Taking It to the Max

Obviously, the first thing most people notice about Western Star’s new LowMax 4900EX is its vogue lowrider look. The low-slung cab drops almost a foot lower than the standard 4900 model. The change was intended to present a show truck image that continues to perform in heavy-duty highway applications.

Matt Stevenson, Freightliner’s engineer in charge of LowMax development, calls the LowMax “a factory spec’d attention-getter.” But the LowMax wasn’t designed to be just another pretty tractor. Gary Holse, Project Engineer for Freightliner at the Bosch Proving Grounds in South Bend, Ind., says, “Stars have not lost reliability in the past 20 years. Owner-operators recognize a product that clearly has a good reputation.”

The first question that may come to mind of some drivers is, what about ground clearance? Unless you’re a driver who spends a great deal of time in treacherous off-road situations, you won’t have to worry about the LowMax. Stevenson says the truck can negotiate 35-percent angles. “The LowMax is a 100 percent on-highway truck,” Stevenson says. “The fuel tank with skirts is only four inches lower than other on-highway Stars. There should be no issue with undercarriage hang-ups.”

Despite its radical appearance, the LowMax needed very little redesign to accommodate the dropped cab. The cab and sleeper mounts were designed from car hauler applications. Car haulers, loading a vehicle over the cab, look for the lowest height possible there. Stevenson says the cab height, without horns and lights, is 104 1/4 inches with low-profile tires. Getting this low meant dropping the mounts five inches. The front axle is a Dana drop and the rear suspension is Freightliner’s middle length Air Liner suspension. All of this lowers the cab about 11 1/4 inches.

Another change is the use of a unique steering shaft, the TAS 65 from TRW, installed to accommodate the change in height from the steering wheel to the gearbox. The front fenders have also been retooled to keep the cab high enough over the wheels. Bigger shineys can be added, in particular air cleaners, which are available in 15-inch as well as the standard 13-inch, both with lights. And stacks can be had in a 6-inch as well as the standard 5-inch.

Dressing out this already radical truck is what Stevenson calls “the gangster sun visor.” It adds a rakish top note to the LowMax and is a fitting embellishment. There is indeed something mildly outlaw-like about the truck.

I picked up my LowMax test drive at the Bosch Automotive Proving Grounds. The flat Indiana countryside provided scant opportunity to flex the muscles of the Cat C15 435-horsepower under the hood, but this ride was not about engines.

The LowMax oozes owner-operator looks and comfort level. Certainly ease of entry has been improved by lowering the cab. One of the most striking attributes of this vehicle is its integration of technology and old-fashioned ego boosting classic looks.

The LowMax is as well appointed inside as out. The dash is both attractive and functional and the seats state-of-the-art.

The dash is chock full of toggles and gauges appropriately placed and within easy reach. A real improvement in the dash is digital climate control. The 20 gauges in my ride included a pyrometer and an engine hours indicator. In addition, the Data Star driver information center reads out gauge data. There are four touch-on switches for lights and a three-position Jake Brake on two switches. Of the 25 total switches, four are dedicated to windshield wipers and the wipers themselves have three water jets on each blade. There is a clock in the headliner as well as a state-of-the-art radio and built-in CB.

I noticed before putting the truck in gear that six flat end braces attach the mirrors. While this maintains a classic mirror look and provides stability, I have never been a fan. But visibility to the front is not significantly reduced and there is adequate visibility over the big hood. By the time a driver is ready to fire up this beast he is raring to go. The interior workspace envelops a guy and makes him feel good about his job, that’s for sure.

My test truck had an Eaton Lightning transmission, or Super 10. It is also a Top Two, meaning the top two gears shift back and forth as the rpms reach the shifting points. It is indeed lightning fast and will be even more interesting when coupled with an EGR engine. The quick response of EGR engines coupled with what amounts to splitting every gear rather than changing hole positions for every gear, will please a lot of guys who want to get on down the road from a stop in a hurry.

Of course nearly any tranny you want can be spec’d, but if you haven’t driven a Super 10, the Lightning is one to try before you buy. It has a little button that essentially puts every two gears in the control of a two-position switch on the lever. There is no low and high range in the old sense, which required going through low, hitting the button and going back through again. Hit the button in first and you’re in second. Then shift to the next hole and repeat. The top two gears shift automatically back and forth as rpms dictate when cruise is on.

The cruise is on the stick just below the thumb. It has an on/off control and a pause and works in conjunction with the Jake on the dash. If you like to play, you will very much enjoy this setup. Unlike many newer trucks this LowMax has a trolley, although it can be spec’d without.

During my 150-mile ride I got a decent feel for how this new configuration handled and rode. Perhaps because the driver is closer to the ground, there is a feeling of stability that bleeds over into how the truck is perceived to handle.

Stevenson says the center of gravity is lower. This makes sense although the bulk of the truck’s weight remains at the same height since nothing has been lowered but the cab. Parking turned out to be an easy maneuver and wheel-cut is sufficient to make the LowMax turn well.

I did not have the truck long enough to spend the night, which I like to do when I can, just to see what the bunk is like. Stevenson says three bunks are available, a 48-inch, 62-inch and a 76-inch. Given the low configuration you are not going to get a high-rise with any of them. It would defeat the purpose.

There are three small drawers and one closet, as well as under-bunk storage in the 48-inch bunk. Room is at a premium. But any buyer willing to go for the low look is going to have to sacrifice something. One thing you won’t have to sacrifice is rear visibility. Unlike a lot of classic 18s, the LowMax stacks do not appear in the mirrors when backing. If you look over your shoulder doing a left side, however, they will jump out at you.

If you like sexy in a tractor, you will like this baby. It looks good and performs exactly as commanded. The LowMax should well serve owner-operators who want a quality truck with a little attitude.

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