This guide focuses on the wheel loader, a piece of machinery that is crucial to many construction, aggregate, timber, agricultural, industrial and municipal activities. It is highly functional in all of these applications because of numerous front-end attachments — from buckets to grapples to blades. The Buyers Guide can help you examine wheel loader and attachment options and determine which of the tools is right for you.
The wheel loader traces its heritage to the introduction 65 years ago of a scoop situated at the back-end of an ag tractor next to the larger rear wheels. The operator platform of the tractor was reversed so the operator looked down on the one-ton capacity bucket. The positioning of the bucket over the larger wheels gave the loader more capacity and digging force. The new machine was an innovation by a precursor company of Volvo Group, which has gone on to produce many generations of wheel loaders.
Today’s market offers a sweeping range of wheel loaders, with the smallest weighing about a ton, with a 20-hp diesel engine capable of lifting 1,800 lbs. The compact models are perfect for landscapers and homeowners. The largest wheel loader is a LaTourneau monster that weighs 260 tons and draws upon a 2,300-hp engine to lift 160,000 lbs. 24 ft. in the air. This machine is reserved for aggregate applications. The Buyers Guide focuses on small and mid-range models that can meet the routine needs of property owners and general contractors.
Because numerous manufacturers offer wheel loaders, your choices are many. You owe it to yourself to become well-versed on the piece of equipment before you invest in it. Some criteria to consider:
How will you employ the wheel loader?
If you are a general contractor with a fleet of equipment and a specific repetitive task in mind, you know what model of machine you need. For everyone else, some consideration of tasks is in order. How will you use a wheel loader? You should make a list of probable applications and rank them by how often they will recur. Will you blade more than scoop? Blow snow more often than lift bales? For optimal performance of any task, several factors come into play including horsepower, weight, hydraulic flow, and configuration. Shop for a machine that will best suit your work.
Weigh features and capacities of individual machines.
If productivity is a make-or-break need, your wheel loader should be configured to that end. Loading dump trucks? Get a larger wheel loader with an engine and bucket capable of topping off a load in no more than three passes. Routinely performing different tasks in the course of a day? Get a smaller, more versatile loader with a quicker ground speed that will save time moving from job site to job site. With the variety of wheel loaders offered today, a buyer can closely tailor a purchase.
Weigh brand and dealership considerations.
Some manufacturers of heavy equipment are iconic — John Deere, Caterpillar, Volvo, Komatsu, etc. — and achieved such status from decades of turning out high-quality machinery. Confidence in their equipment is well-placed. On the other hand, numerous less well-known brands build equally functional and dependable machines and oftentimes at a lower price. If you know what you are looking for in a wheel loader, shop around. It is easy enough to determine if a manufacturer and its dealers stand solidly behind their products. If machine quality, reputation and warranties all align with your expectations, the color and nameplate of a wheel loader are secondary.Back to top ↑
Renting or leasing a wheel loader is a relatively worry-free method of acquiring a needed machine. Yet if it does not function adequately, your money will be wasted. Some things to consider:
Many reputable rental companies, national and local, carry these portable pieces of equipment in their inventory, usually stocking market-leading brands. Two general rules of thumb:
Get the right size and configuration.
Dealers and equipment rental houses typically stock the more popular sizes of wheel loaders. What the rental yard professional needs from you is how you intend to use the rented or leased machine. Plan to fine-grade a building lot? You’ll need GPS blade control on the bucket. Digging in virgin soil? You’ll need sufficient breakout force. Working in tight quarters? You may need an articulated model. This always is true: You will be frustrated if you rent a loader with insufficient power and hydraulic flow. On the other hand, renting one with power to burn will be a waste of money. Work with your rental agent to get a suitable machine.
Know your project and operator skill level.
If the rented wheel loader is to be operated by a professional, talk with the operator about preferred cab controls and other features. Unless the operator is accommodated, productivity may suffer. On the other hand, if a non-professional will be at the controls, realistically evaluate the person’s ability to run the machine. Whether scooping gravel, pushing snow or hauling bales, a wheel loader will only function efficiently if the operator is up to the task. If a job is too complex for an operator, the machine cannot make up the difference.Back to top ↑
Because wheel loaders have been around for more than half a century, new models are reliable and used machines are everywhere. Prices depend on size, brand and market demand. Hereafter are some examples of pricing.
New Wheel Loaders
Used Wheel Loaders
Rental Or Leasing Costs
Prices are determined by local demand for wheel loaders and the volume of rental competition in an area. An online survey suggests the rental price for a mid-size (3-4-cu. yd.) loader ranges widely — from $500 to $900 a day, $1,700 to $2,700 a week, and $4,900 to $7,000 a month. Some rental companies give corporate and fleet customers a lower rate. Equipment rental sources include independent and national rental houses as well as heavy equipment dealerships.
Some Financing Options
Heavy equipment is expensive, which is why part of any sales promotion is about financing the investment. Leasing a machine with an option to buy lowers front-end costs for customers wanting ownership of a loader. Some dealers and manufacturers offer sales deals with 0 percent financing for up to 48 months. If owning a wheel loader outright is your choice, companies have structured programs to make it happen.Back to top ↑
The volume and pressure of hydraulic fluid pumped through a wheel loader’s system regulates what it can accomplish. Flow is measured in gallons per minute (gpm). Many manufacturers offer standard and optional high-flow hydraulic systems. A standard flow (17 to 24 gpm) system will operate buckets and grapples. High-flow systems (30 to 40 gpm) with higher pounds-per-square-inch ratings are needed to run more demanding attachments, such as mulchers and snow blowers. While standard flow hydraulics sometime will give the semblance of operating hi-flow attachments, performance will be disappointing. Know what hydraulic flow you will require.
Buckets are the most common attachment on a wheel loader so knowing the capacity of your loader is important. Capacity usually is rated in cubic yards — the equivalent of material piled a yard high, yard wide and yard deep — or, roughly, nine wheelbarrow loads. Subcompact loaders are limited to a cubic yard of material or less. Compact machines typically can lift two or three cubic yards, while midsize and larger loaders can lift up to 20 cubic yards or more. Bucket size is determined by engine output, hydraulic flow capacity and machine weight. Get a loader with the capacity you need.
Wheel loaders have lift heights commensurate with their size and weight. Compact loaders are designed for relatively short lifts (raising potted plants onto a trailer, loading pallets, hauling and dumping dirt). Larger loaders can extend over the sides of dump trucks, reach high shelving, or lift long upright materials into position. It follows that smaller machines generally can raise a bucket 8 to 10 feet into the air with midsize units going up 12 to 14 feet. Bigger loaders can reach up 25 feet or more. Make sure your loader can lift its arms high enough to perform your desired tasks.
Two types of attachment linkages dominate wheel loaders — Z-bar and parallel-lift. The Z-bar has been around longest and is the simplest and most common system for bucket work. It enhances the breakout digging force of a machine. Whereas the parallel-lift system gives operators greater visibility and fine-tuned control during a lift. This means a parallel-lift loader is better for fork and grapple work such as handling pallets. Once again, how you will be using the wheel loader will determine which linkage system is best for you. Some hybrids of the systems also are offered.
Rigid or Articulated
Fixed-frame loaders can do everything flexible-framed loaders can do — but not as nimbly. An articulated loader has a pivot joint in the middle allowing it to “bend” in cornering, thus reducing the turning radius compared to a rigid-framed machine. Some manufacturers offer all-wheel-steering, which lets the rear wheels on a loader turn in tandem with the front wheels. This also reduces the turning radius, at some small cost in stability. If your work site does not require tight turns, the more complex systems are not a factor in your choice of machine.Back to top ↑
Most wheel loaders are employed as material handlers — that is, moving pallets or scooping up aggregate — so buckets and forks are the primary attachments. Other tools can be coupled to the lifting arms of loaders. Specialty tools include sweepers and booms. Staple attachments are adapted to different applications.
These come in many sizes and configurations, including all-purpose, 4-in-1, side-dump, high-dump, ejector, mulch, sand spreader, boxer bucket and gravel scoop. Each meets the demands of a particular bucketing job.
These two-pronged tools were developed to slip between surfaces of a pallet on an unloading dock, in a warehouse, on a job site. Variations include a car body fork with extra long tines to cradle and lift junk car bodies in salvage yards.
These grab an object being lifted and release it at the drop point. They are ideal for irregularly shaped objects such as boulders. Variations include ones configured for logs, pipeline materials, and landfill garbage (mated to a bucket).
These simple push tools are not for digging, but for spreading or clearing away material. Popular models include hydraulic reversal models, one-way plows, high-speed, snow, extendable and V-shaped.
To speed exchange of attachments, quick-couplers have been engineered for wheel loaders. After-market manufacturers have developed universal couplers as well as specialty couplers to mate a loader with an existing inventory of attachments.Back to top ↑
This Wisconsin equipment manufacturer dates from 1842 and introduced the industry’s first tractor backhoe loader in 1957. Today, it offers seven full-size G Series wheel loaders and four F Series compact wheel loaders. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Case →
First called a “Traxcavator,” Cat’s first wheel loader, the 944, was offered in 1959. That four-cylinder, rear-wheel steered model with a 2 cubic-yard bucket has evolved into a line of nine compact loaders and 40 full-size or large models. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Caterpillar →
Founded in Seoul, Korea in 1896, the Doosan Group acquired Daewoo Machinery in 2005 and its wheel loaders. The company’s Doosan Infracore division continues to develop its equipment line and today markets 12 full-size wheel loaders. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Doosan →
Another Korean company, Hyundai Motor Group was established in 1967. The Hyundai Construction Equipment division offers 18 full-size 900 Series wheel loaders ranging in horsepower from 156 to 376. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Hyundai →
In 1969, this British manufacturer acquired another British firm that produced wheel loaders. It entered the compact wheel loader market in 1987 with its 408 articulated model. Today, it sells 14 models in construction and agricultural markets. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from JCB →
Founded in 1837, Deere built its first tractor in 1918 in Illinois and began to turn out heavy equipment in 1974. Today, Deere manufactures 16 wheel loaders ranging from a 61-hp compact to a 536-hp hybrid model. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from John Deere →
In 1962, Kawasaki introduced an articulated wheel loader. In 2016, the Japanese firm was acquired by Hitachi Construction Machinery. Today, Hitachi offers 12 models, from a 46-hp compact unit to a 512-hp loader with a 9-cubic yard bucket. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Hitachi →
The Japanese company’s roots go back to 1917. It introduced its wheel loaders in 1965. The company markets eight mid-size and large wheel loaders and three models for mining, including a 1,765-hp machine with a 45-cubic yard bucket. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Komatsu →
The history of this Japanese firm goes back to 1890. It began building construction equipment in 1953. The company offers five compact wheel loaders in the U.S. market, ranging from a 46-hp 4-ton unit to a 64-hp 5-ton model. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Kubota →
In post-World War II Germany, Liebherr got its start building cranes and remains a leader in that industry. It eventually entered the wheel loader market and today markets eight midsize and larger models, the largest being a 348-hp unit. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Liebherr →
The Japanese firm launched in 1963 and eventually pioneered in the mini-excavator and compact track loader markets. Today, it offers five models of compact and small wheel loaders, the largest being a 114-hp model Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Takeuchi →
In Sweden in 1932, a root company of Volvo was founded. Some 120 years later, Volvo built one of the first wheel loaders. In 2019, Volvo markets six compact wheel loaders and 11 larger models. The smallest is a 64-hp machine. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Volvo →
Dating to 1848 in Germany, Wacker Neuson markets three types of wheel loaders: It offers seven articulated models (from 49 to 102 hp) and four all-wheel-steer units—plus three telescopic wheel loaders. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Wacker Neuson →
Begun in 1912, the company has been a leader in compact excavator development. It also offers four articulated wheel loader models, the smallest a 41-hp unit and the largest a 100-hp, 7.5-ton model. Click here to see Wheel Loaders currently for sale from Yanmar →Back to top ↑