Article

Driving Volvo's VT800

It's made for hauling heavy loads in contemporary style and comfort.

February 2006, TruckingInfo.com - Test Drives

by Tom Berg, Senior Equipment Editor

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Heavy hauling has to be one of the more challenging ways to make a living, what with massive loads and the demands on driver skills and equipment mettle.

Rigs wearing "Wide Load" banners fore and aft sometimes require special escorts, but even when running solo they grab everyone's attention by virtue of their sheer heft and display of powerful mechanical force. You just can't help admiring these rigs and the guys driving them.

When you think of a heavy-haul tractor you might not envision a Volvo, even though the builder offers the extra-heavy-duty VHD. Now Volvo is putting its latest model, the VT 800, into production, a tractor aimed directly at the heavy-haul vocation.

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The VT 800 is the non-sleeper version of the previously introduced VT 880, which is built around Volvo's 16-liter D16 diesel. Everything about the 880 is big, from its huge hood to its commodious sleeper. But many heavy-haul runs don't require a sleeper, and thus the VT 800.

A long and tall hood is a VT's most obvious feature, and it's needed to house the D16 and accommodate a 1,700-square-inch radiator to cool it. The D16's ratings range from 500 to 625 horsepower, while the optional Cummins ISX goes from 475 to 565 horsepower. A big radiator is important when a Big Power engine is pulling a heavy load up a long, steep grade at low speeds where there's little ram-air flow to help. It's even more important since the advent of exhaust-gas recirculation, which shrugs off additional heat into the engine's coolant. Come 2007, when higher doses of EGR will be used, that "rad" will get a still bigger job.

The big hood, headed by a chromed egg-crate grille and adorned with other bright-metal trim, also makes a wonderfully bold statement about the apparent capabilities of the tractor and the discriminating taste of its owner. The hood is about 8 inches longer than one on a VN, from which the VT series takes its styling cues – including Cadillac-like projector-beam headlamps and rounded contours in the fiberglass and sheet metal panels. The VT 800's bumper-to-back-of-cab measurement is 133.7 inches, so this is a long machine, even without a sleeper.

The VN's high-strength steel cab is also used on the VT, which means it's very stout and crashworthy. More important to everyday use, it's got more than ample dimensions in all directions. Some people prefer a narrow cab for a vocational truck, but it's hard to argue with the gracious feeling that spaciousness brings. It's a very quiet cab, which means you can converse with a partner in normal voice tones, and are shielded from most road noise. Yet you can hear enough engine sounds to appreciate what lurks under that hood.

STRONGEST DIESEL AROUND

The D16 is Volvo's largest engine and indeed is the strongest truck diesel now available. The 994-cubic-inch inline six was introduced in 2003 as the European D16C (the latest in a series that goes back 20 years). With an exhaust-gas recirculation system to make it emissions-legal in the United States and Canada, it becomes the D16D, though the D suffix is dropped from the designation here. Its features include an overhead camshaft operating four valves per cylinder, high-pressure fuel injection, a sliding-nozzle turbo and rear-mounted geartrain.

It is the first of a new family of engines that includes 11- and 13-liter sizes, and will be offered starting later this year and into '07. The basic architecture of all the engines is shared with Mack Trucks, Volvo Trucks North America's corporate sister. Each builder will make mechanical and electronic changes, so its version will behave somewhat differently. The D16 will be the basis of Mack's upcoming MP (for Mack Power) 10, due out in '07 or '08.

If you went to the truck show in Dallas last August, you might remember this very tractor. It's painted an unusual and striking color, called "golden amber," and has a lot of chrome and other polished metal trim. The interior trim package is equally deluxe. Called "supreme limited," it includes leather-covered seats and about a half-acre of nicely molded, well-fitting plastic panels on all wall surfaces, plus a panel across the top of the windshield. There are pockets for paperwork and holders for beverage containers, and ample storage space for tools and all kinds of other stuff behind the seats. The wide doors close with a solid thunk, and there are no rattles to mar the traveling experience.

VISIBILITY GOOD – DESPITE MASSIVE HOOD

You might think that hood would block a lot of forward and front-quarter vision from the driver, but that's not the impression at all. The hood slopes downward, making visibility to the front actually very good. Smaller cars and cycles can disappear directly along the right side, but good mirrors kept me informed of where they were. And I quickly learned to sense where the VT's corners were as I maneuvered on interstate highways and secondary roads.

My drive was out of Volvo Trucks' Greensboro, N.C., headquarters. Spokesman Jim McNamara had tapped contractor Kevin Thomas to set up an appropriate trailer and cargo: a Feree 50-foot by 102-inch tri-axle lowboy toting a Volvo L110E wheel loader. Thomas had obtained this same trailer for other Volvo excursions here and in Arizona, where the company unveiled the VT 880 last spring. The L110E provided enough weight – 42,000 pounds – to solidly ballast the already heavy steel trailer. The tractor alone scaled at just over 19,000 pounds with about 100 gallons of fuel. The rig weighed almost exactly 80,000 pounds, so this was not exactly a heavy haul run, but was hefty enough to simulate one.

As on a previous trip with a VHD tractor, Thomas guided me out of Greensboro on Interstate 40, north on U.S. 52 through Winston-Salem and beyond, then onto a set of state and county roads that took us back toward the interstate. We passed through East Bend, his home town, the rural house where he grew up, and other points of pride for him. As a boy he worked on his grandfather's farm, where he learned how to handle equipment. So lashing down the wheel loader onto the lowboy is among the many tasks that are second nature to Thomas.

He's also a smooth driver, and he tutored me on the best way to manipulate the balky gearshift on this VT. I can float-shift transmissions on certain other truck makes and models, but can't shift most Volvos worth a shoot. In this one, I had a devil of a time making decent upshifts in Low range, so Thomas advised me to upshift sooner than I was, at 900 or 1,000 rpm rather than 1,200 to 1,500. I tried it and it worked.

This D16 was rated at 550 horsepower, and it works like a 'dozer diesel at these low revs. Actually, in the first four gears of the transmission's Low range (Low through third in the Eaton Fuller 13-speed), the D16's Intelligent Torque feature limits output to 1,650 pounds-feet. Beginning in fourth gear, an extra 200 pounds-feet is made available. The idea is that maximum output isn't needed to pull a load at low road speeds, so why not avoid stressing gears, shafts and bearings until really necessary?

At higher speeds, the engine needs to rev a bit more, especially to maintain momentum on upgrades. Its most efficient range is 1,400 to 1,600 rpm, and that's where I tried to keep it. I was able to shift well in fifth through eighth gear, each of which of course can be split. The transmission regularly hung up in seventh gear (11th or 12th ratio) as I slowed for stop signs, but I learned to engage the clutch slightly during deceleration to break the apparent torque lock that the gearshift was imposing on the tranny. If I bought a Volvo, I'd get around the gearshift situation by ordering an Eaton Fuller AutoShift and let the electro-mechanical apparatus do the work.

Our meandering route through the scenic back country outside of Winston-Salem tested my ability to keep this wide rig between stripes, with some lanes only 10 feet wide and a rig that was close to 9. The lower edges of the loader's bucket hung over by 2 to 3 inches on each side of the trailer, blocking my mirror-view of the tridem's wheels except while going around corners. Then I could see that the wheels were following along just-so and the entire rig was responding as though I knew what I was doing.

Let the credit go to the VT's excellent maneuvering ability. The forward-set steer axle had enough wheel cut to allow sharp turns, swinging that big nose around almost as though it wasn't there. Helping, too, was the short 188-inch wheelbase – somewhat shorter than such a tractor would normally have. On the narrow straightaways, the TRW Ross power steering was stable and precise, and the ride smooth and shock-free. If not for the gearshift problems, this would've been the best truck I'd driven in many months.

You see more and more freight-hauling Volvos on the road, and now with the VT 800, you could well see some heavy haulers. If so, you can both admire and envy the driver, because he'll have one of the finest rides going.

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