This Kenworth T170 is an example. Its chassis and powertrain are engineered for Class 5 hauling jobs, but its big-rig-style cab makes you feel like you got more than you expected.
The T170's frame, powertrain, axles, suspension and brakes have sufficient heft for its 19,500-pound gross vehicle weight rating, but not so much that the "little" KW must be priced out of the segment. In fact, it costs only $2,000 to $3,000 more than a volume-produced Class 5 truck, and with factory incentives it might be priced about the same, according to Dave Effinger, general manager of Peterson Truck Center in Louisville, Ky., who had the truck prepared for my recent drive.
The T170's cab is virtually the same as the rugged aluminum structure used in KW's heavy Ts and Ws, which you'd know as soon as you hop in and try to close the door. With the windows shut, the door hits an air bubble because the cab is air-tight. You've got to crack open your window and then close it.
That's part of a KW's charm, and drivers will appreciate it so much that they'll probably ignore the cramped confines inside. The cab is tall but comparatively narrow and short. The narrowness is okay if only one or two guys will be in the truck, but the shortness means you can't move the seat back to stretch your legs.
Though there's no dog house inside, the firewall cants in at the bottom to make room for the engine under the short hood. This forces the accelerator and brake pedals rearward, and I had to bend my right leg 90 degrees to operate them. The extended-cab option on Class 8 Kenworths would improve matters, but it's not available in midrange models.
Now, eyes up to the instrument panel. The big-rig-style rectangular shape has a wood-grain finish and large, simple gauges that provide no-nonsense information. Never mind that there really aren't that many (speedo, tach, three engine-condition indicators and fuel level), because there's also an electronic readout with further info. The headlight switch is an easy-operating push-pull type. It's at the lower-left corner of the dash instead of up and to the right of the steering wheel, as the toggle and rocker switches are on many big KWs.
The cab offers good outward visibility through large, multiple windows, including optional curved glass in each rear corner. The view over the short, sloped hood is good to the front but more limited to the right side, until I got used to peering over it and through the peep window in the passenger's door. The flat glass in each mirror was remotely adjustable, so the view to the rear was good, as well.
An air-ride seat with a built-in compressor (the truck has hydraulic brakes and therefore no air system) had many adjustments, and a tilt-and-telescoping steering column allows just-right wheel placement for almost anyone.
This little T had the optional Allison 1000 Rugged Duty Series 5-speed automatic transmission that removed most of the work of driving. On its push-button selector was an M-for-manual button and Up and Down arrows that allow you to control shifting, but I soon left it alone because the tranny seemed to know what it was doing. It made the most of the gutsy 260-horsepower Paccar PX-6 diesel, shifting up or down just about when I would've. It downshifted almost aggressively as I slowed for traffic lights. An exhaust brake was very powerful, all but eliminating the need for the hydraulic-disc service brakes except at very low speeds. The exhaust brake rapped like a Jake, something guys and gals who enjoy driving will appreciate.
The T170's lively performance was impressive because there were several tons of stone in the aluminum dump bed behind the cab. Only the well-settled ride hinted at the weight, but running with an empty body a little later during my visit added a bit of bounce to the driving experience. Still, the ride was smooth and not at all harsh.
That dump bed was one of numerous types available with an Ampliroll dual-pivot hook-lift body, which turns any truck into a multi-tasker. While the hydraulic hook-lift mechanism isn't cheap, it allows one truck to do the work of two, three or more. Merrel Corp., the equipment manufacturer, makes bodies, as do companies it has partnered with, according to its web site . Peterson technician Terry Julius dropped the loaded dump bed into a slot at the rear of the parking lot and pulled aboard an empty dumper of another style - a third body nearby was a flatbed - and I was back on the road.
Maneuvering the truck for the body switch was easy because it had a tight turning radius - something I further proved by spinning it in circles several times - and backing it was a no-worry exercise because of all the windows in the rear of the cab.
The T170 was a fun truck to drive and it has all indications of being a rugged and long-lived one, too.
(For more information on the Ampliroll, visit their web site, www.amplirollusa.com.)
From the July 2008 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.