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View from the cab

PLANTHIRE

BOBCAT'S 444 is an interest ing concept ? it combines all the usual mini excavator features including a reduced tailswing, dozer blade, rubber tracks and boom offset from the king post in a machine that competes with traditional full-sized excavators.

The weight sector from 11-14 tonnes is probably the largest in terms of sales volumes and is the most competitive in the UK, so it will be interesting to see just how the Bobcat 444 performs against more mainstream competition.

Will its performance match more traditional excavators and can the additional features justify the inevitable price premium?

It has become relatively easy to justify short tailswing on the grounds of safety, in addition to the advantage of easier access to t ight spots. Rubbert racks have now proved their durability and performance on a variety of surfaces but have yet to become more widely accepted on heavier, mainstream machines. Blades, too, have become more useful attachments giving additional stability and easing levelling up when excavat ing. They also provide a fast and effective means of backfilling and grading.

Perhaps the key feature of the machine is the boom offset. It complements the short tailswing for access to restricted areas and has become an essential feature on mini excavators.

There are trade-offs. While ground level reach is in line with similar sized excavators, because of the forward-mounted boom on the kingpost, the digging depth is around 25 per cent less and the bucket capacity reduced by about 15-20 per cent .

But for many users the versatility will more than compensate because rarely are excavators required to constantly dig to full depth.

Machine styling is bold and the livery unmistakably Bobcat with an easy step up to the cab. It is a funct ional interior. A fully adjustable suspension seat has two-position lumbar support, which I found extremely comfortable.

Instrumentation and system warning lights can be found to the right, and these are clear and easy to read. Allround vision is excellent, in particular to the front offside, with the boom mounted forward on the kingpost.

The all-servo controls are light and responsive with conveniently placed and long lower arm supports. This helps to make the machine comfortable enough to perform smooth multiple functions, to return fast cycle times.

The 444 remains stable throughout the 360 deg slew even at full reach and when offset. However, the view through the offside window when offset to the left is a little restricted.

Our tests set out to establish the potential for loading and excavating while recording fuel use. Ground conditions were not arduous until we reached full depth when trenching, where we encountered shale. The Bobcat performed well, turning in smooth and consistent cycle times, although the small bucket capacity affected output.

On the backfill test the Bobcat displayed ample power and traction to ably demonstrate the value of the blade. However, in contrast to the digging controls, the track drive levers and blade control were not so conveniently positioned. Track drive levers were f limsy and had far too much travel to operate comfortably with one hand and the blade control lever was too far forward.

Switching to the optional foot pedals for the track drive only exaggerated the poor positioning of the blade lever, added to which the two-speed tracking switch was inconveniently mounted on the instrument panel and would be better placed either on the blade control or the track drive levers.

But it is not all bad. The travel warning bleeper that operates in both forward and reverse directions can be switched off to preserve the sanity of the operator.

Service access is good with generous-sized, gas strut supported covers allowing plenty of access. But the side location of the engine and the positioning of the control valves and hydraulic tank make for some tortuous hose runs.

The overall impression is of ruggedness and simplicity in design, in particular the use of spherical bearings in the cylinder ends to relieve side loads on the hydraulic cylinders.

Standard specification includes two additional hydraulic service ports, one to run either a double acting attachment such as an earth drill or a single act ing at tachment like a hydraulic breaker. The second service can be used to provide power for clamshell operation with a hydraulic rotator.

Boom and blade anti-drop valves and an overload indicator for lifting operations are also a standard fit.

The Bobcat 444 is a straightforward machine ? no electronics, no mode selector, and not even auto idle. But it bristles with good operational features, which many hirers and contractors will appreciate. It's just missing the optional bucket quick coupler and air conditioning to make it a near-perfect, standard specification mid-range machine.