Star Struck

| March 25, 2009

Heavy-truck drive tests are usually quiet affairs, attracting little notice. That wasn’t the case, however, with International’s latest on-highway road tractor, the LoneStar, a vehicle that attracts truckers and non-truckers alike as they turn their heads, hoist cell phone cameras and say, “Wow!”

I first witnessed this phenomenon in mid-January at a fuel stop on Interstate 10 near Baytown, Texas. I was aboard a glossy “Canyon” black LoneStar en route from the 37th Houston Marathon to the 43rd Super Bowl, this year in Tampa, Fla. One of my cabmates – this was a three-driver run – had pulled up to the pumps, and within minutes curious visitors ambled over to ask questions and shoot photos.

“This happens all the time,” says Chris Folsom, a driver and event manager for Inmotion, the company that owns the truck. “I don’t mind the attention if we’re stopped, but sometimes gawkers will drift into our lane going down the road, while they’re trying to get a better look at all the chrome and lights.” Such are the hazards of driving the most distinctive factory-built Class 8 truck on the planet.

LoneStar was introduced in February 2008, during a splashy unveiling at the Chicago Auto Show. It was the biggest, most popular and most reflective set of wheels on the show floor. International executives described it as an “advanced classic,” combining bold styling that normally appeals to owner-operators and other premier truck buyers with fuel-saving aerodynamics, popular among large fleet managers.

It’s clear designers were given permission to color outside the lines during development. The truck, which borrows chassis and electrical components – plus its cab – from other trucks in the company’s lineup, is bold and angular, perhaps even aggressive and imposing. The front end, awash with truckin’ bling, is based on the look of 1930s-era International C and D Series pickups. Subtlety is not part of the mix.

“From the start, we’d decided that this wasn’t going to be a garden-variety vehicle,” says L. David Allendorph, International’s chief body systems designer. “We truly wanted it to be polarizing. Obviously, some people weren’t going to like it, and we’re fine with that, as long as theirs is a minority opinion.” In the days leading up to the introduction, “spy” photos of a test model on at least one trucking website generated negative remarks, but this sentiment turned favorable after the unveiling in Chicago, when much more attractive photography became available.

Appearance is but one factor that contributes to a truck’s success. Equally important are driver comfort and convenience, handling and ride, maneuverability, ease of maintenance and overall cost of operation. Officials say LoneStar ranks high across all these categories, some of which I experienced first-hand on my roughly 1,000-mile drive between Texas and Florida.

Ride quality was not one I could truly measure, given that most of our roadway was flat and in good repair. So, sitting in the jump seat for the first 285 miles, while Christian Thang piloted the truck across eastern Texas and southern Louisiana, I focused on its user interface, counting gauges (10) and switches (12) on the dashboard.
Although well-appointed, this unit was not fully dressed. Still, it sported the attractive Titanium Suite package, with brushed metal panels on the dash, doors and sleeper cabinets. The Suite is also available with a rosewood finish. Overall, the truck’s cockpit is spacious and nicely arranged.

The sleeper interior is, however, much more: It’s almost a work of art, thanks to the engineers who analyzed workflow and livability. Their work resulted in a pleasant, roomy environment that serves as kitchen, living room and bedroom with a Murphy-style bed that can be quickly folded into a curvilinear couch. The space, further defined by a wood floor, is chockablock with tastefully decorated, illuminated storage compartments. Perhaps the only drawback is the intended location of a television, a bit high for comfortable viewing.

Shortly after sundown, we pulled into a fuel stop in Denham Springs, La., where I was handed the truck’s keys. The layout of gauges and switches bore a striking resemblance to that of International’s ProStar, from which the LoneStar’s cab is derived. The upgraded fa

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