26 January 1996

Kramers a big hit

in smaller spaces

New body shape, new livery, and new badges were all in evidence when Kramer launched its 20-series wheeled loaders last summer. There were other less obvious changes, too. Here Andrew Faulkner visits North Yorkshire for a drive on the mid-range 320

THINK materials handlers – think JCB, think Manitou, think Matbro, think Sanderson. All well-established names with big budgets and big profiles.

Further cranial scavenging may conjure up brands such as Caterpillar, Sambron and Merlo. Shift brain scan into overdrive and it is just possible the name Kramer may scrabble to the surface.

There is something of the VW Beetle about the little Kramer wheeled loader. Among its owners, it inspires intense loyalty. But speak to people other than concept converts or owners club enthusiasts and the vehicle tends to be viewed as a quirk, an oddball.

The problem is that some big manufacturers have conditioned us into thinking telescopic loaders are the sole solution to on-farm materials handling. Not so. Where most of the work is manoeuvring around confined livestock buildings and massive lift heights are not a priority, a compact loading shovel has much in its favour.

Kramer admits its twin-arm machine is not suited to big mixed/arable farms looking to stack big bales up to 6m and beyond. It has built its reputation elsewhere – on being a more manoeuvrable and better visibility alternative to the tractor loader on specialist livestock units.

Those strengths were further enhanced at the firms 20-series launch at last years Royal Show. Both visibility and manoeuvrability were upgraded over the now discontinued 12-series machines (except the mini 112, 312LEx and 712), and the new models also got more power, more lift and a better cab.

Here we drive the 312LE replacement, the 55hp 320 (£32,500) – the firms best selling model in the UK.

ENGINE

A peep under the curved rear hood reveals a four-cylinder Deutz unit, mounted transversely and at an angle.

Kramer claims mounting the engine in this way shifts more weight further back to aid counter-balancing. That may be true, but more immediately apparent are maintenance access and visibility benefits. Daily checks are easy and rear view over the sloping hood is among the best available.

Although still not the quietest motor, switching from air to air/oil cooling has certainly muffled the previously-raucous Deutz engine. And despite its lowly rating on paper, the 55hp unit feels surprisingly lively with more than enough power to cope with anything from silage clamp to muck heap.

TRANSMISSION

With the introduction of the 20-series, out went Kramers old torque convertor system to be replaced with hydrostatic pumps and motors. From the engine-mounted pump, oil is directed to a motor and gearbox sited over the rear axle. Here drive converts from hydrostatic to mechanical, and then travels along halfshafts to the rear wheels and a propshaft to the front. Electro-hydraulically engaged diff locks are fitted front and rear.

In-cab controls for the four-wheel-drive/four-wheel-steer drive-line comprise foot throttle, two linked brake/inching pedals, a steering column-mounted shuttle lever and dash-mounted range switch (only on models fitted with 25mph option). When switching from high (road) – where fitted – to low (work) range, steering automatically moves from front-wheel-only to four-wheel, and the rear wheels automatically align.

The column-mounted shuttle lever has two positions – up for first, down for second. Most drivers will leave the lever in second. Auto downshift means the machine automatically shifts between the two ratios as load either increases or decreases.

Move the shuttle forward with no throttle. Nothing much happens. This fluid-based transmission dictates an aggressive driving style with a hefty right boot to cajole the loader into action – much more so than a torque convertor system. Combine these right boot demands with stiff throttle springing, and prolonged use may see some uneven muscle development in the leg department. The upside is that braking effort is minimal; lift off the throttle on all but the steepest slopes and no left leg action is needed.

Progressive inching from the brake pedals is particularly impressive. The operator can maintain full hydraulic tear-out power to the loader while just inching into the clamp.

Natural instincts say this practice must be doing something horrible under the cab. In reality, all that is happening is oil feed is progressively diverted back to tank rather than to hydrostatic motor.

LOADER CONTROLS

Materials handler makers tend to go for one of three systems to relay messages from operator joystick to attachment – electric signals to solenoid valves, basic cables or servo-assistance. Kramer takes the latter route; movement of the joystick operates a low pressure hydraulic system which, in turn, controls the main valve chest.

This oil-based system is not as touch-sensitive as the more expensive electro-hydraulics, but then some operators prefer it that way. The downside is more effort; the upside, more positive feedback.

Other effort-reducing features include hydraulic engagement of the attachment locking pin, and "return to dig" (RTD). RTD is made possible by the loaders 100% mechanical self-levelling and means that, when the loader is lowered from its fully tipped position, the attachment automatically returns at the right angle to dig. In other words no neck craning out of the cab to reset fork angle, or, worse, the sound of tines ripping up a newly-laid clamp floor.

IN THE CAB

Improvements in control layout have already been mentioned, but Kramers update on its old 12-series tin box platform is more than a rearranging of buttons and levers.

Doors are now glass down to the floor improving visibility to the side, sound deadening materials abound and stowage space has been added – there is even a toolbox next to the handbrake.

Both seat and steering wheel are adjustable in every direction imaginable, and joystick panel position can be fixed independently of seat position to accommodate all shapes and sizes.

CONCLUSION

The Kramer 20-series wheeled loader is a dramatic leap forward compared with its 1970s-originating forebear. Retained are strengths of compactness, manoeuvrability and good all-round visibility, while most previous criticisms have been addressed: Engine noise, cab comfort and road speed.

Main downside remains the lack of forward/upward reach. If this a priority you will be better advised to look at one of the plethora of telescopics. But if mucking out, feeding and silage clamp work among tight buildings are the main tasks, take a look at the little Kramer. It makes a lot of sense. &#42


New vs old: 320 vs its predecessor, the 312LE

Model

312LE320

Engine54hp, 3-cyl55hp, 4-cyl

TransmissionTorque convertorHydrostatic

2F/2R4F/4R

Top speed20kph (12.5mph)40kph

Lift capacity1.75t1.9t

Max lift height2.9m (116in)3.15m (126in)

Turning circle2.55m (102in) 2.69m (108in)

Machine height2.43m (97in)2.68m (107in)

2.43m (97in)

(Low cab option)

Machine width1.76m (70in)1.85m (74in)

Above: Kramer wheeled loaders are popular with livestock farmers who work in and around tight building complexes. This mid-range 320 model is the German firms best seller in the UK. Right: Wheeled loader strength – what Kramer lacks in reach, it makes up for with visibility. New 20-series cabin is big improvement over long-in-the-tooth tin box forebear.

Double universal joints between half-shaft and hub enable wheels to turn at 45í to chassis.

Left: Loader joystick sits over low pressure hydraulic valve block which, in turn, operates main high pressure chest – a system inherited from industrial-spec machines. Red button on top of stick engages front and rear diff locks. Right: Lifting curved rear hood exposes air/oil-cooled Deutz engine, mounted across the machine and at an angle. Both engine incline and swept profile improve rearward visibility and daily check access.