Comparing Wheeled Skid Steers vs. Compact Track Loaders

Each machine has its advantages depending on what you value most

Comparing Wheeled Skid Steers vs. Compact Track Loaders

For job sites with harder surfaces, wheeled skid steers provide good value.

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Skid steer or compact track loader? The answer depends on several factors — not the least of which is cost — but at the end of the day, there’s room for both work horses in any stable.

Chris Sleight, managing director of Off-Highway Research, says that skid steers’ popularity peaked in the mid-2000s, when sales were around 65,000 units per year.

Since then, compact track loaders (CTL) have taken the lead, and last year the market was about 55,000 to 65,000 units, compared to approximately 30,000 to 35,000 for skid steers.

But that shift has plateaued, and although their popularity has declined, skid-steer loaders remain a sizeable part of the construction industry.

“You could also say that this type of machine is more popular than ever,” Sleight says, referring to both skid steers and CTLs. “Combined sales are getting close to 100,000 units, whereas it was only 65,000 at the last peak, when the wheeled version was the only game in town.”

Let’s compare the two versions of this machine through three lenses: areas in which CTLs excel, areas in which skid steers have an advantage, and what’s on the horizon for these machines.

Pros of compact track loaders

At their core, skid steers and CTLs are the same machine with one main difference: tracks instead of wheels for CTLs.

“Track loaders and skid steers serve many of the same functions on a job site,” says Blane Burroughs, Kubota CE product specialist. “Choosing between tracks and wheels can boil down to the terrain you will be operating in.”

The consensus is that skid steers work best on solid ground and tracked loaders can work in almost any environment, thanks to their namesake mode of transportation.

A compact track loader
A compact track loader

Due to the low ground pressure and high traction force, contractors often use CTLs on softer terrain such as mud, sand, gravel or turf. 

Not only can CTLs adapt to different terrains, but they are also flexible when it comes to conditions, according to Adam Devins, global product manager for Wacker Neuson.

“Operators in general will go toward CTLs because they can operate more days of the year in most places, especially in a landscape setting,” he says.

So if CTLs can work anywhere, where do skid-steer loaders hold an advantage?

The value of a skid-steer loader

Although the skid steer’s wheeled design means a smaller surface area and more pressure on softer ground, as well as a higher chance of sinking, skid steers make their case by providing better value on harder surfaces, Devins says. Skid steers are faster and more agile on asphalt, concrete and hard-packed surfaces.

“Speed is going to directly correlate to your efficiency,” Devins says.

Using a skid steer on repetitive tasks, such as traveling back and forth across a nursery yard to move materials, increases an operator’s productivity and efficiency.

There’s also the subject of price: Skid-steer loaders are generally less expensive than their tracked counterparts, given their relative limitations.

Devins says that in addition to the lower initial investment, skid steers’ wheeled design makes them more efficient from a fuel consumption perspective. Also, the cost of ongoing maintenance with CTLs can be higher because even though both tracks and wheels wear out over time, tracks are more expensive to replace as there are more undercarriage components such as rollers, idlers and sprockets to consider.

Some of this can be operator-dependent, Devins says, but these price factors should be considered when making a purchase.

“In the right application, there’s a lower operation cost [for skid steers],” Devins says.

Changing trends for both loaders

Loaders have been fixtures on job sites for decades, and these machines have stuck around because of their willingness to adapt (see the rise of the CTL as the prime example). 

But even skid steers have undergone changes while keeping their wheels.

As technology has improved over the years, manufacturers have advanced the engine and lift capacity, tipping load, hydraulics and other integral components of skid steers to keep them “from being becoming a thing of the past,” according to Burroughs.

“Although the skid steer market has been in decline over the last couple of years, these machines are still a very popular choice amongst owners and operators,” he says.

Updates over the past decade, as well as changes in the coming years, have been and will be implemented for both skid steers and CTLs. Devins says some manufacturers have moved away from the original hand-foot controls, which require operators to drive with their hands and control the bucket with their feet. Now, many loaders come with hydraulic or electro-hydraulic controls that are more operator-friendly.

Patrick Baker, Kubota CE product manager, says key areas such as productivity, reliability and technology are priorities for the loaders. Skids steers can utilize more hydraulically driven attachments than ever before, and the machines are also beginning to feature smart attachment capabilities, in addition to options such as rearview and 360-degree cameras for safer operation. Similarly, technological innovations including automation and smart attachments are key areas of focus in the CTL industry, as well. 

Although skid steers and CTLs are seasoned veterans in the construction industry, they’ve persevered for this long because of manufacturers’ willingness to be flexible on behalf of operators’ and contractors’ needs.

“Kubota expects growth in the skid steer and CTL market over the next several years,” Baker says.

About the Author

AEM is the North American-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers, with more than 950 companies and 200-plus product lines in the agriculture and construction-related sectors worldwide. AEM has an ownership stake in and manages several world-class exhibitions, including CONEXPO-CON/AGG.



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