Delivering on Its Promises

The Volvo VT 880 offers space for living and power for working.

I chatted with Volvo’s truck marketing manager Frank Bio while negotiating the metallic blue pearl Volvo VT 880 through moderate traffic southbound on I-81 in southwestern Virginia. At 78,000 pounds, the VT 880, using Volvo’s 16.1-litre, 625 horsepower D16 with 2,250 pounds-feet of torque, an Eaton 18-speed manual transmission and 3:58 rears, was quickly making good on one of many claims.

“The VT 880, operating at 80,000 pounds, can maintain 65 miles per hour on a 3-percent grade running at 1,400 rpm,” said Peter Karlsten, president and CEO of Volvo, at a press conference I attended this February in Phoenix. We were a ton lighter, but some grades were much steeper, and the VT 880 held at 65 even on downgrades with the D16’s 335 braking horsepower at 1,500 rpm.

The truck is sure-footed and responsive and has an insulated, seamless, heavy-gauge steel cab. Normal driving sounds – engine, tires and engine brake – were audible, but we spoke in normal tones.

From a dead stop in the Virginia Welcome Center at the foot of Fancy Gap northbound on I-77, we reached and held 57 miles an hour ascending the seven-mile grade. I believe that if we’d hit the slope at highway speed we would’ve climbed it at 65 mph, 39 tons and all.

The ease with which the D16-powered VT 880 handled Fancy Gap and I-81’s steep upgrades and downgrades shows the truck and engine make a strong, sturdy vehicle that can handle the demands of heavy hauls and high gross weights over any kind of terrain.

This June test drive was part of a press event for trucking journalists. Our group had two VT 880s, virtually identical where it counts, and after lunch at the Glade Springs, Va., Petro, we swapped. I got to test the metallic red pearl with Volvo’s drivetrain product manager Ed Saxman as my new chaperone.

We continued south into Tennessee on I-81, and at exit 57 we headed east on I-26 into the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains and toward Asheville, N.C. I wasn’t familiar with this highway, and due to its grades and curves and our load’s high center of gravity – trash bails in stacks of three – I took it easier.

The eastbound side of this recently completed stretch of interstate includes a long, steep climb that ranges from 4 to 6 percent. The red VT 880 was also at 78,000 pounds and spec’d the same as the blue one, and I was again impressed with the D16’s power. The engine, drivetrain and suspension handled the heavy load on steep grades and sharp curves with ease. No strain or blocking traffic in the left lane while passing the other big trucks, and no surprises on the down slopes, either: just sleek, confident muscle easily hoisting 39 tons over some of the steepest grades east of the Mississippi. I pushed the truck hard, but even with the large engine, heavy load and continual climbing along most of the route, we still averaged more than 5 miles per gallon.

The VT 880 has economy, durability, safety and style designed into it. For example, the extended hood and enlarged grill are necessary to house the D16, but the hood is also aerodynamically contoured to ease wind resistance. Air filters are under the hood instead of outside-mounted for the same reason. The hood, grill and large, stainless steel, three-piece bumper with optional fog lights also offer the bold visual appeal and traditional styling popular among American truckers.

Increased cooling capacity is also designed into the truck by way of the larger grill, the gap in the bumper and the D16’s huge cooling fan and improved shrouds, so a large volume of air is efficiently channeled through the engine compartment and under the truck. This eases long climbs with heavy loads in August, but the D16’s extra cooling capacity is also designed for the higher temperatures EPA-compliant engines will produce starting in 2007.

Volvo’s I-torque system protects drivetrains and tires by limiting torque in the lower gears and increasing it in the higher gears, because the D16’s full 2,250 pounds-feet is a heck of a lot of turning power. Volvo’s non-torque reactive suspension minimizes cab rocking in high-torque situations. The front axle is pushed forward and the cab is pushed backward – 200 inches bumper to back of cab – to improve handling and comfort and decrease engine noise inside the cab.

The engine and transmission are designed to break away from mounts and slide back under the cab in collisions. The VT 880’s enlarged windshield and lower side windows maximize visibility. Maneuverability is guaranteed by a 45-degree steering cut. Twin exhaust stacks come exposed or concealed behind fairings. Styling can be customized with a variety of chrome and stainless steel trim options.

The VT 880’s interior incorporates state-of-the-art design. Ergonomic seats have multiple adjustments, conform to any body shape or size, and I can attest to the fact that they minimize the aches and stiffness that come from long hours behind the wheel.

The dash switches are large and easy to identify, reach and operate. The steering column adjusts to the driver’s size, and the steering wheel has headlight, directional signal and radio controls built in. The cruise controls are built into steering column levers and are finger-touch operated. The driver can also choose between light on dark or dark on light instrument lighting schemes, and a wealth of trip, fuel, engine performance and diagnostic information and even messages from dispatch can be easily brought up on the dash screen.

A climate control thermostat maintains steady inside temperature, and the stereo has multiple-CD, cassette tape and speaker options. I had no trouble reaching door, overhead and behind-the-seat storage spaces from the seat, and the CB radio mounts overhead and close by. The driver can set the intermittent wiper control to any interval, and headlights can be set to turn on and off automatically.

Most importantly, at least to me, Volvo’s improved cup holders keep beverages off the floor and in the cups.

In short, the VT 880 offers traditional looks and styling, but it still comes with the advanced technology.

This includes the cab and sleeper interior styling. Part of ergonomics is the mood created by interior designs. Volvo offers lighter-colored leather and cloth interiors, along with the larger windshield, side windows, skylight and four sleeper windows that allow more light as well as ventilation. The result is an overall brighter, friendlier mood that’s reinforced by spaces for a refrigerator, microwave, TV/DVD, a sink and more than enough storage for two. The larger berths are about the size of standard single beds with an optional dining table that seats four and converts to the lower berth. Both berths have light, ventilation, clock and radio controls.

With 374 cubic feet of sleeper space and more than 520 cubic feet of total living space, the VT 880 is also roomy. Two full-sized adults can walk past each other without turning sideways inside the cab. There’s room to stand, stretch, move around and – with an optional surround speaker system – dance, if the mood should arise. A handy folding ladder makes climbing into and out of the top berth respectable, and it also folds and stows securely. I liked the high ceiling, additional light and overall size of the cab because they eliminate the “closed in” feeling.

We used shore power, but, if it is necessary to keep the engine running, at a 600 rpm idle the D16 burns .5 gallons per hour and murmurs unobtrusively.

The next day we swapped trucks again, and I was looking forward to the last leg of the road test: the Black Mountain down slope on I-40 east of Asheville. With more than nine miles of grades up to 6 percent, Black Mountain has earned its place in trucker lore, and more than one experienced driver has reached the bottom with shaking hands, badly smoking brakes and sincere prayers of thanks. This hill and the 78,000-pound load would tell the truth about the D16’s Volvo Engine Brake (VEB).

It was another dry, sunny day, and on slick roads all bets are off. But simply stated, if the D16 represents the future, then the drama is about to go out of taking heavy loads down long, steep hills. In 15th gear with the VEB activated, Saxman and I chatted calmly in the climate-controlled elegance of this VT 880’s salon-like interior while the truck rolled uneventfully down the hill. I kept the truck close to the 45 mph speed limit by pushing lightly on the brakes exactly 12 times. The sound of the VEB was barely noticeable inside the truck.

Volvo has invested more than $67 million to make the VT 880 its flagship tractor. The company has put millions of lab and on-highway test miles on the truck and, says senior VP of marketing and sales Scott Kress, “It passed with flying colors.”

I drove the VT 880 about 540 miles and took it up and down grades that will get any professional driver’s attention. I pushed the truck hard. In my opinion, the VT 880 and D16 do everything Volvo claims they’ll do.

VT 880 Specs as Tested
Wheel Base: 250 inches
Engine: D16 625 horsepower at 2,000 rpm 2,250 pounds-feet torque
Engine Block Heater: Phillips 120v
Engine Brake: Volvo
Transmission: Eaton RTLO-18918B 18-Speed
Front Axle: 12,500 pound Volvo with unit hubs
Rear Axle: RT40-160A aluminum
Rear Axle Ratio: 3:58
Wheel Brake Type: Arvin Meritor Q+ Cast
Brake Size: Front 16 X 4 – Rear 16.5 X 8
Brake Drums: ConMet Cast Lite
Front Hub: Aluminum unitized
Rear Hub: Aluminum
ABS: Bendix w/traction control
Air Dryer: Meritor WABCO SS1200P
Wheels: Accur. Polished aluminum Spt. II 22.5 X 8.25
Tires: Michelin XDA3 11R22.5G
Paint Schemes: (Red) Raptor (Blue) Aviator
Exhaust: 102-inch w/stainless steel Volvo shields
Fuel Tanks: 26-inch diameter 150-gallon polished aluminum with stainless steel straps
Bumper: Chrome with fog & drive lights
Cab Step Panel/Battery Box Cover: Polished aluminum w/locking tool box
Radiator Protection Plate: Heavy-duty rock guard & screen
Deck Plate: 40-inch low profile
Quarter Fender: Stainless Steel
Fifth Wheel: Holland FW 35 Air Slide with left release & 12-inch slide
Mirrors: Chrome Aero with heat & power
Headlamp Surround: Chrome
Trim Light Package: Stainless steel cab skirt & fender
Cab Interior Style/Color: Supreme Limited/Saddle with leather seat
Seats: National Comfort H.B. swivel & heat
Auxiliary Switch: Three
Stereo: AM/FM/CD/Cassette with CD changer
Microwave/TV Prep, Refrigerator: yes
Volvo Link Communications: Yes
Inverter/Charger: Yes
Shore Power: Yes
Parking Heater: Yes
Price As Tested: Approx. $135,000