Evolution evolves: Freightliner adds gas power to Cascadia’s aero package

The natural gas-powered Cascadia driven in the test drive.The natural gas-powered Cascadia driven in the test drive.

Napa Valley, Calif., has become an annual locale for Freightliner to present news and updates on various industry issues. And what’s the point of holding court if you don’t let folks take your trucks out for a spin once the PowerPoint portion of the visit is done?

Freightliner, a big believer in natural gas, provided an ISX12 G-equipped Cascadia Evolution daycab tractor for me to evaluate on an extended test drive. The Evolution aerodynamics package it started offering last year for the Cascadia has been a big hit; the company has sold more than 15,000 units of this highly refined and carefully sculpted tractor, so adapting a version for natural gas seemed an obvious choice.

Diesel-powered Cascadia Evolution tractors are achieving 8 to 9 mpg and higher. I rode with Henry Albert – former Overdrive Trucker of the Year – in his new Cascadia to verify that he is achieving a consistent 10 mpg through a combination of aerodynamics, good driving practices and technology.  Click here to see that coverage.

Due mostly to its lower Btu content, natural gas does not match diesel’s fuel economy. Most fleets are reporting about 6 mpg, although the lower price of natural gas – less than half that of diesel most of the time – compensates for this. That said, boosting fuel economy with an aerodynamic daycab is important no matter what fuel is used.

When it was time to drive, the long Napa Valley was crammed with wine enthusiasts looking for their next Merlot fix, so I headed east and picked up Interstate 5 north. The roads cleared almost immediately, and soon I was cruising easily up and down sage-brown rolling hills.

While the truck is a definite head-turner thanks to the ultra-modern Evolution aero package, at its core it’s a daycab without any luxurious appointments. Natural gas engines are quieter than diesel engines, says Robert Carrick – Freightliner’s Western regional product manager, natural gas. That fact – combined with Freightliner’s excellent soundproofing and the reduced wind noise from the Evolution’s aerodynamics – makes for a remarkably quiet truck in any road setting.

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Behind the wheel, I was reminded what a great job Freightliner does to deliver an automotive-like feel to the driver. The way the seat, instruments and dash are configured provides a snug, contoured feel. The addition of hood-mounted wide-angle mirrors is a nice touch and makes traffic checks a cinch. The mirrors are virtually vibration-free and are integrated seamlessly into the vehicle’s overall aesthetics.

Hauling a tad more than 50,000 pounds, I found acceleration, cruising and passing to be no problem. Thanks to 400 natural gas horses coming out of the ISX12 G in front of me and an optimized Allison 4000 Series automatic transmission putting that power to the drive axle, there was no need to wring my hands about the “power deficit” you hear people talk about when it comes to natural gas. Configure the truck properly, and your drivers will have no problem reaching and remaining at highway speeds.

Cummins has delivered a perfect midrange natural gas engine that can serve a wide array of on-highway and regional-haul applications. Freightliner has complemented this effort with efficient options for compressed natural gas tank placement; several side- or back-of-cab-mounting configurations ensure that customers will not have to sacrifice body modifications. Freightliner, working with Cummins, has delivered a daycab tractor that gets its work done efficiently and looks good while doing so.

Related: What owner-operators need to know about natural gas