Buying a great forklift isn't simple. Every forklift manufacturer backs their own models but different industries have their own specific requirements influencing the ideal choice of material handling equipment.
How are you supposed to choose between lift truck brands? Aside from lifting capacity, the power source is a major consideration as electric forklifts have very different characteristics to diesel or propane gas models. Maneuverability, range of available accessories and attachments, and the availability of parts also need to be taken into account.
Here's a rundown of the top forklift brands currently available. Consider the pros and cons carefully to ensure you make the right choice.
The 6 Best Forklift Manufacturers & Forklift Companies
#1 Best Forklift Brand Overall - Toyota
Toyota is certainly one of the best known and largest global forklift brands but, as the best sellers in the USA since 2002, what puts them at the very top of the list for companies in North America specifically?
There are several factors, of which the range of forklifts available and level of customer service are the most telling.
For pricing, see our Toyota forklift price guide.
Range of Equipment
Toyota produces a staggering range of vehicles and other mechanical equipment. Confining our discussion to the material handling industry, their range covers everything from simple pallet trucks for small warehouses to high-capacity forklifts suitable for even the biggest construction jobs.
All three major power plants (electric, LPG, and diesel) are well represented. Toyota's electric forklift line has models with capacities from 2500lbs up to 12000lbs, designed primarily for warehouse and other indoor operations. Their mid-size range of LPG lift trucks (available in cushion-tire or pneumatic-tire models) goes up to 17500lbs. Whereas, some of their industrial diesel models are rated for enormous loads over 120000lbs.
Toyota's "360 Support" approach highlights the company's focus on customer service. They offer extended warranties, excellently planned maintenance contracts, and certified repairs using only genuine parts and Toyota-certified technicians. There's even a Toyota Mobile Service app so you can view offers and other key information on the move.
#2 Best Diesel Forklifts - Hyster Yale
Part of the Hyster Yale group (of global renown in the manufacturing sector), Hyster is a North America-based manufacturer for a wide range of material handling equipment. The company started out producing machinery for the logging industry in the 1920s and was one of the first brands to embrace forklift technology.
For me, it's the diesel forklifts from Hyster that really stand out.
This is due to a set of features designed to get more versatility and productivity out of their Yanmar and Kubota diesel engines than any other manufacturer.
Variable Power Technology
This innovative system provides several options for operating parameters, based on balancing performance with fuel economy. The operator can switch between modes instantly depending on individual jobs, changing the characteristics of the forklift to suit the task. For example, when moving from a flat, smooth concrete surface onto rough terrain, the driver will be able to prioritize torque.
Designed to maximize both the safety and service life of the vehicle, Dura-Match comprises several handy functions. The Auto-Deceleration System provides engine braking when the accelerator pedal is released, reducing the need for braking and wear on the brakes. The same technology also provides controlled rollback on ramps and other sloping surfaces, as well as managed power reversals.
Simultaneously smoothing out the movement of the truck and preventing engine damage is a big win-win overall.
#3 Best Electric Forklift Brand - Jungheinrich Group
Well-known forklift manufacturers the Jungheinrich Group do also produce some fairly impressive diesel and LPG fork trucks for the global market, the electric-powered end of the market is where the company really shines, with its EFG range of counterbalanced electric lifts being some of the best in the world.
Motor and Battery Performance
The keywords on these impressive electric vehicles are performance and energy efficiency, a balance made possible by a combination of 3-phase electric motors and regenerative braking systems. Even when fitted with lead-acid batteries, Jungheinrich electric forklifts can run for up to 16 hours (two whole shifts!) between charges.
Once fitted with modern lithium-ion batteries, this duration is further extended by over 20%. Moreover, charging times are also considerably shorter with Li-ion technology and they don't require the same regular maintenance as their more old-fashioned counterparts.
Depending on the required load capacity and operating environment, there are several excellent models in the EFG range from the Jungheinrich group. For light materials handling in the warehousing and distribution sector, the EFG 110-115 series are maneuverable, just over 3ft wide, and can still carry over 3000lbs. At the other end of the scale, the models in the 535-S50 range have lifting capacities up to 11000lbs and still manage to remain energy efficient thanks to the patented PureEnergy technology.
#4 Best Propane Powered Forklifts - Clark Material Handling
North American material handling specialists, Clark, currently have over half a million forklifts operating around the world, around half of which are in the USA.
They offer a full range of electric, LPG, and diesel lifts, in addition to basic pallet jacks and stackers.
I'm singling out their LPG (propane) models for special consideration, owing to the versatility of the range and suitability for businesses in the manufacturing industry as well as warehousing and distribution.
Performance and Specifications
Clark Material Handling partners with quality engine brands for their forklift powerplant needs, using Hyundai for their smaller LPG models including the Gen2 series, and General Motors for the heavier-duty C series LPG models. The same care and attention goes into all of their other components, with each model being kitted out to ideal specifications for its intended applications.
The C60 series forklifts, for example, use wet disc brakes, a 3-speed "smart-shift" transmission, and one of the toughest chassis designs of any comparable vehicle, making for a rugged and high-performance machine for outdoors construction jobs.
Durability and Protection
Performance is nothing without reliability, and Clark has put an equal effort into keeping their forklifts up and running. Best-in-class engine and powertrain protection, with performance reporting and an automatic shut-down feature that cuts off the engine if temperatures or pressures deviate from an acceptable range, help prevent any minor mechanical issues from becoming major headaches.
The transmission components are also all designed to be especially hard-wearing, and shift protection helps ensure smooth gear changes to minimize grinding.
See our Clark forklift reviews page for more details.
#5 Best Forklifts for Heavy Operations - CAT
Industrial forklifts are a rather specialized market. These machines need the power and physical resilience to handle enormous loads, which can cause extra headaches for any manufacturer.
The top forklift in this category is not necessarily the most powerful.
That crown goes to the mighty Kalmar DCG720-10LB, with a jaw-dropping lifting capacity of over 140,000lbs but, for all but the very largest construction projects, that is probably unnecessary. Something in the 25,000-35,000lbs range will suffice for most operations.
For quality, reliability, and performance overall, my pick of the heavy industrial fork truck sector has to be Caterpillar (CAT) and, in particular, the DP160-N2 diesel pneumatic forklift.
This is a very competitive area, however, and CAT only beat out some of their competition, most notably the excellent Hyster H25-32XD, by the narrowest of margins.
The CAT DP160-N2 is as refined as it is rugged. It's powered by a 4 cylinder, 4.4L twin-turbo diesel Perkins engine, which combines excellent performance with surprising fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, large wheels, high ground clearance, and pneumatic tires allow this versatile truck to operate effectively on even the most uneven surfaces. When placed alongside a lifting capacity of 36,000Lbs, this makes for one of the best performing heavy forklifts in the world.
If you're running your trucks in a rugged outdoor environment, you need to make sure the driver is protected, both from the elements and from jarring when driving over rough ground. Caterpillar has made operator comfort a high priority with all of their equipment, and it shows.
The fully enclosed cab on the DP160-N2 (and the rest of the range) has options for heating, fans, and A/C, along with a full-suspension seat with 4-way ergonomic adjustment and extra lumbar support. Your drivers will stay cozy and comfortable throughout their shift, which helps them remain focused and productive.
#6 Best for Narrow Warehouse Aisles - Komatsu
For operating in tight spaces, the electric Komatsu FR50 series forklifts are hard to beat. With a compact standing operator position rather than a larger seated cab, these modern electric lifts can maneuver in even the most cluttered warehouse space.
Although other forklift brands also offer some very good narrow-aisle options, they can't match the overall utility of the Komatsu models.
Jungheinrich, for example, has an entire Very Narrow Aisle (VNA) range, but none of these have the lifting capacity of the Komatsu FR23K-3.
The 36v, 930 Ah lithium-ion batteries used by the FR50 can run this compact forklift for around 6hrs between charges. This is impressive considering the surprisingly nippy 8 Hp drive motor and lifting capacities up to 4500lbs. The longevity is assisted by a regenerative braking system, which uses braking forces to recharge the battery.
In terms of the all-important maneuverability, the maximum (outside) turning radius of these machines is only 72", perfect for narrow aisle navigation.
Stand-up lift trucks can put considerable strain on operators over extended periods of material handling. Several design features of the Komatsu FR50 range are aimed specifically at minimizing operator discomfort and/or fatigue. The trucks are built with a padded footplate and pedals, a low step height of only 9.3", cushioned backrest, and low control resistance via the "fly-by-wire" system.
Factors To Consider When Buying
Lifting Capacity vs Bulk
You'd be forgiven for thinking bigger is always better when it comes to the load capacity of lift trucks. Some forklift manufacturers such as Kalmar do produce trucks capable of hauling truly staggering quantities of materials, handling over 140,000lbs in the case of their largest forklift, the DCG720-10LB.
However, a forklift has to be able to counterbalance its load, so there's no getting away from the fact these high-capacity machines are bulky and heavy. If you have constraints in terms of space or need to drive your lifts on temporary flooring structures, you simply can't operate a large industrial truck.
For most warehouse and distribution applications, a relatively modest lifting capacity of 3000-5000lbs is plenty. You can get this out of a compact and more lightweight forklift which is better suited to navigating tight spaces.
Some forklifts are designed to handle rough terrain and all-weather conditions. For the former circumstance, the type of wheels and tires employed is key. For driving over uneven surfaces, you want large wheels and pneumatic or foam-filled tires (the latter helping to prevent blow-outs), with a good tread being a must.
Equally, if you're buying or renting forklifts for outdoor applications, these models have fully enclosed cabs with heaters and/or aircon, to keep your operators snug and comfortable throughout their shift.
At the other end of the scale, indoor use over smooth concrete flooring is best served by small wheels and solid or cushion tires, which last much longer than their pneumatic counterparts in situations where the all-terrain approach is unnecessary.
You also want to do away with the extra weight and expense of an enclosed cab, and opt for an easy-access cage type. These have an overhead guard to protect the operator from falling loads but are otherwise open, giving an optimal field of view.
There are three main engine types used on forklifts. In terms of internal combustion options, these come in either diesel or LPG (propane) models. Electric forklifts are the other way to go, with all three have their own distinct pros and cons depending on your company's material handling needs.
Diesel and LPG Forklifts
Diesel or propane-powered lift trucks tend to be more powerful than their electric counterparts and all heavy-industry models come under this category. In terms of differences between the two fuel types, LPG burns cleaner, so it can be used for some indoor applications if the space is sufficiently well ventilated. Diesel trucks, on the other hand, are essentially only suitable for outdoor use.
On the flip side, LPG tanks need to be swapped out, re-filled and stored under specific safety conditions, so diesel is easier to work with where the operating conditions are suitable.
With zero emissions and reduced noise, electric forklifts are ideal for indoor operations such as warehousing. Not producing toxic fumes also makes them preferable for handling consumables, especially food or medicinal products.
One issue with electric fork trucks is the downtime required for charging. However, with modern lithium-ion batteries and advances in fast charging technology, electric forklift brands like Jungheinrich are able to make a single charge last for multiple work shifts, whilst reducing their charging time to just a couple of hours.
Accessories and Attachments
Any top forklift manufacturer knows versatility is key to gaining dominance in the market. From warehouse logistics to material handling for manufacturing companies, the more jobs a forklift can handle, the fewer other pieces of machinery the business needs to purchase.
Attachments and accessories are available for all sorts of applications including carrying drums of chemicals or bales of agricultural material, concrete transportation and pouring, sweeping and polishing floors, towing trailers, and using a forklift as a crane for suspended load handling.
The carriage and mast type can affect which sorts of attachments are available/appropriate. Also, some types of attachments affect the effective loading capacity significantly so a relatively heavy rating will be required. For example, to use a carpet-roll bar extension with rolls up to 1500lbs, you'd need a forklift with at least 3000lbs lifting capacity.
Maintenance, Repair, and Service
Manufacturers offer servicing, maintenance, and repair contracts on their forklifts, as well as warranties on new machines. Comparing the warranty duration and coverage is always worth the time as work done on heavy machinery can be very expensive if not included. Some companies also offer discounted after-purchase servicing and have loyalty schemes for customers who take up their service and maintenance contracts.
If you're not planning to take advantage of service contracts from the manufacturer, you need to check on the price and availability of parts for your particular model. Having a truck out of action for weeks while you await a parts delivery from overseas is damaging to your productivity and bottom line.
The Final Verdict
These manufacturers have all outdone themselves in the specific areas detailed in this review. If you need forklifts for a specific purpose or of one particular type, I've hopefully already given you the information you need to make a great choice.
However, I'd like to finish with one more piece of advice for anyone whose needs are more varied, necessitating the purchase of more than one different forklift model. In those circumstances, it's best to stick with the same company for all of your machinery if possible.
Choose one of the companies with a broad range of forklifts, based on which is best suited to your most specialized jobs, and I'm sure you'll find the company's other models perfectly workable for the rest. The simplicity of having the whole fleet under one single service contract will save you a lot of time, money, and hassle further down the line.