Test Drive: Star Power

WS 4900 FA with MBE engine makes for a great team.

“The Western Star is a classier truck, intended to compete with Peterbilt,” said Tom Stecker. “The overall look of the truck, the bigger grill and the larger hood – a lot of drivers like that.”

Stecker is the manager of Badger Truck Center in Madison, Wis. I was trying to listen, but my mind was on the Western Star 4900 FAs parked outside the door. Stecker agreed to let one – whichever I chose – go for a test drive. That was neighborly of him, and the least I could give in return was my attention.

“Western Stars are not mass-produced,” he was saying. “They’re built by hand. After Freightliner bought them, they didn’t change the production methods. The electronics Freightliner integrated into Western Star trucks have only improved them.”

The truck I’d be test driving would be powered by a Mercedes-Benz MBE 4000 diesel. I’d pay close attention to that and to Western Star’s 82-inch Stratosphere walk-through sleeper. I’m 76 inches from crown to sole.

My companion for the drive was Bob Nachreiner of Waunakee, Wis. Nachreiner hauled heavy and oversized equipment for Edward Kramer and Sons of Plain, Wis., for 40 years. He’s done well as a trucker, and now he’s semi-retired but keeps his hand in the business shuttling trucks for Badger. Stecker had advised him to reserve the entire day for the test drive, and he was waiting by the trucks when I arrived. The trucks were red, yellow and blue. I picked the “viper red” one.

Western Star trucks look like trucks did when I was a youngster and crazy about them – to my mind, how trucks are supposed to look with that traditional styling: big square hood and prominent grill with vertical bars running top to bottom, external air intakes, a set-forward front axle, a big steel bumper and a visor over the windshield to get that “serious” look. Drivers who value tradition will be impressed with the 4900 FA – and its extended-hood cousin the 4900 EX – immediately upon seeing them. They have a timeless look that never goes out of style and helps the trucks hold their value.

Among the test truck’s more noticeable options: chrome bumper, exhaust stacks, engine heater plug-in, bullet lights and air horns, stainless steel cab/sleeper skirts, sun visor, exterior vent covers, quarter fenders, air intakes and grill trim, polished aluminum drive and steer wheels, fuel tanks and left- and right-side battery boxes mounted just forward of the running boards.

My first look outside and inside the 4900 FA revealed a one-piece design in which all components are joined and part of the cab’s structural integrity. The large, noise-free interior features a dash top that is one unbroken piece instead of two or three connected together – one common rattle source eliminated. All fuses and breakers are accessible behind a dash panel that’s held by screws rather than snaps: no buzzing vibration there.

While the instrument panel can accommodate controls for every conceivable option and gauge, it does not look cluttered. The gauges can be rearranged to the driver’s liking. This truck’s dash had optional chrome trim around the gauges, a royal rosewood instrument panel and a tilt/telescoping steering column. The CB and AM/FM radios are mounted in the overhead console.

Western Star’s claims about the size and comfort of the 82-inch Stratosphere sleeper are, in a word, true. Even the shelving on the rear wall did not decrease the cavernous feel of this interior. Large rear and side windows allow natural light to set off the color better than electric lighting, and they also add to the roomy feel, although the dome, floor and bunk lamps illuminate the sleeper area well.

Among the truck’s spec’d options were Western Star’s noise-reducing premium insulation package, a 48-inch bunk, and a built in refrigerator on the driver’s side. There was still more than enough storage space above and below the ‘fridge, in passenger-side shelves and cabinets, under the bunk, and on the rear-wall shelves, which are designed so that things won’t fall off them. Under-bunk storage was accessible either from inside, by lifting the bed or through outside doors.

Nachreiner and I were shortly down to business. I bobtailed off the lot to a nearby truckstop for the trailer. It was a clear, chilly day in southern Wisconsin. The roads were clean and dry, but snow was everywhere else, including the trailer lot. This made getting the trailer a little tricky. The wagon was light, not enough ground pressure on the drives to get a grip. This was a little disappointing because we were slated to have a fully-loaded trailer, but at the last minute the unit Stecker originally had in mind for the test drive became unavailable, and he’d taken what he could get. This drastically rearranged my expectations of the MBE 4000. Nachreiner double-checked the cab-to-trailer clearance; it was fine, and we didn’t get to use the standard air slide fifth wheel with dash panel controls (shucks).

We battened down, buckled up and wheeled northwest on a stretch of road where Interstates 39, 90 and 94 join with Federal Highway 51. Though it was brand new, the Eaton-Fuller 13-speed allowed snag-free shifting. The simple arrangement of the dash and instrument clusters allowed me to quickly get a working knowledge of them. It was easy to get the seat and steering adjusted just right. We passed the I-39 split and continued west. The Western Star felt great – solid and smooth.

Along the way I put the Western Star’s MBE 4000 through the paces. The sluggishness I expected from a new engine, even under a light load, was not there. On medium-to-light grades in high gear I put the coals to it, and it surged forward, climbing from 60 to 75 miles an hour quickly and with ease. At that speed and on level ground I engaged the Mercedes-Benz exhaust brakes. The bottom quickly dropped out, and we were back down to 60 in short order.

By the end of the test drive, I came away impressed with the MBE 4000. As a heavy-duty, on-highway truck engine it will hold its own.

Overall, I feel the Western Star 4900 FA succeeds in maintaining a tradition that includes both looks and quality of design and build. It’s genuinely a trucker’s truck.

Specifications as Tested
Truck: Western Star 4900 FA
Price as tested: About $107,000 (includes federal excise tax)
Engine: Mercedes-Benz MBE 4000 – 450 HP at 1900 rpm 1550 lb/ft at 1100 rpm
Emissions: 2004 EPA/CARB certification
Exhaust Brakes: Mercedes-Benz Hi/Low/Off
Exhaust: Cab-mounted dual 12.5-foot vertical
Radiator: 1,300 sq. in. cross flow (upgradeable)
Starter: Delco 39MT HD
Transmission: Eaton-Fuller 13 speed
Clutch: Eaton-Fuller Ceramic Two-Plate “Easy Pedal”
Front Axle: 12,000 pounds
Drive Axles: 40,000 pounds
Gearing: 3.73
Suspension: Air Liner
Steering: TRW TAS-65
Slack Adjusters: Meritor
Brakes: Wabco ABS
Compressor: Wabco 15.5 cfm
Frame: Steel 5/16 inch X 3-1/2 inch X 10-5/8 inch
Width: 102 inches
Wheelbase: 255 inches
BBC: 123 inches
Sleeper: 82-inch Stratosphere
Tires: Goodyear 11R22.5 Radial
Wheels: 22.5-inch X 8.5-inch aluminum
RPM at MPH: 1,450 at 65
Fuel Capacity: 300 gallons
Batteries: Four Alliance 12V threaded stud
Dry Weight: 17,130 pounds
Other Features: Dual 25-inch chrome air horns and shields; halogen headlights; tinted sliding rear window; electronic engine protection system; 1500W/115V block heater; tamper-proof brake chambers; adjustable rear-suspension air with dash-mounted control; frame-mounted catwalk step; air intake accent lights; dual-level cab entry steps; digital, flush-mounted sleeper alarm clock; three 12V outlets; National 2000 Series hi-back active-air lumbar support seats; nine-pin diagnostic interface connector; stereo – Delco AM/FM/WB/CD six-speaker with multi-band, mirror-mounted antenna; two TV antennae.

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