Sterling 360 Scoots Through Circles

The nomenclature suggests a circle, and this truck will turn them with alacrity. Also Ford redesigns its ever-popular F-150 for 2009.

February 2008, - Test Drives

by Tom Berg, Senior Contributing Editor - Also by this author

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There's a funny story about the Sterling 360's name. In a short bull session following a press conference last year, a couple of Sterling executives related that they considered calling the truck "AC 360," as in a circular 360 degrees, because the truck is "better all around," which became its marketing slogan.

I don't recall what AC would've meant, but they decided on just "360" - and soon learned of the then-new CNN program, "Anderson Cooper 360." Whew, that was close. But who knows, maybe this would've become the news commentator's official ride, kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hummer.

This 360 is Sterling's version of Mitsubishi Fuso's made-in-Japan FE145, a Class 4 low-cab-forward vehicle rated at 14,500 pounds (there are also lighter and heavier models sold under both nameplates). They compete in a crowded segment dominated by domestic conventionals.

The 360 is in the Sterling lineup because execs wanted to provide dealers with something to sell besides its medium- and heavy-duty conventionals. Sterling gets the 360 from Fuso because it's a sister company through their common ownership by Daimler AG of Germany.

The 360 is a slick and nimble truck that deserves more sales than it gets, and that goes for all imported and domestic low-cabovers sold here. Execs at all the importers thought that a recent entry into the market by Ford and International, with their jointly built (in Mexico) LCF and CityStar, would boost interest in LCFs, but it hasn't happened. Most buyers still prefer conventionals.

This particular truck was on the lot at Valley Freightliner-Sterling-Western Star in Cleveland, Ohio. Susan Gallik, an exec at Sterling's PR agency in Cleveland, arranged with salesman Andy O'Donnell to let me drive it. This was on a cloudy, chilly day, and the first thing I can say is that the 360's heater worked fine.

As to work applications, O'Donnell said he had just sold a couple of 360s with dump bodies to a local park district. People there like the trucks because they're compact and easy to run on sidewalks and maneuver around buildings and other obstacles.

That's not to say that these trucks are small. Low cabovers sometimes look little in photos and even in person - until you walk up to one. Then you find that the cabs are wide and their beefy frames easily tote full-size bodies. Compactness comes primarily from the no-nose design; all those BBC inches that would be taken up by a conventional's hood, fenders and everything underneath becomes payload space on an LCF's chassis.

Put another way, a cabover provides several feet more room for a body and load in any given overall length than any comparable conventional. And the LCF's wheelbase will be shorter, aiding maneuverability.

The cab tilts up to reveal the engine, and a mechanic can just step around a front wheel and do his service and repair work while standing there. It sure beats crawling under a truck or leaning under the hood of a typical midrange conventional. The 360's cab tilts easily; just pop the lock behind the cab, grab hold of the body and raise it. It can almost be done with one hand, and the lift mechanism locks in place so wind won't push it back down.

The engine is a Fuso 4M50, a 4.9-liter (299-cubic-inch) four-cylinder turbodiesel running through an Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes up to 175 horsepower (Fuso advertises it as 185) and 391 pounds-feet of torque. It's more than enough for city duties, and should easily keep up with normal stop-and-go traffic. On the freeway it begins running out of steam at about 65 mph; it'll do 70 or more, but has to work harder at it than big-cubic-inch domestic I-6 or V-8 diesels, which is no surprise.

Economy with an I-4 should be better, and Sterling claims that testing against a competitive four-cylinder LCF showed the Sterling is 19 percent more economical. But as they say, "Your results may vary."

After I'd snapped some photos, I observed that "360" implied a compass' full 360 degrees, and I made Gallik and O'Donnell wait outside in the cold while I spun the truck in a circle - two or three of 'em, actually - in a wide driveway. I didn't put a tape on the resulting tire tracks, but the circle's radius was really tight (any dimension will depend on a truck's wheel cut and wheelbase). A low cabover gives you the feeling that you can turn so sharp that you'll T-bone yourself if you're not careful. That might almost be true if we had been pulling a trailer.

As it was, the 14-foot American stakeside body was all that was behind the cab. The body was interesting in itself, constructed partly of composite plastics that should last almost forever. Its floor was smooth-surfaced plastic that hadn't yet been blemished with a load. Because the body was empty, I couldn't make a judgment on the truck's behavior under load.

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