Test Drive: Street smarts

The VT880 is attractive and roomy. The automated I-Shift transmission, responsive and light on its feet, makes driving in traffic or tight quarters easy.

We had a long run ahead of us for testing a 2007 VT880: Indianapolis to Greensboro, N.C., with rain stretching past Cincinnati. So Volvo North America’s truck marketing boss, Frank Bio, and I left early from Indy’s Volvo/Mack dealership.

The VT880 had a Volvo drivetrain: a 16.1-liter, 600-hp D16 I-torque engine with 1,650 lb.-ft. of lower-gear torque, 1,850 in middle gears and 2,050 in higher gears. The transmission was a 12-speed automated I-Shift. We had 3:31 Meritor rears.

Our gross vehicle weight of 45,000 pounds was a light load for 600 horses, but enough to see how this rig would perform. As Bio explained, the truck’s advanced integration of engine, transmission, engine brake, exhaust aftertreatment and communication enabled it to handle those challenges with a new level of technical sophistication.

Exiting the lot, I spun the steering wheel clockwise to the stops. The truck cut sharply, but without sway, rocking or over-steer.

The rain stopped near Lexington, Ky., and we took I-64 east toward West Virginia. I set the cruise control at 65 mph and engaged the engine brake; the VT880 maintained speed on I-64’s steeper, longer hills. In driver-activated Eco-Roll, the VT880 sensed longer downslopes and coasted at 65 mph while the D-16 idled at a fuel-and-wear-saving 650 rpm. Near the bottom, the D16 revved up. The I-Shift took the load, and we cruised up the other side. Engine and transmission never disengaged.

“It’s like coasting on a bicycle,” Bio said. “You’re in gear, but you’re not pedaling.”

I hadn’t touched pedals or shifter. I just steered as the National driver’s seat, equipped with Volvo’s back-cycle option, massaged my lower back.

The VT880 changes gear-jamming and pedal-pumping into switch-flipping and button-pushing. I’m old school, and frequently mistrust high-tech tools. But the VT880’s dependable electronic controls gained my confidence as we rolled through I-64 traffic and Appalachian landscapes.

Topping one eastern Kentucky hill in the right lane, I suddenly had a slow pickup merging from an entrance lane on the right, a four-wheeler shadowing my left rear corner and another a half-mile back. I tapped the air brake pedal to disengage the cruise control and engage the engine brake. The truck quickly slowed, and the shadowing four-wheeler passed, leaving the left lane open. Anticipating this, I already had re-engaged the cruise control. The VT880 surged ahead, and I steered into the left lane to avoid the merging pickup, having lost little speed.

In less than two seconds, the VT880’s integrated system let me reduce a dangerous situation to a non-event.

We stopped in Olive Hill, Ky., for fuel, snacks and to get mail on the Volvo Link Sentry diagnostic and communication system. I pressed “Enter” on the column-mounted VLS control stalk, then scrolled to “Read message.” Ralph DeGenova, a sales and marketing manager, was inquiring about our trip. I toggled to the alphabet screen and replied.

Soon we were headed into our biggest challenge: I-77 south from Charleston, W.Va., to Wytheville, Va. This highway’s sharp curves slow big trucks to a crawl just before miles-long, 5 percent climbs or just after equally long, steep descents.

Add numerous lane changes thanks to heavy traffic moving as slow as 15 mph, and you have a highway that doesn’t forgive tired drivers. But here the VT 880’s integrated operating system paid off again as the truck did much of the work.

Because of curves, hills, traffic and, most of all, a 60 mph speed limit, I-77 through West Virginia and into Virginia can be a shifting, clutching, braking and throttle-mashing marathon, including dramatic speed changes and continually checking clearance around the truck. That changed in the VT880. I still controlled the truck, but more of my attention was on the road.

We continued south on I-77 and past Fancy Gap. This slope from Virginia into North Carolina is six miles at 4 percent. I didn’t touch the pedals or gearshift on the decline, but controlled the speed with tiny movements of the column-mounted engine brake control.

We took I-74/U.S. 52 into Winston-Salem’s rush-hour traffic, which sold me on the automated I-Shift once and for all. Clutch, brake, throttle and gearshift operations were reduced to half the work – only brake and throttle.

When we pulled into the Volvo facility in Greensboro, the readout said our fuel mileage increased to 6.2 miles per gallon during the trip: not surprising for a light load, but still impressive considering engine size, speed, terrain and driving conditions.

It had been a full 11-hour, 581-mile drive, but I felt I hadn’t done my share of work. With its I-Shift and systems integration, the VT880 performed like a strong partner.

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