Heavy-duty Truck of the Year candidates await judging.

Heavy-duty Truck of the Year candidates await judging.

How do you compare a luxurious Ford F-650 with an Isuzu Reach cargo van? Two completely different trucks with different purposes in life. Such was the challenge of five trucking media judges at the 2012 American Truck Dealers Association's Commercial Truck of the Year competition. Our task was to look for innovation and design elements that made an outstanding contribution to each vehicle.

The judges, led by HDT Senior Editor Tom Berg, included four other trucking media judges with CDLs, including me. We executed our duties at the ADESA auto auction facility in Las Vegas in October, and the winners were announced  during ATD's annual convention.

The Kenworth T680 76-inch Sleeper with Paccar MX Engine was selected for the heavy-duty (Class 8) category. The Hino 195h, a diesel-electric hybrid, was selected for the medium-duty (Class 3-7) category.

Choosing those winners from the 10 entries in all was no walk in the park.

HEAVY-DUTY DIVISION

Cascadia Evolution: The judges were reminded that this truck was the one that achieved a remarkable 9.31 mpg average on a cross-country trip from San Diego Calif. to Gastonia, N.C. in May 2012. With that 800-pound gorilla strapped into the passenger seat, the rest of the brief test drive was a reminder of the subtle improvements Freightliner has wrought on the Cascadia over the years. This version claims a 7% fuel efficiency improvement over the current model, thanks to a new air dam, and a hood-to-bumper fill, new mirrors, cooling system improvements, etc. -- all small things that make incremental differences. Nothing bold or dramatic this time around.

The DT12 automated manual transmission was a bold difference. It's Daimler's first North American proprietary transmission, and it's a winner. The cab and driver environment hasn't been modified extensively, so it was predictably comfortable and quiet. It did have a high-end driver's seat and trim package elevating it from a typical fleet spec. No driver would be disappointed with a truck like this, and any fleet owner on the planet would have a hard time looking beyond its 9.31 mpg fuel economy achievement.  

Kenworth T680

The T680 wowed audiences at the 2012 Mid-America Trucking Show when it launched, and the appeal still hasn't worn off. From the driver's point of view, the most obvious enhancement is the 83-inch-wide cab. It's a new standard for Kenworth, and one that will attract the single driver who wants more room than the cozy T660 cab offers.

Kenworth went to some lengths with a new stamped aluminum cab design and sleeper designed for ease of repairability. Fleet owners will appreciate the cost savings associated with these changes, and the resulting decrease in downtime. The one-piece windshield uses a new adhesive that is said to cure much faster than previous versions.  

The T680 scores well on any driver interface item, like the dashboard, the storage amenities and driving position/visibility, etc. The passenger-side mirror is perfectly places for rear visibility without impeding the lateral view out the side window. Daily maintenance chores are predictably easy, with the check points all easy to see and address.   

The T680 gets top marks for internal noise levels and creature comforts, while keeping life-cycle costs low with low-maintenance, long-life components.

Peterbilt Model 579

Peterbilt took the template that became the T680 and the Model 579 in a slightly different direction than Kenworth did, to great success, I'd say. The engineers decided to leave the sleeper as a discreet, detachable unit, offering some additional reseal potential as a day-cab version after many hundreds of thousands of miles. The forward bulkhead of the sleeper is completely new, with a much larger walk-through opening. As a result, the roof lines of the cab and sleeper are low and very much in keeping with the traditional Pete styling. Drivers will like the open and airy cab, but those that prefer the compact 379-style cockpit will be equally at home. It's a brilliant compromise.

The dash line in the truck is lower than the Model 587, and top of the windshield is higher, so overall there's more glass, which gives the driver unsurpassed forward visibility. As well, the beltline in the side windows was lowered somewhat. Together, they offer more of that open feeling -- without feeling like you're sitting in a fishbowl. It's quiet and solid on the road, and the daily maintenance chores – as well as the PM chores won't be any more of a bother than before.

Western Star 4700SF

The Western Star was the only vocational truck in this year's Class 8 lineup, but it sure didn't suffer in the comparison with its long-haul brothers. Sure the suspension was stiffer and the ride a little rougher, but if it wasn't I'd have wondered how it would handle it's intended workplace. There were a few tons of gravel in the box, but the truck was far from fully loaded, which would have smoothed the ride.

The 20K front axle and the super-wide tires under a 110-inch-BBC cab look really sharp, but the maneuverability was remarkable too. The short hood improves visibility in the tight environments where it will see service, so it's anything but a compromise. The driver workspace is as well appointed as any over-the-road truck would be, with traditional Western Star dash and button-tuck upholstery. It was surprisingly quiet, too, for an uncarpeted floor.

This truck was set up as a dump with a typical North Carolina lift-axle array, but the clean back of cab and the body-builder friendly electrical layout, any number of vocational applications are possible, from snowplows to vacuum trucks and anything in between. This truck has the potential to put Western Star back on top of the vocational heap.  [PAGEBREAK]

Medium-duty Truck of the Year candidates.

Medium-duty Truck of the Year candidates.

MEDIUM-DUTY DIVISION

Ford F-650

Notable on this F-650 was the 6.8-liter V-10 gasoline engine and the Ford 6R410 6-speed double-overdrive transmission. The V-10 replaces a heavier, noisier and vastly more expensive diesel engine. This one came equipped with gaseous fuel prep package for conversion to compressed natural gas or propane.

As vocational trucks go, it was very well appointed. Drivers would kill to spend 10 hours a day in a cab like this one. The ride was a little stiffer than I expected, but the gasoline engine made it very quiet. The pickup-like driving position was a bit of a departure from the typical utility truck driver ergonomics, but I could get used to it pretty quickly. It was equipped with a tailgate dump, making it a good candidate for landscapers or paving contractors.   

Hino 195h

I was expecting a traditionally small-ish cab from Hino, but the company boasts that the 195h features enough for a fellow with a 6-foot-six frame and size 13 shoe. It's true. And the visibility has been improved as well, with a thinner and more steeply raked A-pillar.

The other little surprise was the hybrid diesel-electric powertrain. It's a 6th-generation drivetrain, with all those previous generations' worth of kinks worked out. This one works flawlessly. It uses regenerative braking to recapture wasted energy, and it launches with the electric motor, saving even more energy at startup. The transition between electric and diesel is seamless, and the driver has a gauge to tell what mode the truck is in. It's so quiet you can hardly tell the difference.   

Isuzu Reach

The hallmarks of a good curbside van are not necessarily driver comfort and quiet ride, but safe entry and egress, as well as easy access to the cargo body. The Reach fits those bills admirably. The body was built by Utilimaster Corporation and mounted on an Isuzu NPR ECO-Max chassis. It's powered by an Isuzu 4JJ1-TC 3-liter turbocharged engine producing 150 horsepower. It's mated to an Aisin medium-duty 6-speed automatic transmission with double overdrive.

Access to the engine is easy from the hood or inside the cab and the daily check points are in easy reach for the driver. There are numerous safety features as well, including highly visible tread-grip entry steps, integrated yellow cab-entry handles and optional back-up camera with 7-inch LCD color monitor.

Kenworth K370

Who needs or wants a hood in a urban workspace? While a COE configuration is ideal in a tight environment, the traditional arguments against this body style disappear in the K370. It's as roomy as any conventional, and a darned sight easier to parallel park. With a 55-degree wheel cut, it feels like you're driving it sideways. What's more, the truck's European heritage ensures it's built for comfort and driver retention. Kenworth left no stone unturned in refining this truck for North American service. Our traditional fondness for conventional bodies melts away with the attractiveness and functionality of the COE body. This truck had Paccar's PX-6 6.7-liter 220-horsepower engine with 520 pounds-feet of torque mated to an Allison 2500 HS transmission.

Peterbilt 337

The Extended Cab feature of the Pete 337 dissolves concerns about cramped working conditions. The raised roof adds 6 inches of head room and the back wall is pushed out 10 full inches. Wider, rounder and taller drivers will be much more comfortable in a 337 than ever before. Any driver will appreciate the added belly room, and the ability to recline the seat to a comfortable napping angle of 23 degrees for those quieter moments.

Peterbilt has added 4 cubic feet of storage space along the back wall, beneath an enlarged rear window. The visibility to the rear is excellent and a nice feature for roll-on tow applications or in a P&D tractor setup. 

Judging a contest like this is a no-win for the judges. Each truck is special in its own way, and it's darned tough to compare a curb-side van to a COE delivery chassis. But each has some feature that we as judges though was special enough to warrant special notice.

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