The vocational truck segment has another premium vehicle for buyers to consider, something declared by Caterpillar executives in their briefings and preliminarily verified by short stints behind the wheels of several CT660 demonstrators shown to the trade press this week.

The CT (for Cat Truck) 660 is a major venture for Big Yellow, which quit the truck-engine business at the end of 2009 but has re-emerged as an enthusiastic and committed player in the on/off-highway truck market. It's Cat's first offering of a road-legal truck, and execs hope its solid reputation as a machinery builder will win many customers for the new product.

The new entry is being accomplished with assistance from Cat's strategic partner, Navistar International, whose PayStar vocational model served as the basis for the CT660. Navistar began building the trucks at its plant in Garland, Texas, in June. Several fleets are evaluating initial units and trucks are arriving at Cat dealers now.

Caterpillar first showed the CT at ConAgg/ConExpo Show in Las Vegas in March. On Tuesday executives reiterated what they said previously: that they paid a great deal of attention to remaking the donor truck into a true Cat product that vocational truck operators will recognize as a value proposition and one they can make money with.

Cat Trucks share the PayStar's chassis and Navistar's diesels, the latter painted yellow and given Cat designations. But Cat designers made major changes to the cab, cab mounts, and cab interiors, hood and grille, and steering gear, said George Taylor, director of the On-Highway Truck Group, and Gary Blood, vocational truck product manager. They and other executives briefed reporters at a company demo and training center west of the corporate hometown, Peoria, Ill.

In-cab "BSR" - buzz, squeaks and rattles - got a lot of attention from designers because "those are the things that drive a driver crazy and make him hate his job," Blood said. Among the results: Some wall panels are larger and fewer in number so there are fewer squeak-producing joints among them.

The dashboard and instrument panels are exclusive to the CT. They include a combined speedometer-tachometer, gauges placed within easy view, a stylish steering wheel with tilt-telescoping column, and large rocker switches that cab be manipulated by gloved fingers.

A drivetrain exclusive is Cat's CX31 fully automatic transmission, an option that now sells for about $15,000, Taylor said. About 40% of the CT buyers have specified the CX31. Most of the rest chose Eaton manual gearboxes. Some customers have ordered vocational versions of Eaton's UltraShift Plus automated mechanical transmission.

The CX31 originated years ago in a Cat off-road articulated dump and was announced several years ago as a product for on/off-highway trucks. This is its first use in an actual highway vehicle. A CX31R with a retarder will come later this year. Allison's 4000 series full automatics comprise the only component competition, and Cat is not offering the Allison in its trucks.

For now the CT will come as a daycab truck and tractor with a setback steer axle and two hood lengths. Navistar-built 10.5- and 12.4-liter engines are available now, and Navistar's 15-liter diesel will become an option early next year. A forward-set steer-axle version called the CT680 will come in early 2013. Sleepers needed in some vocational applications such as logging and oil field service might be offered later, Taylor said.

Main competitors will be vocational trucks offered by Kenworth, Peterbilt, Mack and Western Star, Taylor said. CT pricing "will go head to head" with them, but part of a CT purchase will be access to Cat's Product Link telematic monitoring and maintenance support system now enjoyed by Cat machinery users.

Dealers are ready for the CTs, with sales people and technicians already trained to sell and service the vehicles and parts in stock. Cat Financial is ready with ample capital and comparatively easy and quick loan approvals, said John Marino, the Denver area manager. The finance arm has a $31.7 billion loan portfolio, mostly for machinery and associated endeavors, and is familiar with truck financing.

The fact that much of the vocational truck market is dormant actually works to Cat's advantage. Everyone wants to make sure the trucks are well-built and bug-free, and easing into the market makes the process easier, Taylor added.

Drives were brief because only four CTs were available for tryouts by two dozen reporters. Drivers were restricted to low speeds on a short course within the demo center's grounds. Two trucks had CX31 automatics and two had Eaton 8LL manual gearboxes. The CXs operated well, but the manuals were stiff because the trucks had very low miles.

However, engines were quiet and cab noise was minimal. Visibility over the sharply sloped hood was excellent, and the steering system's sharp wheel cut made for easy maneuvering. Cabs were tight, and interior trim was attractive and showed a high level of fit and finish. The premium look and feel of the cab's interior invoked positive thoughts and the desire for longer driving experiences. Cat executives promise to make that happen in coming months.