Freightliner SD114 SFA  -  Photo: Tom Berg

Freightliner SD114 SFA

Photo: Tom Berg

Freightliner has long been a sales leader in on-highway tractors, and now it wants to dominate the vocational truck business with its recently designed Severe Duty products. Will they be up to the task?

In a test drive, the SD114 SFA (set-forward steer axle) looked and felt like it will. The styling suggests strength and hard work while retaining some streamlining. The cab was tight and the doors closed with a satisfying "thump." While under way it was quiet, with no rattles, and the hood didn't shake or move around. The ride was solid but smooth, steering was precise, the transmission shifted well. Everything appeared well bolted together. Will it stay that way? Time, miles and hours will tell, but for now I can say that it was a fine drive.

The cab is worth some discussion, because it ties with Freightliner's vocational-truck history. It's an aluminum unit from the Business Class M2 series, but it was not beefed up for severe service. That's because it was designed to be a vocational cab in the first place, representatives said. That was in the early 1990s, when Freightliner's top executives had initially planned to go after more vocational business.

Freightliner's Interrupted Vocational Plans

Meanwhile the company had the FLD-SD, and then came Sterling, formed when Freightliner bought the Ford Heavy Truck line. Top management decided to let Sterling dealers go after the vocational market, where Ford had been a strong player, and many did. But the resulting single-digit market share was not enough, and the Great Recession meant the death of Sterling.

The FLD-SD, based on the old and very popular highway tractors, was sold with enthusiasm by a few Freightliner dealers. It was also the basis for large truck and tractor orders from the U.S. Army. However, engineering the aging model to accept the 2010-spec diesels didn't make sense, so it went out of production in late 2009. The construction market had tanked with the economy, so there was no point in rushing the new SD series to production.

But now here it is, with the M2 cab as one of its major components. In addition to the regular daycab, it also can be had in extended-cab and crew-cab versions. This cab is now used as-is in the medium- and heavy-duty M2V (for vocational) variant of the Business Class, whose only real difference is the availability of an integral forward frame extension. The M2V and other vocational forms of the Business Class will phase out after the new SDs come on line over the next year.

The SD114, so named for its bumper-to-back-of-cab dimension in inches, comes with the forward-set steer axle, the SFA version you see here, and a setback-axle, or SBA, version. Our test truck had its steer axle placed 31 inches behind the bumper. A 29.5-inch setting is also available for a slightly longer "bridge" in states demanding it, like California.

The SBA model's axle setting is 48 inches behind the bumper, so it's closer to the load and can shoulder more of its weight. Some state laws encourage this, and the rearward axle placement shortens the effective wheelbase so maneuverability is better. It seemed to work that way for two SD114 SBAs that I drove briefly through an orange-coned course set up in a resort hotel's distant parking lot.

The SD114s are primarily Class 8 trucks. There's also an SD108, which comes only with a setback axle, placed 42 inches behind the bumper. It also uses the M2 cab but will usually be built as a Class 6 or 7 truck, reps said. Available axles make "heavy 7" versions possible, and one truck on display at the intro had a gross vehicle weight rating of 35,000 pounds. Cummins ISB6.7 and ISC8.3 are the available engines.

Smooth Shifter

This SD114-FSA was a pre-production model with only a few thousand miles on its odometer. So I expected a stiff gearshift lever, but no - its linkage was set up well enough for me to do clutchless shifts of the Eaton Fuller 8LL right off the bat. Yes, the clutch is there for a reason and I used it most of the time, but that I could float-shift says a lot for this aspect of the truck's design.

Also pleasing was its maneuverability, even with the forward-set 20,000-pound steer axle's big tires and wheels. I could make tight right turns on city streets from one right lane to the next, barely nudging the nose into a second lane on the street I entered. The wheel cut is said to be 45 degrees, which is good when you consider that on setback steer axles, which leave more room for wheel cut, it's usually 50 degrees.

That it rode smoothly with no load in the bed was a tribute to the fore and aft suspensions — taperleafs up front and a mechanical Tuf-Trac on the tandem — and how they worked with the main frame to control road-induced vibrations. Our test truck had two Hendrickson liftable and steerable pusher axles; with no load in the bed their wheels stayed in the air. With a load and the wheels pressing on the ground, the ride probably would've become slightly bouncy.

No load also meant the 450-horsepower DD13 loafed much of the time. I did climb one moderate upgrade, an on-ramp to the State Route 215 beltway on the far west side of Las Vegas, where I had to put my foot into it. On such a grade the Detroit would labor a bit if 20 or so tons of dirt, rock or whatever were in the bed.

If you need more go-ability, the DD13 goes to 470 horsepower and 1,650 pounds-feet. If you want still more, you've got to buy a stronger engine in a bigger chassis, which in Freightliner's case is the premium Coronado SD that comes with a DD15 or the Cummins ISX15. But 11-, 12- and 13-liter diesels have long been favored in heavy dump trucks, which theoretically run empty half the time, so the DD13 is the right size for many jobs.

Baby 8s

The SD114 can also be had with smaller-block diesels from Cummins: the 8.9-liter ISL9 and the ISC8.3. These "Baby 8s," defined as Class 8 trucks with midrange powertrains, would go to customers who want less tare weight and/or lower cost. Those midrange-size diesels save about 600 pounds and several thousand dollars compared to the large-bore DD13, which makes them attractive to mixer operators and municipalities.

Fleet managers who get their purchasing money from taxpayers want to show that they're frugal, and for them the SD108 and 114 come standard with a semi-gloss black grille and trim. Those who pay their own bills and want sharper looks can choose a chrome package, which includes 10 small accents in the black grille plus chrome bezels around the grille and headlamps. Chrome-plated mirrors, bumper and windshield visor are also available.

You might or might not like the rounded-angular hood styling and the overall looks of this SD. I did. The flexible wheel flares remind me of Mack's Granite and International's WorkStar. And that brings up a point: Freightliner will have to work very hard to make inroads in the construction and other vocational markets, because there are some well-entrenched competitors out there. We'll see how the new SD series goes.

From the May 2011 issue of HDT

About the author
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Former Senior Contributing Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978.

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