, and Euro-5 to Euro-3. Everything else stays pretty much the same, the exception being the variable radiator shutters, which are fixed permanently in the open position. Oh, and there’s a “simulation” tachograph slotted into the appropriate position, which basically tells the truck “there’s a tachograph here but not in use”, as such niceties aren’t currently needed outside Europe and the AETR area.
Is a road test legal?
Unfortunately, at this point there is some debate among those present as to whether we can actually take this downgraded vehicle out to test drive on UK roads, even on trade plates. Much checking of insurance and flicking through rulebooks later and we decide the answer is probably not, and a plan B is hastily thrown together. Actually, this works out quite well, as the alternative is to take a very similar vehicle prepped and for sale on the UK used market and see if, within the grounds of the rather extensive Wentworth Park site, we can actually tell the difference. Two identical loaded trailers are procured from the handy Mercedes-Benz Truck Training facility, and we hitch them up, one to our export Actros and the other to a 2014 vehicle, which is almost identical in every way except that it is Euro-6 and remains unmodified.
We take the latter version for a spin first, and it is exactly as we expect from an Actros of this age with 350,000km on the clock. It’s comfortable to drive, smooth on the gear changes (which happen at the appropriate time), and deftly manoeuvrable around the various obstacles inevitably found on an active workshop and storage site. The ride is reasonably comfortable too, despite the number of kerbs the poor thing finds itself being thrown over, although admittedly it improves once we’ve worked out how to reset the seat damper. Lining up for a run down the purpose-built brake-testing lane we squeeze the throttle and accelerate rapidly and cleanly up to 40mph – we don’t have room to go any higher – before coming to an easily controlled stop and returning to our start point to change vehicle.
The export-modified Actros should, theoretically, be less powerful, although only by 6%. That said, however, we’ve heard there are those who actually think these trucks feel more meaty than their off-the shelf counterparts, the phrase “less choked” having been used to describe why that might be. Either way, it’s all to play for as we climb aboard. Inside the vehicle is, of course, just as well appointed as any other Actros, the roomy cab providing a pleasant environment for any modern driver looking to live and work in it – though if we had to drive it in Africa we’d quite like a roof-mounted air-conditioning pod added for overnight comfort, spoilt Westerners that we are.
We thought we’d better do a bit of research before today’s visit, so we spoke to a couple of independent export dealers about what trends they’d been seeing.
The dealers told us that around five or six years ago the bottom started to fall out of the market, thanks to the Chinese flooding it with cheap, brand-new imports.
Needless to say not only were the heads of local hauliers turned by this, so were those of the banks – suddenly finance became a whole lot easier to get when it was for something that had just rolled out of the factory.
Ultimately, however, you get what you pay for, and now things are going back the other way. “I’ve heard the Chinese trucks story before, on the used and new sales sides,” Tom Morris tells us.
“They’re there, they’re certainly a lot better than they used to be, but our biggest customers aren’t buying Chinese trucks yet, and I think if they were up to a level, viable and had the backup, they would be. There’s obviously still a missing link somewhere,” he adds.
Once again we head off around our short test route, occasionally shouting “Look, lion!” or “Watch out for the wildebeest!” for atmosphere, as various slightly startled shunter drivers and technicians appear, curious as to what on earth we’re up to. If it seems a little like we’re looking for something interesting to say here, you’d be right. Because, much as we umm and ahh over it, changing our minds in one direction or the other, the bottom line is that this “downgraded” truck feels exactly the same as its UK counterpart. There is no discernible difference whatsoever, except that it isn’t running up an AdBlue bill, which surely must be counted as a plus point. Oh, and for an export truck you understandably need to pay cash up front, which might present us with a bit of a problem. That aside though, it’s great, and it’s MoT’d, so all that leaves for us to say is that if you’re looking for a decent, used modern lorry to run out of Derbyshire you may find it a bit more difficult to get one now – these days they’re just as likely to have been snapped up by a company in Kenya.
Click here to view all of the used Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor units we have in stock.