A new breed The future of shiftless transmissions and electronic controls in a higher speed tractor has arrived. It comes at a price, which some farmers already can justify.

What is being billed as the single most important development in tractor transmissions during this century is now ready for Midwest agriculture, and it's wearing an unfamiliar shade of green.

>From the land of Mercedes and BMW engineering and craftsmanship comes the Fendt tractor - an AGCO-owned, German-born tractor that is beckoning technology-loving farmers to "experience the future in technology, comfort, efficiency and service support."

Farm Industry News first reported on this high-tech tractor and its revolutionary continuously variable transmission (CVT) and joystick controls before AGCO's purchase in 1997. Since then, the tractor line has been reengineered to fit Midwest row crops and other farming practices.

Elite reputation. To get the full story and experience this technology, we accompanied AGCO executives and 40 North American equipment dealers to southern Germany in October. While there, we were given full access to all three manufacturing plants that build this tractor and all its parts. And we attended Fendt's Euro-pean dealer product launch of this new line.

After cutting through the hype, it became clear that Fendt employees - from management through line workers - share a dedication for building the top-selling tractor in Germany. Although Fendt only produces approximately 12,000 tractors per year, it makes all the components, from gears and hydraulics to cabs, rather than outsourcing them - which is practically unheard of today in North America. And we witnessed many line employees constantly measuring parts to ensure quality control down to the nanometer.

Such craftsmanship has built Fendt an elite reputation in and outside its homeland, forged by strong customer support and service from its dealers. European dealers say that farmers who own a Fendt are viewed as being very successful, even by their peers. Sales growth continues to beat the competition despite a 15 to 20% premium price. And this reputation extends beyond new; Fendt resale prices are higher than those of any other tractor in Europe.

Visual advantage. In an age where one tractor brand's features seem to blur into those of the next brand, differentiation is becoming harder to recognize, especially if you can't see the actual advantages of a unique feature. Fendt is attempting to add focus to this blur through its use of innovative, hands-on interactive displays at trade shows, such as an actual driving simulator, a real plexiglass-covered transmission that shows how CVT works, and an interactive joystick training module.

The lineup. Fendt, with 70 years of experience in tractor design and manufacturing, will market nine tractors from its 400, 700 and 900 series in North America, ranging from 72 to 240 PTO hp.

Prices will range from $63,400 for the smallest basic 409 model with tires, up to $177,000 for the largest model 926 fully loaded, including duals, front PTO and Power Lift.

The technology. Although the new technology features are many, here's a look at the highlights.

Transmission. The CVT combines the efficiency of a power-shift transmission with the advantages of a stepless variable drive. The hydraulic drive unit consists of a hydraulic pump and one or two hydraulic motors (two for the 900 series) with a unique displacement angle of 45 degrees. As the joystick is moved forward, the initial power comes from the hydrostatic section, which then gradually switches to mechanical as speed is increased.

The complete travel speed range, from 0 to 31 mph, is accomplished by just two ranges (field and road). And to go in reverse, you simply pull the joystick back, which swings the hydraulic motors out in the opposite direction, eliminating power-draining mechanical forward/reverse shifting.

Powerplant. Moving the transmission on the 400 and 700 series tractors is a new 4-valve, 4- or 6-cyl. (3.8-liter and 5.7-liter, respectively) 2013 series Deutz diesel engine, designed specifically for the Fendt line. The manufacturer claims that the engine's advantages include superb pulling power created by 35% torque increase and constant power output, 0 to 31 mph in 10 sec., high fuel efficiency, low operating costs, long life and quiet running.

The larger 900 series features a 6-cyl., 7-liter MAN turbo diesel. This renowned heavy-duty powerplant features new Bosch high-pressure injection technology that results in reduced fuel consumption and up to a 40% torque increase. It, too, can reach top speed in 10 sec.

Joystick. Controlling everything with one hand will take practice, but the joystick's many functions are designed to increase performance and efficiency. Along with the "push for forward, pull for backwards" action, a side switch gives you four ranges of slow to rapid acceleration. A quick tap of the joystick toward you changes direction from forward to reverse by first decelerating, which can greatly reduce time necessary for frequent maneuvers. A quick tap away from you kicks in the cruise control to hold a constant speed no matter the load or road/field condition. And it also can be customized to operate hydraulics and PTOs.

For front loader operation, a cross-gate knob next to the joystick offers easy and precise control of the two remote functions with one lever. And a thumb button on the side can control a third operation such as a grapple fork.

Touch screen terminal. On-screen, the driver can program all remote hydraulic flow rate and actuation time settings for 3-pt. lifts and the cross-gate lever and configure the transmission ratios, the automatic maximum output settings (by adjusting speed to engine load to optimize fuel consumption), and cruise control values. All these numbers can be locked into memory by job task (hauling, cultivating, etc.) to ease future use.

Other Fendt features include 4-wd, a 31-mph chassis with heavy-duty cast half frame, premium Michelin tires, an integrated cab and front axle suspension with shock load stabilizing, improved driver environment and control ergonomics, and lower operating and maintenance costs due to fuel savings and longer service intervals.

The challenge. AGCO has had the reputation of not keeping pace with its competitors in implementing high technology in its tractors. So the big question is, Can AGCO and its dealers take a successful high-tech tractor and European customer-focused philosophy and make it work in the states?

"We have selected 40 AGCO dealers in specific geographic areas that are emotionally committed to carry the Fendt line," says AGCO's Kevin Bien, general marketing manager for the Fendt brand.

"We are making a significant investment to help dealers create a higher level of service, parts and support to make Fendt succeed." The company is offering a free warranty and checkup every 250 hrs. for the first three years.

"We're also adding eight highly trained Fendt product specialists to work with dealers and customers. This group spent almost three months in Germany to experience the product inside and out, even spending time on the assembly line," Bien adds. "They are key to our dealer support, making sure interested customers understand the unique technology that Fendt offers. We want to create a close kinship between the customer and the dealer.

"We're taking an unorthodox approach," Bien says. "This is a sophisticated product, and our dealers and product specialists will spend days with a potential customer until he is comfortable with all aspects of the machine. We won't just drop it off and leave after 15 minutes."

AGCO knows not everyone can own a Fendt. If you don't like learning advanced technology, this isn't the tractor for you. But if you are comfortable with new technology and seek efficiencies, this is a machine worth checking out.

To view the first Midwest showing of the Fendt line, complete with all innovative product displays, visit the AGCO booth at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, KY, February 16 through 19. For more information, contact AGCO Corp., Dept. FIN, 4205 River Green Pkwy., Duluth, GA 30096, 770/813-9200.