KW T660 test drive: Enduring classic

| January 26, 2013

Though Kenworth considers the T660 its default fleet truck, the tractor features a compelling blend of conventional styling and aerodynamics that would please many an owner-operator. The aerodynamic design is aggressive enough to merit SmartWay certification by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Seattle is a gorgeous city with a laid-back reputation. But as any truck driver who’s ever wound his way through the city’s rain and fog will tell you, traffic there can be as bad as anything in Atlanta or Chicago.

This truck was powered by a Cummins ISX15, and its high horsepower proved invaluable during the tough climb to Stevens Pass on U.S. 2.

And so it was on a gray northwestern morning that I found myself inching along Interstate 405 at rush hour, the eight-lane bypass basically a parking lot. I was behind the wheel of a new Kenworth T660 Studio AeroCab tractor with an 86-inch sleeper and Diamond VIT interior and a fully-loaded 53-foot van trailer in tow.

The T660’s full suite of driver enhancement aids included a Paccar-branded Eaton UltraShift Plus automated manual transmission, Kenworth NavPlus with true-truck GPS navigation and hands-free phone capability, and Takata’s Lane Departure Warning system. So my situation, in spite of the traffic, was good indeed.

Gauges on the T660 are defined sharply and easy to read with a sweep of the dashboard.

Scan the T660’s cab and sleeper, and you’ll find features that even a finicky owner-operator could love: Ultra-luxurious leather, highly effective sound dampening and refinements such as full power options, faux-wooden trim, fully tilting/telescopic steering wheel and skylights. About the only giveaway that this wasn’t an owner-operator truck was the foldable bunk beds, but those easily can be swapped out for a single mattress set-up.

The goal on this brisk fall day was to take this 78,000-pound rig over the Cascade Mountains. I was taking U.S. 2 out of Seattle with the goal of lunch in the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth before heading back for one more round with Seattle traffic. U.S. 2 is a narrow, twisting two-lane road cut through the heart of the mountains, offering stunningly beautiful vistas awash in brilliant fall colors. It climbs steadily from near-sea level to elevations in excess of 4,000 feet near Stevens Pass. It’s tough driving with lots of turnouts.

Luckily, my T660 had a brand-new 500-hp Cummins ISX15 under its severely-sloped front hood, which is part of Kenworth’s deluxe aerodynamic enhancement package. Combined with the UltraShift plus AMT, I would have plenty of on-demand power to lug up those long grades. The steering wheel-mounted Cummins engine brake controls, operated by a simple thumb tap, also were handy on the downhill run.

The truck handled great, a definite plus on these twisting roads. I also liked the cab layout; the narrow design gives an impression of being behind the wheel of a much smaller vehicle. While some drivers clearly prefer a wider cab – and Kenworth has models to fill that desire – the T660’s comfy confines give outstanding views to the front, rear and sides, especially considering the truck’s sloped nose that is designed so elegantly, it’s virtually invisible from behind the steering wheel.

Even without the handy optional steering wheel controls, everything was within easy reach. This is due partly to the narrow cab layout, but it’s also a testament to the time and energy Kenworth engineers put into the control layout, instrument cluster and other ergonomic details. Even though this T660 was new, the interior’s tightness still was remarkable; nothing rattles or vibrates. Combined with the ultra-quiet ISX15, it made for remarkably fatigue-free driving.

In the morning interstate highway traffic, I was pleased at how well the lane departure warning system worked. A side-mounted camera keeps an eye out for lane markings, and if the picture of the unbroken pavement is interrupted by a painted line, an alarm sounds.

The system was helpful most of the time, but the long afternoon drive on snaky mountain roads, coupled with fatigue from hours of driving, resulted in frequent lane departure alerts. I looked for a way to turn the alarm off, but I eventually gave up.

After the test drive, I spoke with Takata’s Tim Rankin about the warning system’s performance in that driving environment. He assured me the company understands how certain road conditions can turn the system into an unintentional distraction.

To remedy that, the system has a switch – one I wasn’t aware of during the test drive – that allows the driver to disable it for 10 minutes. Additionally, Rankin says, because there are so many audible and visual distractions in modern truck cabs, Takata is re-evaluating its alarms.

“The consensus is we’ll use a ‘rumble strip’ sound,” he says. “It’s a unique sound that will instantly communicate to the driver what the danger is.”

One technology that clearly was a relief after stressful driving on narrow roads and major grades was the automated manual transmission. I’ve always been an AMT fan, but on this long day of tedious navigation as I returned to Seattle and crawled along I-405, I found new appreciation for the UltraShift Plus. With no clutch to kick and gear shifts handled by the AMT, I was free to concentrate on traffic and following distances – and the cars that cut in front of me to fill them.

The T660 ranks among the finest of trucks I’ve tested. Kenworth’s new T680 is getting the lion’s share of the spotlight, and that’s understandable given the time and money the company put into its development. But Kenworth has made it clear that the T660 has a confirmed spot in its model lineup, which reflects the company’s understanding of its customer base: It has a truck for everybody.

2012 Kenworth T660 specs as tested

Engine: Cummins ISX15

Horsepower: 485 @ 1,800 rpm

Torque rating: 1,650 lb.-ft. @ 1,200 rpm

Transmission: Eaton FO16E313A-MHP UltraShift Plus with Hill Start Aid

Gross vehicle weight rating: 53,200 lbs.

Gross axle weight rating, front: 13,200 lbs.

Gross axle weight rating, rear: 20,000 lbs.

Front and rear brakes: Bendix air disc

Rear axle ratio: 3:55

Front tires: Michelin XZA3+ 275/80R22.5 16PR

Rear Tires: Michelin XDA3 275/80R22.5 14PR