Kenworth’s new medium-duty truck line features models ranging from Class 5 to 'light' 8 with new safety features and an automotive feel behind the steering wheel. - Photo: Jack Roberts

Kenworth’s new medium-duty truck line features models ranging from Class 5 to 'light' 8 with new safety features and an automotive feel behind the steering wheel.

Photo: Jack Roberts

Kenworth engineers have been busy of late. With its Next Generation T680 tractor updated and refreshed, the OEM barely caught its breath before releasing an all-new medium-duty truck line to the North American market with a host of modern safety features, a brand-new automatic transmission and a distinct automotive feel for drivers.

At a ride-and-drive press event in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, on April 1, Kenworth offered North American truck journalists the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of several of its new medium duty line, with vehicles covering pretty much the entire stable of vehicles, from Classes 5 through 7. The new models are the Kenworth T180 (Class 5), T280 (Class 6), T380 (Class 7) and T480 (light Class 8) – and only the tractor versions, available for the T380 and T480 models were absent from the day’s driving lineup.

Kenworth has always done an excellent job paying homage to “Classic” American long-nosed truck styling. And the medium-duty line continues this time-honored styling tradition with resplendent, wide chrome grills, broad-stance fenders and long, sloping hoods accenting a modern cab loaded with new safety technologies and ergonomic comforts for drivers.

“Our new lineup sets the industry standard for quality, performance, reliability and durability throughout the many diverse, medium duty applications in the U.S. and Canadian markets,” Kevin Baney, Kenworth general manager, told journalists before the drives began. “These Kenworth models possess excellent versatility and maneuverability, spacious 2.1-meter wide cab, exceptional visibility and driver-focused ergonomics, and new PACCAR TX-8 transmission.”

Kenworth’s new medium duty vehicles are designed to serve an expansive variety of applications including cargo and reefer van, beverage, tow and recovery, utility and government, fuel oil and propane, landscaping, fire and dump and mixer, Baney added. The trucks can be specified with either a standard low roof or a raised roof option. The low roof is 63 inches tall, 4 inches shorter than the raised roof, making it ideal for height-restricted applications. Three new three hood types round out the truck’s exterior options, with each one designed with the lineup’s application versatility foremost in mind. These hood options include a short aero hood (107.5-inch BBC) that accommodates front axles from 8,000  to 20,000 lbs., medium aero hood (109.5-inch BBC) for higher horsepower and AWD applications, and Kenworth’s vocational ‘sloped’ hood for the T380V and T480V. The shorter wheelbases produce a tighter turning radius and enhanced maneuverability for urban or vocational operating environments.

Nimble and Capable Baby 8 Mixer

I opted to literally go big for my first test drive of the morning, climbing up into the cap of a gorgeous, ruby-red Kenworth T480V with a large gray McNeilus mixer mounted behind the cab. The truck is essentially a “Baby 8” model, set up for tight urban and suburban concrete work.

Settling behind the steering wheel, the first thing I noticed was the expansive feel to the new cab, which is noticeably larger and more airy feeling than cabs on the previous generation Kenworth medium duty models. If you think how much more comfort just another inch or two gives you in a airplane seat, then it’s easy to understand what an additional 8-inches of width means for these new Kenworth medium duty trucks. The wider cab naturally equates to a wider wheel track and stance for the new trucks, which, in turn, creates a more comfortable road while delivering a host of new seating options capable of accommodating three full-size adults. The expansive feel inside the trucks is enhanced by the new roof configurations. You can spec either a standard low-, or raised-roof option. Both offer ample headroom – even if you’ve got a hardhat perched on top of your head. But at 63 inches, the low roof is 4 inches lower than the raised roof, still making it ideal for height-restricted applications.

Thanks to its deep, 55-inch wheel cuts, the Class 7 Kenworth T480V had no problem starting out its test drive with a tight, 180-degree u-turn. - Photo: Jack Roberts

Thanks to its deep, 55-inch wheel cuts, the Class 7 Kenworth T480V had no problem starting out its test drive with a tight, 180-degree u-turn.

Photo: Jack Roberts

Turning the key delivered a throaty roar from the Paccar PX-9 diesel under the hood, while the truck’s center dash screen lit up brilliantly as the new Kenworth seven-inch high-definition digital display came to life in front of me. The new display screen was developed concurrently with the new version found on the Next Generation T680, however, as Baney explained to me after my drive, Kenworth opted to center the display on its vocational models between four standard analog gauges, since customer focus groups found this “old school” instrument arrangement is still the preferred system for medium duty drivers. Still, just like in the Next Generation T680, the new screen allows drivers to quickly and easily personalize information that is shown on the screen to match their personal preferences.

Also new is a premium cabin climate system with standard automatic temperature control, which maintains the user selected temperature with a single push of a button. Optional backwall lining with thermal insulation is available to assist with temperature control in extreme environments and to help further reduce the cab’s noise level.

Reaching down, I keyed “D” into the familiar, rectangular, Allison 4500RDS transmission control panel and eased out to make a tight 180-degree turn and begin my first lap through downtown Phoenix. Thanks to the deep 55-inch wheel cuts on the T480, the big mixer handled this tight maneuver deftly, and with a smooth rumble from the PX-9 up front headed down the road.

Right away, the passenger car-like feeling inside the T480V was obvious, with generous views out to the front and down to the sides of the cab. The ride is exceptionally smooth and quiet inside the cab, with tight steering that allows you confidence even in construction zones and on tight downtown streets. The 380 horsepower PX-9 diesel provides plenty of low-end torque and settles into a contented purr once you’ve got the truck up to your desired cruise speed. The overall “automotive” feel to the new T480V is rounded out by a host of new advanced driver safety systems, including lane-departure warning, blind-stop detection, and collision mitigation systems. Taken as a whole, the package presents big-rig capabilities in a smaller, nimbler and quicker package that is right at home on narrow roads and in tight urban settings.

Smooth-Shifting New Transmission

One of the primary new features offered with the brand-new Kenworth medium-duty lineup is the new Paccar TX-8 automatic transmission – developed in partnership with German Tier 1 automotive supplier ZF. The new transmission is a full automatic gearbox (with a torque converter) that Laura Bloch, assistant general manager for sales and marketing at Kenworth, told me was designed for a wide range of applications from pickup and delivery to utility service and a variety of vocational applications. When matched to the PACCAR PX-7 or PACCAR PX-9 engine, the transmission has a maximum torque rating of up 1,000 lb.-ft. of torque and a 57,000-lb. GCWR.

“More than 90% of Kenworth medium-duty trucks are ordered with an automatic transmission,” she added. “In addition to the performance and smooth shifting the Paccar TX-8 provides, it’s also leading the way in fuel economy. Depending upon the application, it can improve fuel economy by up to 5%. It senses the road grade, vehicle acceleration, torque demand, weight and engine load to keep the truck in the most fuel-efficient gear possible.”

The new Paccar TX-8 automatic transmission gives the new Kenworth T280 a feel more akin to a large SUV in both traffic and at highway speeds.  - Photo: Jack Roberts

The new Paccar TX-8 automatic transmission gives the new Kenworth T280 a feel more akin to a large SUV in both traffic and at highway speeds. 

Photo: Jack Roberts

I was keen to try the new transmission myself. So my next test drive was in a sparkling gray, short wheelbase Kenworth T280 spec’d with a Valew water tank on its rear chassis. This sassy little truck was small and compact enough to weave through even the tightest city streets with plenty of power on hand thanks to a Paccar PX-7 diesel engine cranking out 325 horsepower. A lot of that low-end performance is courtesy of the new TX-8 transmission, which Block told me can provide up to a 15% boost in acceleration compared to previous medium duty options for Kenworth medium duty trucks.

The TX-8 is controlled by a right-hand, column-mounted transmission shifter that is fully integrated with the digital display. The shifter provides improved ergonomics and an additional cupholder over the pushbutton controller and features large toggle handles that can easily be manipulated by gloved hands.

Response to throttle inputs is smooth, quiet with precise shifts and a seemingly endless reserve of available torque. The transmission reacts instantly to throttle inputs and isn’t hesitant when it comes to selecting its next gear. In a smaller truck like the T280, the TX-8 definitely contributes to a feel that is very much like driving a large SUV down the highway, instead of a dedicated vocational truck. The spacious cab, the high-efficiency HVAC system, low interior noise levels and brilliantly lit dash board all work to further that passenger car like feel in a way that will give new drivers confidence while making more experienced drivers safer and more productive.

There’s nothing radical about Kenworth’s new medium duty line. Rather, the new trucks are simply and extension and a modern take on the company’s long-held philosophy concerning truck design – highly capable and tough trucks that have now added the latest technology and safety features in ways that build on decades worth of experience and performance with added safety, comfort and productivity.

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