Test Drive: Volvo VT880

VT880 Specs As Tested
Engine: Volvo D16, 600 hp, 2,050 lb.-ft. torque
Engine Brake: Volvo
Transmission: 12-speed automated Volvo I-Shift
Rear Axle Ratio: 3:31
Cab: 77-inch raised roof sleeper
Trailer: 53-foot dry van
Load Weight: 10,000 lbs.

I-shift Specs
Counter-rotating Shafts: One
Overall Ratio: 14.94:1
Maximum Torque: 2,050 lb.-ft.
Maximum Weight: 80,000 lbs.
Clutch: Volvo 17-inch single-plate organic with dual-mass flywheel
Fluid Capacity: 16 quarts
Drain Intervals: 250,000 miles

It was early on a rainy morning when I met Volvo North America’s truck marketing boss, Frank Bio, at Indianapolis’ Volvo/Mack dealership. We had a long run ahead of us to test a 2007 VT880 – Indy to Greensboro, N.C., with the promise of rain all the way past Cincinnati.

The VT880 had a Volvo drivetrain: a 16.1-liter, 600-hp D16 I-torque engine with 1,650 lb.-ft. of lower-gear torque, 1,850 in middle gears and 2,050 in higher gears. The transmission was a 12-speed automated I-Shift. We had 3:31 Meritor rears.

Our 53-foot dry van held about 10,000 pounds of marketing displays, for a gross vehicle weight of 45,000 pounds. That’s a light load for 600 horses, but plenty enough to see how this rig would perform through hills, curves and traffic. As Bio explained, the truck’s advanced integration of engine, transmission, engine brake, exhaust aftertreatment and communication tools enabled it to handle those challenges with a new level of technical sophistication.

Exiting the lot, I spun the steering wheel clockwise to the stops. The truck cut sharply, but without sway, rocking, beverage spills or over-steer.

The rain stopped near Lexington, Ky., and we took I-64 east toward West Virginia. I set the cruise control at 65 mph and engaged the engine brake; the VT880 maintained speed on I-64’s steeper, longer hills. In driver-activated Eco-Roll, the VT880 sensed longer downslopes and coasted at 65 mph while the D16 idled at a fuel-and-wear-saving 650 rpm. Near the bottom, the truck revved the D16, re-engaged the I-Shift, and took us up the other side. Engine and transmission never disengaged.

“It’s like coasting on a bicycle,” Bio says. “You’re in gear, but you’re not pedaling.”

I hadn’t touched pedals or shifter. I just steered as the National driver’s seat, equipped with Volvo’s back-cycle option, massaged my lower back.

The VT880 changes gear-jamming and pedal-pumping into switch-flipping and button-pushing. I’m old-school – standard shift, mechanical windows – and usually mistrust high-tech tools. But the VT880’s dependable electronic controls gained my confidence as we rolled through I-64 traffic and Appalachian landscapes.

Topping one eastern Kentucky hill in the right lane, I suddenly had a slow pickup merging from an entrance lane on the right, a four-wheeler shadowing my left rear corner and another a half-mile back. I tapped the air-brake pedal to disengage the cruise control and engage the engine brake. The truck quickly slowed, and the shadowing four-wheeler passed, leaving the left lane open. Anticipating this, I already had re-engaged the cruise control. The VT880 surged ahead, and I steered into the left lane to avoid the merging pickup, having lost little speed.

In less than two seconds, with no white-knuckle steering, the VT880’s integrated system let me reduce a dangerous situation to a non-event.

We took a break in Olive Hill, Ky., for fuel, snacks and to get mail – which can only be read when the vehicle is stopped – on the Volvo Link Sentry diagnostic and communication system. I pressed “Enter” on the column-mounted VLS control stalk, then scrolled to “Read message.” Ralph DeGenova, a sales and marketing manager, was inquiring about our trip. I toggled to the alphabet screen and replied.

Soon we were headed into our biggest challenge: I-77 south from Charleston, W.Va., to Wytheville, Va.

This highway’s 60 mph speed limit and sharp curves slow big trucks to a crawl just before miles-long, 5 percent climbs or just after equally long, steep descents. Add numerous lane changes thanks to heavy traffic moving as slow as 15 mph, and you have an unforgiving highway that demands every ounce of a driver’s skill. But here the VT880’s integrated operating system paid off again as the truck did much of the work.

In my experience, driving this road is a marathon of up- and down-shifting – clutching, braking, throttle mashing, checking mirrors, changing lanes to keep speed, and changing speed dramatically for hills. The VT880 took over some of the heavy lifting, leaving me free to focus on the road.

We continued south on I-77 through Wytheville and over Fancy Gap. The last slope into North Carolina is six miles at 4 percent. I controlled the truck’s speed with tiny movements of the column-mounted engine brake control. In one setting we slowly gained on the old pickup ahead. One tick back: the engine brake engaged another cylinder, and the pickup pulled away.

We took I-74/U.S. 52 into Winston-Salem’s rush-hour traffic, which sold me on the automated I-Shift once and for all. Clutch, brake, throttle and gearshift operations were reduced to half the work – only brake and throttle.

When we pulled into the Volvo facility in Greensboro, the readout said our fuel mileage increased from 4.9 to 6.2 miles per gallon during the trip: not surprising for a light load, but still impressive considering engine size, speed, terrain and driving conditions.

It had been a full 11-hour, 581-mile drive, but I felt I hadn’t done my share of work. With its I-Shift and systems integration, the VT880 performed like a strong partner.

Linked Up
Volvo Link Sentry, standard on all Volvos ordered after Oct. 30, 2006, is a computerized diagnostic and communication system that detects mechanical problems and monitors truck operation, says Ralph DeGenova, a sales/marketing support manager. It sends information via satellite to Volvo Action Service or fleet managers.

All 2008 Volvos include three years of Action Service, offering 24/7 tech support to analyze mechanical problems and recommend repairs, including shop and parts locations, DeGenova says.