Shifting into the future

The 435-horsepower D13 in this VT 660 performed like a bigger engine.

The I in Volvo’s new 12-speed automated I-Shift transmission stands for “intelligent,” and with its many features and smooth, solid feel, the name fits.

Designed for Volvo’s D11, D13 and D16 engines, the I-Shift transmission weighs only 600 pounds but can handle the D16’s 600 horsepower and 2,050 pounds-feet of torque. Its brawny, simple construction looks reliable and tough. The I-Shift is mechanical but fully automated, has no clutch pedal and goes 250,000 miles without servicing.

Like car automatics, the I-Shift lets drivers idle-crawl, which makes parking with an automatic transmission a lot easier and safer. It can all but stop the truck without mechanical brakes, and it skips gears, shifting up or down as necessary. At the driver’s behest, the I-Shift continually measures load, speed and rolling resistance and picks the right gear.

Engine and transmission are from the same family, and understand each other better in this age of “smart” machines, the company says.

This proved true in both my ’07 Volvo engine road tests involving the I-Shift, one with a 435-horsepower D13 in a VT 660 and one with a 500-horsepower D16 in a VT 770.

An old-school, standard-shift man and admittedly skeptical about automatic transmissions for big trucks, I first chose to drive a standard-shift Eaton-Fuller 18-speed double-over gearbox. Its location behind the 600-horsepower, 2,050 pounds-feet torque D16 in a bright yellow VT 880 might’ve persuaded me as well.

The 880 was confined to the former racecar test track on Georgia’s Hutchinson Island. The track is flat, and Volvo’s course included 90-degree turns, “S” curves, sharp bends and straight sections. Like the 660 and 770, the 880 and its loaded, 53-foot dry van weighed about 75,000 pounds. On one straight section, in upper sixth gear at 10 miles an hour and 1,000 RPM, I floored the accelerator, in response to thickening CB scuttlebutt about power and performance loss in ’07 engines compliant with EPA regulations. The D16 nonchalantly grabbed its 37.5-ton payload and surged forward, its big-diesel, heaven-and-earth-moving feel and sound plainly evident. Our speed and RPM doubled in about four seconds: an informal test, but in the United States and now Sweden as well, 600 horsepower and 2,050 pounds-feet of torque in 2007 are as strong as they were in previous years.

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Volvo uses exhaust gas recirculation and diesel particulate filters to bring its engines’ nitrous oxide and soot emissions into compliance with the EPA’s ’07 limits. The D11, D13 and D16 engines were all designed around the regulations, so the EGR, DPF and ultra-low-sulfur fuel the engines use have not caused power loss or performance drop.

“Any loss of power from ultra-low-sulfur fuel will only be felt in pre-’07 engines,” says Product Marketing Manager Bo Hammerlid. “The ’07 engines are designed to compensate for that power loss.” Volvo’s only change is the ’07 D16 which produces 2,050 pounds-feet of torque, while the ’06 D16 produces 2,250 pounds-feet. But Volvo says fuel economy in its ’07 engines is 3 percent higher than it’s ’06 engines.

Southeastern Georgia has no natural hills to test an engine’s mettle, but the U.S. Highway 17 bridge joining Hutchison Island with mainland Savannah has steep slopes and is long enough to show pulling power going up and engine brake performance going down. My first test drive was in the Red VT 660 powered by a 435-HP D13. The other test truck would follow. My chaperone/information source for this test was Drivetrain Product Manager Ed Saxman.

In unusually cool, dry weather for September in Georgia, we slowly rounded the steep, sharply curved ramp that merged onto the bridge near the bottom. For safety’s sake I took the ramp at about 20 miles an hour. Once we swung into the straight merge lane on the bridge, Saxman said, “Floor it,” so I did that and steered: no worries about shifting smoothly at low speeds with a heavy load to get speed up on a steep hill. The transmission downshifted two gears while I checked traffic, and we accelerated up the hill.

Conservatively, the bridge is about a 5 percent grade and a quarter to a half mile long on both sides. The D13 and I-Shift combination got us to about 38 miles an hour at the top. Back down the other side, Saxman pointed out the Eco-Roll feature at work. As the 660 coasted, the I-Shift went to neutral and the engine briefly idled. At just a few miles an hour faster, the D13’s powerful Volvo engine brake momentarily kicked in, keeping the truck within set speeds. Eco-Roll is not a “poor man’s overdrive”: with Volvo’s enhanced I-VEB engine brake, the I-Shift’s Eco-Roll maintains driver-set speeds up- and downhill, even with heavy loads.

Minutes later we merged onto I-516 westbound. The speed limit went to 55, then 65. Each time I mashed the throttle, the I-Shift immediately went down a gear, putting the D13’s 435 horses to their most efficient use.

This is truck driving’s future. The I-Shift decreased my taskload, leaving me free to pay more attention to urban interstate traffic.

I drove hard to add some meat and potatoes to this test-drive report. Though heavily burdened, the D13 performed like a bigger engine, quickly reaching highway speeds and responding positively to subtler throttle commands as traffic required. This ’07 engine performs as well as its predecessors – with the I-Shift, probably better. The cab’s air-ride suspension and multi-adjustable seats, combined with the automated transmission, have made hauling 75,000 pounds a lot easier, and that’s Volvo’s aim.

Testing the D13’s power got us way ahead of the VT 770. We got to I-95 and headed south to the exit 87 truckstop, where test drivers switched trucks. I joined Hammerlid and Truck Marketing Manager Frank Bio in a Green VT 770, powered by a 500-HP D16 coupled with an I-Shift, and we headed back to Hutchinson Island.

The D16’s deeper, broader-based power was immediately evident. I mashed the throttle as we merged, the I-Shift kicked down two gears, and we effortlessly accelerated to 70 miles an hour northbound on I-95. Coming to speed on a flat highway such as this, the D16 has an unruffled, plenty-to-spare feeling. The Eco-Roll worked the same as in the D13; on overpass down slopes, it slipped into neutral for a few seconds and idled the D16, then re-engaged in 12th gear, all while maintaining constant speed.

Sometime during the test drives, the D16’s exhaust system underwent “regeneration” – used a liter to a half gallon of fuel to vaporize particulate soot caught in its DPF – a process unnoticeable except for the engine data showing it happened.

As we drove, Hammerlid further demonstrated the I-Shift’s labor-easing features. It’s seat-side shifter, which sticks out a little too far and is hard to get around, has reverse, neutral, automatic and manual positions, a button for switching between economy and performance modes, and up/down buttons for shifting in manual mode. The column stalk has six positions: off; A level, which is Eco-Roll; three manual VEB control levels; and B level, in which the I-Shift uses the VEB to stop the truck when the driver gets off the throttle.

Hammerlid also pointed out the wealth of information for drivers on the digital dash screen: current gear, column stalk position, seat-side control position, up- and down-shifting options, Eco-Roll on or off, time, outside temperature, miles and whether the D16 is operating in its most fuel-efficient “sweet spot.” The screen is controlled by another right-side steering column stalk, slightly larger and just below the I-Shift column control. With the flick of a button, the dash screen’s data changes, and it has night-vision lighting and everything else from geo-positioning to system maintenance and operating diagnostics.

Back in Savannah, we headed back over the US 17 bridge. I once again took the sharply curved ramp at 20 miles an hour; we started the climb from near the bottom at very low speed. I floored the throttle, the I-Shift dropped two gears, and we took off with 75,000 pounds, reaching 49 miles an hour at the top.

Going down, I moved the I-Shift’s column stalk to B level and got off the throttle. The VEB kicked in, and the 770’s speed dropped quickly despite the heavy load and steep down slope. I moved the stalk out of B level to maintain a safe speed to the exit at the bottom of the hill. Volvo says the I-Shift uses the engine’s power and VEB to operate at the most fuel-efficient levels and either maintain speed or bring the truck to a stop automatically, and it does all of those things very well.