A legacy lives on

Steve Sturgess | September 01, 2012

The Western Star 4900EX embodies the style and toughness of its Canadian roots, enhanced by the engineering of a global truck maker.

 

 

Western Star has been a constant since the brand was created in 1967 by the White Motor Corp. in Kelowna, B.C., for the western trucker. It’s best known north of the border, but American drivers who bought the brand became loyal customers, appreciating the ruggedness of the company’s trucks.

Following White’s bankruptcy and the acquisition of Western Star by Daimler Trucks North America, the Western Star of today is founded on the chassis and powertrain resources of the world’s biggest truck maker.

The Western Star 4900EX boasts a customizable style and rugged dependability.

It is an interesting combination that offers great potential to the truck customer looking for true flexibility in specification and customizability, but it brings with it the engineering of a great technology company, too.

I picked up a Western Star 4900EX from the L.A. Freightliner branch in Fontana, Calif., part of the Los Angeles-based Velocity Vehicle Group. From there, a quick scoot over to Utility to pick up a 53-foot reefer and then to Perris to load pallets full of cinderblock.

The truck

The 4900EX, so named because of its long hood and 132-inch length, is made for the over-the-road trucker looking for style and substance. It’s also perfect for the smaller fleet or as a rewards truck for top drivers in a big operation – especially one using Detroit power. But there’s also the availability of the Cummins ISX as an alternative. Mine had the 560-hp DD15.

While there is the economy-minded 4900SB, the EX is not necessarily an uneconomical model, with its beveled grille surround, curving windshield glass and the wide cab’s generally rounded corners. Cool, sculptured cab extenders sweep the air out and up over the trailer for improved air penetration. There are external filters, cab-mounted exhausts and exposed tanks and toolboxes that give the 4900EX its sharp looks.

The cab, introduced as the Constellation in 1996, was originally designed by a joint Australian Western Star/DAF team. It was to be a workhorse in the Outback, where earlier Western Stars had proven to be tough, reliable road-train haulers.

The old Heritage cab, dating back to the original White conventional, was proving too cramped. The replacement steel Constellation was a big step up, offering one of the roomiest rides of the era.

Except for the cruise control, all gauges and switches are located on the wing dash. Large rocker switches can be operated while wearing gloves if necessary.

The contemporary and lightweight Stratosphere sleepers were added in 2006. They’re available today in lengths from the diminutive 34-inch to the 82-inch Ultra High Roof model featured on this 4900EX. Like the cab, the sleeper is largely hand-built, giving customers a wide range of options for individual customization.

The sturdy Western Star frame features signature round bolt-in crossmembers. On this 4900, the suspensions are corporate Daimler, with the twin taper-leaf front end and the Airliner tandem air suspension.

Axles are proprietary, too, with the DA-F rated at 13,300 pounds for additional scale capacity on the front end. Like its competitors, Western Star has to deal with the weight of the emissions equipment added for 2010. The drive axles also are from the newly renamed Detroit division – DA-MT-40. This is good news for the customer, as these axles have their unique durability features and, being from Daimler, make any warranty issues easy to sort out.

The Bostrom seat offers plenty of user-friendly adjustments to accommodate all body shapes and sizes. There is ample pass-through area from the driver’s seat to the sleeper.

The all-round drum brakes are from Meritor. Interestingly, to meet the latest braking distance requirement, these are big, big brakes – 16.5 x 5 Q Plus up front and 16.5 x 8.62 Q Plus on the tandem. A nice feature in the cab is the easy-clean vinyl ceiling and the sweep-out floor, making it a snap to keep the interior tidy. The steel cab is given a thorough rustproofing in the paint process, and the sleeper is a honeycomb-sandwich aluminum construction for light weight and corrosion resistance.

The windshield is split for inexpensive replacement. The tow hook is set in the middle of the slab bumper, where loads are distributed to both frame rails, rather than pulling on one.

 

On the road

Our route ran north on I-215 to the 138 cutoff to Pearblossom – down through the San Fernando Valley and back via Ontario to Perris and, finally, Fontana again. A second day brought our trip to 350 miles.

The run across to Perris was easy and showed the truck’s ride is not in any way compromised by its ruggedness. Once loaded, the ride was excellent, even with the fifth-wheel setting on the tandem centerline.

One thing that quickly became apparent was the light but precise steering. There have been significant advances with the steering gear, made by TRW Aftermarket, but at least some of the credit goes to the needle bearings – a feature of the Detroit front axle.

Other controls had the same quality feel, too: The dash is full of information with no fewer that 20 gauges, most visible through and around the adjustable steering wheel.

The 23-gallon diesel exhaust fluid tank is sized for long-haul application, hidden in the forward toolbox on the driver’s side behind the polished deckplate.

The wheel has none of the in-spoke switches with the exception of the cruise control. These switches are under the shift knob and, while the trend has been to put these on the steering wheel, their location on the shift lever is convenient and especially handy when hitting the resume button after a shift.

There was an obvious performance difference empty and loaded, though the 560 is a strong puller and excels in situations where you need a quick burst of power.

The fast throttle response and the extra boost from the turbo-compounding mean the engine builds torque far faster than competitive power. This is great for accelerating to speed on on-ramps for safe merging. It is also very useful when you need an extra boost to maintain momentum for short, sharp rises at freeway intersections, overpasses and such. It makes the Detroit engine feel much “bigger” and torquier than its rating suggests.

For the longer climbs, the DD15 just gets down and grunts, offering no complaint when lugging down to 1,100 or even 1,050 rpms. Again, the additional boost from the turbo-compounding helps, converting waste heat from the exhaust into useful work at the flywheel. Multiple injection events greatly reduce diesel knock, and the stiff crankcase of the new engines helps reduce noise. What noise does escape is suitably quieted by the insulation package that comes with the EX.

There’s a dinette option for the sleeper. This arrangement includes an upper bunk and the convenience of the large table and facing seating.

The tall final drive gearing meant some downshifting on the climb up Cajon and then across the Pearblossom Highway on the two-lane sections, but the easy-shifting 13-speed made it simple. In fact, the shift tower execution on the 4900 made it easy to select gears and a short throw to pick up each gear.

The combination of the compounding and the tall gearing contributes to fuel efficiency, where the DD engines have been proving themselves in the post-2010 emissions environment.

For this drive, continuous readings from the DataStar display showed fuel economy exceeding 7 miles per gallon, despite the big cab and relatively uncompromising spec of external air filters and cab-mounted exhaust.

 

Standard configuration delivers big comfort

 

 

The 4900EX’s standard interior configuration — revamped a year or so ago — with Phoenix Grey Mordura cloth with burl elm accents for the dash and doors is mighty fine.

Even when working hard under a heavy load and steep grades, the DD15’s design helps reduce engine noise.

Seats by Bostrom are wide, with good slide adjustment so that the cab can accommodate drivers small to husky. Pendant pedals for clutch and brake and adjustable steering column make this easily possible, and there’s stand-up headroom from the seats.

Behind a sizable pass-through between the seats, the customizable sleeper on this 4900 consisted of a 42-inch lower bunk and a slightly narrower upper one. The lower bunk lifts to give access to baggage compartments with rubber mats. Elsewhere, storage is in real-wood-paneled cabinets that add to the comfort feeling. Shelves in the closets are adjustable.

Storage is reasonable, though it would be improved with back-wall cabinets in the absence of the upper bunk. The cab has a dash glove box, despite the fact that the electrical distribution center is there as well. Doors have storage, as does the overhead.

There’s a fridge, mounted high for convenience, below it a slide-out work/eating surface. Wiring provisions can accommodate a microwave and a TV.

 

 

Western Star 4900EX specs as tested

Frame: Western Star 5/16X3-1/2 X 10-5/8 in steel, 120ksi

Engine: Detroit DD15 560 hp, 1,850 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: Eaton Fuller RTLO-18913A – 13 speed O/D

Wheelbase: 265 in.

Front axle: Detroit DA-F 13,300 lb. dual taper-leaf suspension

Front tires: Michelin XZA3+ 275/80R22.5

Rear axle: Detroit DA-MT-40-14X 40,000 lb., 3.08 ratio

Suspension: Freightliner Airliner 40,000 lb. air-ride

Rear tires: Michelin XDN2 275/80R22.5

Seats: Bostrom T915 Wide Ride

Other: Moto heated, motorized mirrors; roof fairing, skirts, side extenders; exterior stainless sunvisor; AM/FM/CD weatherband radio w/MP3, USB and aux interface; Dual Donaldson cowl-mount air cleaners; Delco Remy 36-SI 160-amp alternator; Alliance AGM batteries; Borg Warner on/off fan clutch; Delco 69MT starter; BW BA-921 air compressor; block and lube heaters; Haldex long-stroke spring-brake chambers; BW AD-9 air dryer; Davco 482 fuel/water separator.

 

Contributing Editor Steve Sturgess has covered trucking, automotive and related fields for more than 30 years.

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