Bolder and Better

Volvo’s marketing strategy of deploying its newly redesigned line of VN models in a struggling American truck market was a bold move.

But Volvo’s core strategy was to produce the first line of trucks in conjunction with the new low-emissions engines. All the trucks introduced at Volvo’s launch in August, the new VN780, VN670 and VN630, as well as its medium-duty and vocational VN models, were equipped with the new environmentally friendly engines.

Given many buyers’ reluctance to spend their money on what they consider unproven technology, such a strategy seems bolder still. But at the launch in Greensboro, N.C., Susan Alt, Volvo’s vice president of marketing, announced that Volvo had sold out its available stock of the new models for the last quarter of 2002.

In September, I took the VN780 out for a test run between Youngstown, Ohio, and Carlisle, Pa. This truck was equipped with a Cummins ISX 500 EGR power unit and an Eaton Fuller 18-speed automated transmission. The trailer was loaded to a little over 68,000 pounds.

With a 1,500-pound overall weight reduction, the VN780 has a lot of advantages over its predecessor. It offers the latest technology and upgraded features. From mirrors that allow much more forward visibility to Hendrickson’s Airtek integrated front air suspension, the truck has a modern look and feel.

Volvo improved the VN780’s aerodynamics while making the truck more aggressive and masculine looking. Most suggestive of the truck’s new personality are the set-in headlights, which look futuristic and give improved visibility. They are covered with a transparent skin that follows the line of the fender, one of many exterior details that have allowed Volvo’s engineers to decrease the drag coefficient even as the truck has taken on a more classic body style.

Volvo has also redesigned its fairing system and air intakes to manage drag and under-the-hood engine temperature. There is nothing hanging off the outside of this truck but its mirrors, and they have been designed as break-aways. There are no exterior handholds, no air cleaners, no chrome beyond the bumper and stacks. It is very clean and sleek and will be attractive to buyers who like Volvo’s philosophy that aerodynamics and operating efficiency make sound business sense.

On the cool side of the power unit, fresh air from turbo and recirculated, cooled gases from hot side meet charge air stream and recirculate through the engine.

Ed Saxman, Volvo’s chief engineer of powertrains, says that Volvo’s own VE D12 465 puts 56 more horsepower to the ground at 70 miles per hour than comparably equipped, classically styled trucks. From a test drive of Volvo’s EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) engine earlier this year, I was impressed with the punch of the power unit. Volvo’s V-Pulse technology seems to be a simple and elegant solution to the emissions problem.

The Pennsylvania Green Stamp is a road requiring attention and concentration to drive. It is hilly, even mountainous, and is famous for its twisting grades. There is not a flat spot on this road nor is there a straight one, making it a good test of the handling, ride and performance of any truck.

Kevin Thomas, a Volvo vendor and the driver who picked me up, started the drive while I asked questions. Thomas has probably driven this truck more than anyone and knows it well.

When I noticed he was using the manual gear selection button rather than auto, I asked him why. “If I had let the transmission run all the way up to 1,800 (rpm) in every gear, we’d still be just out of the gate. I shift at 1,500 and it gets to speed much quicker and saves fuel,” he said.

The three-pedal system shifted smoothly the entire 300 miles even when I was driving. Thomas says he would not use the manual button with the Meritor FreedomLine’s two-pedal system, which is also available. “The Meritor senses load and road conditions and adjusts its shift,” he said. “You don’t have to use manual nearly as much to keep the rpms where you want them.”

The automatic has no startability or gradability problems. Both Thomas and I started out in fourth gear with no hesitation and passed most truck traffic on a majority of the hills. But Volvo continues to offer a variety of manual transmissions the buyer can spec with either Volvo or Cummins power.

The truck offers many features to make the driving life more pleasant and productive. Not the least of these is an optional Isringhausen seat with weight memory and a wealth of adjustments. Along with Hendrickson’s air steering axle and Volvo’s air cab system, the seat provides the final element in keeping the driver happy. If you like to push buttons rather than shift, if you like to contour your seat to your body type, if you like to run the Cross Bronx without hitting the roof, this truck’s comforts are for you.

The appointments in the sleeper impressed a husband-wife team who stepped in for a look in Carlisle. Linda Sayre, who drives with her husband Mark, said, “It’s very spacious and secure. Nothing will fall on you because the storage is latched.”

The interior of Volvo’s new VN780 features a highly functional dash that is highlighted by wood burl in some packages. The flat top of the dash offers high visibility through the windshield.

Given the number of storage compartments, drivers will have little trouble finding a secure place for their possessions. There is a table at which four driver-sized individuals can sit and play cards far into the night. It folds up out of the way when it is time to get some shuteye. There is ample lighting, making the extra ace a tough act. While Linda was interested in the sleeper, Mark was interested in what happens behind the wheel: “My wife will like the automatic,” he said.

The VN780 can certainly accommodate a team, whether working or playing, in style. And performance features like a 50-percent wheel cut and a 21-percent improvement in ride quality will keep single operators in their seats longer. Those who choose standard transmissions will be surprised by the catapult clutch system, designed to make the clutch require less effort.

I was especially sensitive to handling and wondered if my initial impression of the air steering axle from a short ride at the launch would endure. It did. Our floor load of paper in bales was stable.

On the twisting Green Stamp, I noticed a shift in the weight of the cab that startled me at first. The steering has a very positive feel and I thought I might be over steering but after several curves caught my attention I realized I was not over steering.

There is a definite lean to the cab only attributable to the air steering axle. Jerry Reynolds, Hendrickson’s regional service manager, tells me the lean is indeed there. “It’s something many drivers have to get used to,” he said. “But it only goes so far. The lean has a stopping point. Once you figure out where the stopping point is, you will gain confidence in the truck on corners and get used to it.”

My experience in the truck confirms that point of view. As a driver, I recognize any new truck has performance features that take getting used to. Given what the air steer does for ride, I am willing to get used to that little lean. Airtek literature attributes a 67-percent improvement in stability measured as roll stiffness.

Inside the cab there is so little noise that four hours of conversation between people in the passenger seat, the bunk and the driver’s seat flowed without straining voices or ears. Simplicity of design and striking dash lighting create a workspace designed to increase productivity by increasing driver alertness and ease of operation.

Lights, cruise, engine brake and other controls are located either on the wheel or on stalks just below it. The window and mirror controls and door locks are on the door within easy reach. The driver information center has been repositioned to the middle of the dash, and it can be programmed to highlight a driver’s choice of dash indicators among other features. Drivers who like their cans of soft drinks will find ample cup holders, although I found the holders on the top of the dash could be a little deeper to help keep a 20-ounce plastic bottle steady. A built-in, removable trash receptacle in the center makes good sense, as does the door to the engine compartment directly behind it.

Volvo has used this launch to provide its customers with “a truck designed to reduce total operating cost,” according to Volvo design engineer Ruben Perfetti. The attention to the driver’s environment and to performance features is part of that strategy. Drivers who experience the VN780 will enjoy the upgraded environment and performance.

Indeed, the VN780 makes a bold statement about the future.

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