Test Drive: Freightliner Cascadia

Freightliner’s new Cascadia takes innovation, performance and comfort to the next level.

Freightliner spent millions on research and design for the new Cascadia tractor, focusing on lower operating costs, driver comfort and overall ease of ownership.

The truck takes the best of its predecessors and incorporates a host of new ideas as well. This truck was fun and easy to drive, but it will likely show its true value over time in comfort, simplicity and savings.

My test drive of the truck started at the Las Vegas speedway just north of town.

Freightliner’s Drive Smart Tour organizer Keith Harrington knew of my enthusiasm for shifting gears, so my ride was a white 2008 Cascadia 72-inch Condo – 125 inches BBC – with an Eaton-Fuller 10-speed standard shift, right behind a 14-liter, 455 horsepower Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine making 1,550 lb.-ft. maximum torque: a base model. We were a convoy of six rigs, five pulling dry vans at about 78,000 pounds apiece; the sixth truck was a bobtail day cab. The other trucks had automatic transmissions, and the Mercedes Benz MB 4000 and Caterpillar ACERT engines are also available.

The mercury stood at 108 degrees F – and 120 to 130 on the pavement. Clear skies threw down a southwest wind that worked as well as a hair dryer.

The Cascadia’s rack-and-pinion steering and 50-degree wheel cut combined with a low-slung dashboard and shortened, sloped hood for maximized visibility. I’m 76 inches tall and keep the seat up high, but all I saw of the hood was a thin white line across the windshield’s lower edge.

The power-assisted steering is mechanical instead of hydraulic, with a firmer, more definite feel. With the steering wheel cranked to the left stop, the Cascadia seemed to move sideways from a standing start.

That kind of visibility and maneuverability make driving a big truck much easier.

In Nevada, the 51 entrance ramp on I-15 northbound puts drivers onto a 2-3 percent upward grade for 2.5 miles. From about 15 miles per hour at the bottom of the ramp, the 2008 Series 60 got us over 60 mph up that hill.

Our convoy closed ranks over the next 10 or 20 miles. The speed limit was 75 mph, but we went slower. I-15 has some serious climbs northbound from Las Vegas, and we frequently started long climbs at 65 mph: less momentum, so the Series 60 worked harder. But 455 horsepower in 2008 is as strong as it was in 2006, before the latest – and strongest – emissions laws came into play. We dropped below 45 mph two or three times, but we passed plenty of trucks, too. Likewise, when we hit long, 4-plus percent climbs at 75 mph and didn’t get slowed by traffic, I downshifted to ninth before the apex more as a formality, or for the joy of shifting, than out of necessity.

Technology has taken the threat out of long 4-plus percent down slopes. The Cascadia’s engine brake was quiet: a whooshing sound. Maybe the sophisticated new exhausts quiet the engine brakes some, but likewise Freightliner’s newest insulation package in the Cascadia’s cab makes for a quieter ride. With the engine brake and a few stabs on the air brake pedal, the truck turned long downhill runs into non-events.

From experience, I chose ninth gear for I-15’s curvy, up-and-down route along the Virgin River through Arizona’s Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness Area. Here the rack-and-pinion steering was most evident. There was never any doubt I was in a 39-ton rig, but the rack-and-pinion’s precise responsiveness made it maneuver like a much smaller vehicle. Soon I was back in 10th gear to keep up with my companions, four of whom were not professional drivers.

Freightliner makes much of the Cascadia’s overall comfort and ease of driving – and rightly so. The doors and seats are longer and wider; the multi-adjustable steering column offers more belly room. Cruise control, radio volume and running-light flasher are steering-wheel mounted. The wrap-around dash is in easy arm’s length, and the controls are larger and easier to grab. As well, the controls come in clusters that, like the gauges and headlight bulbs, install and remove easily without tools. Freightliner says its HVAC has 20 percent more cooling power, and though it was 114 degrees at the Utah port of entry, I had to turn the thermostat up.

Also, the Cascadia provides drivers with both large and small cup holders, easily accommodating my 20-ounce soda.

The sleeper was roomy and comfortable, with space and power outlets for all the appliances – fridge, microwave, coffee maker, TV and DVD/VCR – and a retractable work table can hold a laptop computer. The bunk had a thick mattress, and the natural light from the side windows added to the sleeper’s roomy feel.

The Cascadia has enough storage for a team. The entire under-bunk space is dedicated to storage. Plus, there are cabinets, drawers and shelves on both sides and an especially handy large, overhead bin above at the front.

One option is a LifeGuard Technologies seat that protects driver and passenger during rollovers. When the seat’s solid-state electronic gyroscope senses a rollover, the seat drops to the floor, the seat belt and shoulder harness tighten, and an air bag stored in the upper outside of the seat back inflates between the driver’s head and the door, all in less than a second.

Soon after crossing into Utah, we left the mountains and were treated to I-15’s gorgeous, mile-high drive across the rolling hills of Utah’s Iron, Beaver and Millard Counties, bordered by tall, far-off mountains on both sides. We saw the wildfires that had the previous week closed the highway. One near Nephi was still going strong, its huge smoke plume visible from many miles away.

We wanted to reach Salt Lake City before dark, so during our second short break, I asked why we were going so slowly. Back on the road, the lead driver, likely somewhat offended, hammered down, and we streaked toward the city at 75 mph, rarely slowing down.

At that speed, in even a moderate crosswind, big trucks are known to shake, shimmy and sway. But handling the Cascadia at 75 mph was like handling it at 65 mph, except we made better time. We left Provo behind at reduced speed, and soon shadows from western mountains slowly climbed the Wasatch Range east of SLC as the sun set. We pulled into the Freightliner dealership just after dark.

The trip took about eight hours, including two half-hour stops. We didn’t dip the 120-gallon tanks for accurate fuel mileage, but the fuel gauge said my tanks were full at the trip’s beginning and about a third down at trip’s end. Accounting for the unusable 12-15 percent in each tank, that’s about 70 gallons, slightly more than six miles per gallon over 450 mountainous miles at 65-75 mph and 78,000 pounds.

The Cascadia’s price, says Rick Eubanks, Freightliner’s general manager for the western United States, “will be a premium over the Columbia and Century,” which it will replace by 2010.

Specs As Tested
Truck: 2008 Freightliner Cascadia 125″ BBC with 72″ Raised Roof Sleeper
Engine: Detroit Diesel Series 60 455 hp, 1,550 lb.-ft. torque
Engine Brake: Jacobsen
Transmission: 10-Speed Eaton-Fuller Standard Shift
Steering: Rack and Pinion with Sealed Bushings
Steer Axle Capacity: 12,000 pound
Drive Axle Capacity & Ratio: 40,000 pound, 3:58
Air Brake System: WabCo Anti-Lock w/ Air Dryer & Heater
Brakes: Steer: Meritor 15 by 4 with Conmet Drums; Drive: Meritor 16 .5 by 7 w/ Conmet Drums
Hubs: Steer and Drive: Conmet Preset Bearing Aluminum
Wheels: Steer and Drive: Accuride 22.5 by 8.25 Steel Discs
Tires: Steers and Drive: Bridgestone 295/75R22.5
Interior A/C Compressor: Sanden Heavy Duty
Bunk Width 40 Inches
Wheel Base Length: 232 Inches
Fuel Tank Capacity: 120-Gallon Aluminum
GVW: 78,000 pounds
Length of Drive: 450 miles

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