ON THE ROAD
Coming to the Volvo from another test just the week before was a night-and-day experience. Previously I had driven the Mack Pinnacle with 13-speed manual and the Volvo was as different as any truck imaginable. And it was most curious as the products are both from Volvo AB divisions.
The VT830 was at once easier to drive. Hit the shift lever and the transmission selects the starting gear, usually #2. However, the transmission controller does have the ability to sense the slope that the truck is sitting on, so it could select other gear positions. And it can be overridden – at least on this level of I-Shift – by the driver. Squeezing down on the footfeed calls for motion from the truck, rather than rpms from the engine. It's all a little uncanny – more like driving a car than a truck.
The clutch closes extremely smoothly and quickly and the D16 engine – with 1,000 pounds-feet at idle – picks up the speed very smartly.
The transmission picks up gear really smoothly and has the intelligence to skip shift when conditions allow. It is also sensitive to throttle position, so will upshift early, making best use of the available massive torque from the D16 engine. The transmission is uncanny in its ability to give just the right gear for the situation, even when you change your mind about what you want to do.
Early in the drive I shifted lanes at a traffic light, getting on the power after a light braking application. Despite the slop in the tank and the change of acceleration, the transmission selected the appropriate gear and left me to sort out the traffic and complete the lane change smoothly.
At the turnaround I checked the driver display and found that I had spent 91 percent of the driving time in the engine's sweet spot. But despite this, the computer told me I'd blown the bonus and finished up with an average 5.8 mpg. So I tried a little harder on the return leg, shooting for those double $$ on the display and scoring a 92 percent sweet-spot at the end of the day and a return economy of 6.3 mpg.
Considering the available 600 horsepower, the give-and-take driving conditions of the route, a few miles of construction and the inevitable backup of traffic, this was remarkable fuel economy. Especially considering the lack of aero aids, the smaller frontal area of the 830 versus the 880 and the tubular aspect of the tank trailer and the fact that the tractor boasted only four and a half thousand miles on the odometer. Most trucks don't get into their fuel economy stride until they have at least 50,000 miles under the wheels.
The drive was extremely relaxed, and Saxman and I had the privilege of a civilized conversation all the while, thanks to the incredibly low noise levels. I have found that the VN was always the benchmark for interior noise levels, but that recent new truck intros had eroded its leadership position in this area. However, this drive more than re-emphasized the Volvo's position at the head of the pack, cruising at an indicated 65-66 db (A) and never rising above 70 under any circumstance.
In all, the driving experience was thoroughly uneventful. It steered and stopped, cornered, accelerated – and all the while rode like a dream. The only disconcerting thing was the relative complexity of the controls. So much was available in terms of cruise control, engine brake control, downhill cruise and driver display information that I felt I was not taking advantage of all the truck could offer. I was merely holding on to the steering wheel and letting the truck do everything for me.
And I guess that's no bad thing. At least I was able to maintain an intelligent conversation – at least I thought so – while keeping the truck safety under control. I believe I could have done better with the economy with more familiarization, but maybe not. Optimized operation is the beauty of the fully integrated engine and transmission in a chassis that's designed for aerodynamic efficiency and optimal ride and handling.
A word must be inserted about the Volvo Link Sentry that is bundled with every VT – indeed, with every '07-powered Volvo.
At its most basic, Volvo Link is the driver's assurance that service and assistance are available 24/7 and completely automatically. In fact, there are times when they know more about what the truck is doing over in Greensboro that the driver does. For example, the engine may throw a fault code that is transmitted over Volvo Link. The system in the operations room interprets the code and decides whether its necessary to alert the driver or his manager that there is something that needs attention.
But Volvo Link is a powerful management tool, too. It comes with a suite of Internet-delivered tools that add up to a complete driver and vehicle management suite of software that includes truck and driver reporting.
Information such as fuel used, distance traveled and miles per gallon are available off the truck. There's the amount of sweet spot time, driving above or below preset roads speeds, cruise control use, idle time and fuel consumed, total fuel used for the week (which can help detect fuel theft), low battery voltage, diesel particulate filter status and diagnostic code summary.
But there are also driver management functions too, including weekly summaries of interventions by Volvo Enhanced Stability Technology (VEST), the advanced vehicle stability system standard on all Volvo highway trucks, antilock brake activations, traction control assistance events, wheel spinouts.
Of course, the data does not have to be used. But it's there and it's included with every Volvo, so why wouldn't a fleet make use of such information?
The Volvo heavy truck, whether VN, VHD or VT, is a sophisticated, highly complex and integrated vehicle that, like computer software, has so many more features the deeper you delve into it.
The VT, though, overlays this with a huge performance plus when equipped with the top-of-the-line 600-horsepower Volvo D16 engine. Back it up with the I-Shift automated transmission and you have a truck that offers so much added performance along with the ease of driving a car. It is comfortable, quiet competent, and economical.
As a business tool, it is a great driving machine. It's what integration is all about.