What to look for when buying a used high-hp four-cylinder tractor

Demand has been steadily growing for high-horsepowered four-pot tractors. We run through the good, bad and ugly of three second-hand options from Claas, Valtra and John Deere.

Ten years ago the biggest four-cylinder tractor you could buy hovered around the 140hp mark.

Now that figure stands closer to 170hp as manufacturers push the boundaries in squeezing ever more muscle out of their frugal four-pots.

If manouevrability and a light footprint are your key concern then this makes sense, but of course there are trade-offs. 

The inherent deficiency in cubic capacity means these smaller motors can’t generate the same levels of torque you’d get from a six-cylinder and their shorter chassis and reduced bulk means they sometimes struggle for traction.

See also: Driver’s view: Valtra’s 170hp T163e

However punchy four-pots have still gained in popularity, often because they can work out cheaper than equivalent six-potters horsepower-for-horsepower.

The knock-on effect of that is there are some decent second-hand deals to be had if you look in the right places. Here are three examples:

Claas Arion 540 CIS

arion

Topping out Claas’ four-cylinder 500-series Arion range in 2010, the 540 was rated at 135hp but would boost to 155hp on the road. Power was provided by a 4.5-litre Deere motor which used EGR and a variable geometry turbo to meet the emissions rules at the time (more on that later).

Arions were supplied most commonly in two different spec levels – CIS and CEBIS. The first had mechanical spools, the latter came with electronic valves and a console-mounted computer.

Transmission-wise there wasn’t too much to pick from – all had the six-step semi-powershift Hexashift box shared with Massey (known as Dyna-6). However, speccing a 500 with a 50kph box brought with it front axle suspension and air-brakes as a matter of course.

110-litre/min load-sensing hydraulics were standard, making these small-framed four-pots attractive to those users planning on running a loader. On that front, lime-green-liveried MX jibs were Claas’ partner of choice, and the hydraulic self-levelling FL120 was the most common fitment.

What to check

The Deere power-plant rarely gives trouble and if there is anything amiss it’ll generally throw up an error-code on the dash.

On earlier models, the linkage for the variable geometry turbo can get slack – give it a wobble to assess the wear. Sorting it involves fitting a reconditioned turbo which will cost around £1,490 and take three to four hours.

The exhaust has a weakness at its base where it turns through 90deg at the bottom of the cab pillar. To replace it will take a couple of hours and the new stack costs £687.25.

Run the tractor up and down the road a few times to get the gearbox warm and work through every powershift step. If shuttling is particularly jolty then there’s no immediate need to panic – just get a dealer to do a transmission calibration sequence.

This will generally iron out any jolty shuttling or shifting. If the gearbox won’t calibrate then there could be bigger gremlins lurking within.

One tell-tale sign of an issue is to drop right down to first gear – A1 – and with the shuttle engaged dip the clutch. If there’s any sign of the tractor creeping forward then it could be that the Belville washers within the clutch-packs are beginning to crack up. Resolving that issue requires splitting the tractor – a good 20-hour job.

As regards brakes, listen out for any scrunching sounds and hydraulic filter lights on the dash. It’s just a single disc each side so pulling off the trumpet housings isn’t too big a task.

New discs are £113.52 per side and the job will probably take around eight hours to complete, possibly less if the tractor’s got simple cable-operated spools.

While concentrating on the transaxle, look at the underside of the outer ends of the trumpet housings.

When new there was a bung which should be removed at each 500-hour service to allow a nipple to be fitted and grease pumped in for the outer half-shaft bearing. Most workshops will leave these in place to make regular greasing an easier task.

Also on the back-end, linkage drop-rod turnbuckles have a tendency to wear and seize up. A complete unit is £166.62 to change so it’s often cheaper to do a new-for-old swap rather than trying to make good what’s there.

What to pay

As an example, this 2010 Arion 540 CIS with 2,800 hours on the clock and 60% tyres was advertised for £40,000. Depending on spec and condition expect to pay anywhere from £34,000 upwards for a similarly low-houred machine. Over 5,000 hours you’ll see values drop down into the mid twenties.

With quick-attach Mach hydraulics and self-levelling, the loader adds £3,000-£4,000 and the 50kph package a further £2,000-£2,500.

Valtra N163 Direct

valtra

Valtra was the company that lead the field with seriously punchy four-pots. Back in 2003 the Finnish firm launched what it proclaimed to be the world’s most powerful four-cylinder tractor – the 147hp M150.

But the M-series’ lifespan was to be cut short – it was competing for favour with at least three other models in the Valtra line-up and was the most expensive by a fair stretch. Three years down the line it was elbowed out by the N-series.

That 90-150hp line-up proved very popular with loader users in particular. In 2012 it underwent its third revamp with the top-end N163 flagship once more staking its claim as the pokiest four-pot on the market, capable of delivering up to 171hp under boost.

Four different transmissions were available – the full stick-shift three-step splitter HiTech, five-speed semi-powershift HiTech5, Versu five-speed powershift with powered range changes and fully stepless Direct CVT.

Generally, being higher spec, the latter two got load-sensing hydraulics while the more basic gearboxes came with standard open centre systems. 

What to check

Third generation N-series (those model numbers ending in a ‘3’) underwent a recall programme for the structural sump which could crack. The rear crankshaft oil seal would sometimes spin in the casting, developing a leak, too.

Most tractors were modified but it’s worth checking the serial number with a Valtra dealer to confirm the work was done.

As an indicator, the older sump had just four threaded bolt holes for attaching a loader at the end nearest the cab, while the replacement had six. The parts don’t cost much, but the labour stretches to 40-45 hours as it’s a case of splitting the tractor.

Another recall item was the alternator mounting brackets, which could bend and shear bolts and cause the belt to start slipping. All N-series should have been modified but it’s another thing to check with the dealer.

On early versions the gel in the Borg Warner viscous fan hub could dry out and the tractor could overheat if it wasn’t spotted. Get it up to temperature and check the fan spins – generally an error code on the armrest screen will indicate an issue. A new-type Horton hub unit is £700 and will take two to three hours to fit.

The back-end can have a tendency to overheat on tractors with electronic spool valves but this isn’t generally a major issue. It is usually caused by sticky rear fender buttons that cause the hydraulics to run in constant pumping. Changing the switch usually solves the problem.

It’s a similar story with the cab fan speed switch. The variable resistor can fail – a replacement costs £25-£30.

First appearances can be misleading with the N-series – the paintwork wasn’t the best and the lacquer had a tendency to peel. Don’t take that as a sign that the tractor has been neglected.

What to pay

A 2014 N163 Direct with stepless CVT gearbox and 3,500 hours on the clock would have retailed for just shy of £65,000 new. Two years later, it’s on the forecourt for £38,500 with 50% tyres.

A Versu powershift equivalent with 2,300 hours under its belt, 70% tyres and Quicke loader is £45,000. 

In contrast a 2011 N142 of similar spec with less than 1,000 hours on the clock is closer to £50,000.

Stick-shift HiTech gearboxes don’t generally come in any cheaper second-hand, because they’re popular with operators looking for a simple no-frills machine.

115-litre/min load-sensing hydraulics were standard and the 160-litre/min optional pump upgrade wasn’t that common. There’s rarely a requirement for it and so it hardly adds anything to second-hand values.

John Deere 6534

john deere

John Deere’s 6534 is something of an unusual beast and probably one of the company’s best kept secrets. The model number isn’t a typo – that extra ‘4’ is very deliberate and indicates the tractor is a four-cylinder version of the more standard six-pot 6530.

It’s a slightly strange concept – a short block perched at the front end of a long chassis tractor. It is rated at 125hp but maxes out at 131hp, and has the beefier backend of bigger six-cylinder models so in theory is stronger.

The idea was to produce a lighter-weight (and cheaper) machine with the same dimensions as the standard six-pots, adding stability and traction.

Where it found its niche was with operators performing work where power and torque weren’t necessarily the prime issue but a well-planted footprint was – hedge-trimming or working with a mounted sprayer.

However, the obvious downside was that it lost the key advantage of most four-pots – manouevrability – and it lacked the low end grunt of a six-cylinder. That means it doesn’t have the kerb appeal of its more standard cousins, potentially making it a good second-hand bargain.

What to check

The only difference from the rest of the 30-series is the big void between the back of the block and the transmission, with an elongated prop shaft the spanning the gap, so the 6534 didn’t have any specific issues.

Like other models, the TLS front-axle suspension can be prone to wear if it hasn’t been greased on a regular basis.

If you’re not in a position to jack it up, grab hold of the front of the tractor and rock it side-to-side. If there is a clunking sound then it’s likely the bushes in the ends of the Panhard rod that links it all together have got some slack in them. Replacements will cost £??? and it’s a ???-hour job to sort.

Engines can have a few issues, most of which will come up as error codes on either the dash or CommandCenter computer. The exhaust gas recirculation valve (EGR) and its cooler can fail – each costs £300-£350 and will take two to three hours to change.

Don’t worry if the engine sounds clattery when it starts from cold. This is normal and is a result of pilot injections going into the cylinders to bring the block up to running temperature as quickly as possible.

However, if it stays running rough when warm then there could be injector issues – generally indicated with a fault code. A full set is around £1,000 and will take about four hours to swap over.

Once over the 5,000-hour mark, the 30-series head gasket can sometimes fail. Look at the coolant hose joints for evidence of leakage where the system has pressurised and expanded.

With the tractor up to temperature, squeeze the top radiator hose to make sure it isn’t under pressure. It’ll generally cost around £2,000 to put right but check with a dealer to see if the tractor is eligible for repair under Deere’s recall programme.

As ever with green and yellow tractors, around at the backend the key thing to look out for is slack in the linkage rock-shaft (the splined top cross-shaft that links left and right lift rams).

Grab hold of a link-arm and lift it as high as it’ll go. Then push down on it and watch the opposite arm rise. If it’s got more than an inch or so of movement then it will shortly require replacement or at least re-bushing.

A new shaft, arms and bushes will set you back £1,500 and will take about eight hours to change. It’ll take just as long to re-bush but the parts come in closer to £200.  

What to pay

Like other 30-series Deeres, the 6534 came in two different spec levels – ‘Standard’ and ‘Premium’. Generally the former is less common and will come in £2,500-£3,000 cheaper than the latter.

Recently a 2010 6534 Premium model with 3,000 hours on the clock and a 50kph gearbox sold with a six-month warranty for £36,000.

At the other end of the spectrum a bog-basic Standard version with all-mechanical Power Reverser synchro-gearbox (very unusual) but a very low 1,900 hours under its belt recently changed hands for under £26,500.

That big difference in pricing reflects the tractor’s fixed displacement hydraulics, non-powered brakes, uncommon gearbox and the lack of TLS front axle suspension. Front linkage probably helped to bolster the value by £1,000-£1,500.

Obvious stuff

With any used tractor the single biggest factor affecting second-hand values is tyre condition, size and brand. That’s important to bear in mind, because a new set of rubber for a tractor of this size could easily stretch to over £5,000.

Next up, second-hand buyers generally opt for a tractor with front axle suspension – it’ll add £2,000-£2,500 to the price.

Front linkage pushes the total up by £1,000-£1,500 and it’s a similar amount for a pto.

50kph gearboxes are generally more sought after but need to be accompanied by air-brakes and front axle braking.

A known service history will add a great deal of peace of mind, if not extra value to the price-tag.


Thanks to the team at Valtra dealer Wilfred Scruton, John Deere dealer Masons Kings and Claas dealer Western Harvesters.