The new model's distinguishing features were the availability of big power – up to 625 horsepower of Volvo 16-liter and a commanding hood and grille to appeal to the individual who wants status.
The big hood and grille were partly to cool the 600+ horsepower engines, of course, including the Volvo D16 engine with 2,250 pounds-feet of torque.
That was then. For 2007, the rating of the D16 is a little more conservative: It goes 600 horsepower and 2,050 pounds-feet, but still is one of the most powerful truck engines in the world.
In fact, the D16 is the standard power in the VT, available from 500 horsepower. Optional is the Cummins ISX from 425 horsepower, which gives a slight weight advantage on the front axle because the Volvo engine is a hefty chunk of iron. But it is robust, reliable and fuel efficient – as 16-liter Volvos around the world consistently prove.
Here it is teamed with the VT830, the mid-rise roof version of the model. It was introduced in 2006 to round out the VT range with a tractor that could pull a flatbed, grain trailer, stake & rack or tank with better air penetration than the tall VT880, yet offer no compromise in interior room. In this test we are coupled with an unbaffled tank and loaded to 74,000 pounds to give the 830 something to work against.
The tank was also there to demonstrate the intelligence of the I-Shift transmission, Volvo's automated 12-speed that incorporates a number of unique features that differentiates it from the Eaton Ultrashift and the Meritor FreedomLine (aka ZF AS Tronic).
The unbaffled tank allows the product – water in this test case – to slosh from end to end under acceleration. That presents some very peculiar timing problems for shifting – accelerating in the middle of a low-range shift, for instance. Working around this could be a task for an automated transmission, so we were anxious to see how it would perform.
The test was based out of Volvo Trucks North America headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., We drove from Greensboro to Roanoke on Routes 68-220 northwest across the mountains and then north on I-81 to White's truck Stop in Raphine, Va. (205 mile marker) and return.
The 325-mile trip was accomplished in just one day, but I took a small jaunt on Day Two to finish up the various measurements and put the sound level meter on this incredibly quiet truck.
We didn't take time to physically weigh the tractor but according to Volvo, the weight with 300 gallons of fuel was almost 21,000 pounds. But if it was heavy, it included the 18-inch ring gear heavy-duty Meritor RT-40-160 drive axle and the mating heavy PriMaax suspension. The weight slip in the truck was around 73,500.
According to the line-set ticket, this unit was specified as a show truck and looked every inch the part. The purple metallic paint was complemented by a slew of Panelite bright parts outlining the cab and sleeper, with lighted accents along the lower edges. A nice touch were the polished stainless steel winglets high up on the sleeper cap.
A quick walkaround showed a few changes to the VT, including a new light stack in the bumper that continues the angular line through the headlamps and it gives a strong styling tie to the cabover FH models sold elsewhere in the world.
Other differences included a change to the steps that allows quick access behind. The tea-kettle diesel particulate filter occupies this space on the passenger side, the air tanks and four batteries are on the driver side.
With its 274-inch wheelbase, there's frame real estate to accommodate twin 150-gallon fuel tanks and still leave space for a toolbox on one side and a Cummins Comfort Pro diesel auxiliary power unit on the other. No side skirts are available.
In fact, with the exception of those winglets, there's precious little added aero aid for the smooth cab profile. Even the exhaust stacks sit outboard at the corners of the cab where they add to the brightwork that distinguishes the VT models.
Also adding bling are big chrome mirrors on each side. New this year is a repeater turn signal in the mirror glass that is another signal of intent to four wheelers, and serves as a reminder to the driver if the turn signal is left on.
The cab is the familiar VN in its longest version at 77 inches for the sleeper. The 830 has the mid-rise roof, which allows for full standing height inside, with only a small rise externally to suit the profile of lower trailer configurations. It's worth noting that the VT is also available as the day cab VT800, ideal for heavy-haul applications with the D16.
The cab is highly tooled and manufactured from high-strength steel, giving it renowned Volvo crash survivability. The cab is able to withstand the Swedish series of crash tests – more stringent than ECE29, Europe's cab test criteria that most trucks these days are designed to withstand. In addition, the front end is designed to let the engine and transmission package slide down and backwards under the cab in a head-on accident.
In this truck, the engine and transmission package is an example of the best of vertical integration: an intelligent engine coupled to an equally intelligent transmission, both optimized for each other.
The D16 was the first of the new Volvo AB engines to appear, coming on the scene in Europe in 2003 with its back-to-front – or rather front-to-back – camshaft and accessory drive.
The engine featured a rear drive for the camshaft – not the first time it has ever been done, but something of a revolution, nevertheless. It is at the rear for a very specific reason: to pass the camshaft torsional vibrations as directly as possible into the flywheel to dampen them out. These torsional become increasingly problematic as injection pressures rise with each emissions step.
In the case of the new Volvo engines, the pressure is generated from the fuel cam for each cylinder that has to do more work building pressure to 35,000 psi. And this pressure and the associated rear drive location are now common across the three Volvo (and Mack) engines for 2007 – the 11-, 13- and 16-liter diesels.
All feature the latest high-flow exhaust gas recirculation and diesel particulate filter with uniquely Volvo features, like enhanced back-pressure warm-up through electronic variable turbocharger control. Another is the cute bypass that recirculates inlet around the turbo during DPF regeneration, raising exhaust temperature and minimizing fuel used.
Peak power from the 16-liter is steady at 600 between 1,500 and 1,800 rpm. Peak torque, though, is where it's at, and it's flat between 1,200 and 1,500 rpm, with a whopping 2,050 pounds-feet. But it's over 1,850 pounds-feet from 1,100 to 1,700 rpm, making it enormously flexible and it's still making 1,550 pounds-feet at 1,000 rpm, meaning it'll really lug down if necessary.
But with the I-Shift it doesn't need to. The transmission is watching what is happening and takes over engine control function.
Ed Saxman, Volvo's powertrain marketing manager explained it this way as I pulled away at the start of the test: "It's not the throttle telling the engine to speed up. It's the I-Shift saying'I want to go now.' "
You can see that in the built-in abuse protection. Saxman told me to rev the engine to 1,800 rpms, then drop the transmission into Drive. Nothing happens but a smooth take off of the truck. No drama, no gears spread all over the road.
This intelligence allows the transmission to work with the engine to keep the rpms in the "sweet spot" during driving. The driver display and software keep track, with a couple of $$ symbols in the display showing that the truck is running in its efficient combination of throttle position and engine speed. Stray outside that and one $ symbol will disappear, get too far adrift and both disappear. If you spend enough time in the sweet spot, the software rewards this careful driving with a bonus of additional top speed. Stay away from it long enough like I did, and it will punish you by cutting your bonus.
Features unique to the I-Shift are the Eco-Roll and the integration with the engine brake that effectively gives a downhill cruise. Eco-Roll allows the engine to drop down to idle on slight downgrades, effectively giving back about 30 horsepower to the truck. Another cool feature is the idle governor driving mode, which allows for fully engaged clutch at idle speeds, especially useful in backing maneuvers and in crawling traffic.
Other features include a manual hold position and a driver-selectable economy or performance mode (when enabled). These are selectable on the neat, seat-mounted shifter. The unit is unobtrusive in its normal position, but it can be lowered to make getting out of the driver seat and back to the sleeper even easier.
The base transmission is a 12-speed range and splitter Volvo and the "O" in the number indicates this is a 0.78 to one overdrive box. With the axle ratio of 3.21 and 22.5-inch Bridgestone rubber, the truck is geared to run 1,270 rpm at 60 mph, smack in the middle of the tachometer's green band between 1,000 and 1,600 rpm. Incidentally, the red band starts at 2,200 rpm, where the engine can be run at the Volvo Engine Brake's peak performance of 600 retarding horsepower.
Another technology feature incorporated in to the VT – and all new Volvos with 2007 engines – is Volvo Link Sentry, a full communications package tied into the truck's databus that brings a wealth of truck management and uptime tools that I'll touch on in operational factors.
As far as the rest of the chassis is concerned, the VT is fairly conventional, with heavy-duty Meritor drive axles to live with the engine's massive torque, a tight-turning Volvo steer axle powered by a TRW steering gear. The tandem suspension is interesting, because this is the first time we have tested a truck with the Hendrickson PriMaax setup. It is a heavy-duty parallelogram air suspension that maintains drive pinion angle throughout the suspension travel. This minimizes driveline vibration and also provides good reaction to the engine torque without the rise and squat of a trailing arm suspension.
IN THE CAB
A neat feature of the Volvos is the way the steps are organized, tapering in toward the top so you can see them clearly going up or down. Also, there are excellent grab handles both sides of the door opening for that three-point safety climb up to the driving seat.
From the driving seat, high relative to the dash and the window line, the view out is spectacular. And because of the relatively low beltline, the view to the passenger side is still good even with the wide cab. The hood does intrude just a little more than the VN's, which is almost invisible from the driver seat. But the sight to the ground at 24 feet is still very good on the VT.
Mirrors are great, too. Easily adjustable from the driver's seat, they incorporate the turn signals reminders.
The look and feel of the interior also commands admiration. The trim is stylish and comfortable and very much like a high-end automobile. The dash is complete, yet integrated into a single panel clearly visible through the wheel. The center is dominated by the driver information panel with its selectable displays. Because so much information is available, it pays to spend time becoming familiar with the selection, and a day was not enough. Suffice to say that this display is one of the keys to driving the Volvo in the most economical fashion.
In fact, at one point in the more mountainous section of the test, I managed to exceed the out-of-sweet-spot driving and blew the bonus built in to the history. This meant that additional top speed that had been programmed into the unit was no longer available until I had re-earned it. In a real-world situation, other driver benefits could also be built in to the bonus recorded in-dash, promoting a very driver-aware economy program.
Column stalks control the display function, turn signals (obviously) and windshield wipers and the level of retardation for the Volvo engine brake (VEB). As with the display, these are all multi-function and require a level of interaction that will likely take a driver some time to learn. But once learned – for instance, setting the downhill cruise mode on the VEB – they pay off handsomely.
The shifter is a similar control. It sits on the edge of the seat, less for convenience since there needs to be little driver involvement, than for keeping it off the floor or dash where it would be in the way. Driver controls include a manual shift, achieved by nudging the lever to the left or right; a shift-hold button; and an economy or performance mode selector. Again, experience will dictate which a driver will select (and it can be overridden – or not – depending on fleet preference) in the pursuit of the best economy, I left in the E mode.
As we have noted before, the cab is wide so that armrests can be specified for both sides of the leather-faced seats. The floor is totally uncluttered, with a really low profile shifter. The only impediment to getting up from the driver seat and moving around the cab is the huge cup holder that extends out from the dash. It is not particularly attractive, but is infinitely preferable to the previous arrangement of a flip-out holder built in to the far right of the panel. Also included with the big-gulp holder is an under dash bin that would handily double as a trash receptacle.
Storage has always been the long suit of the VN cab, with generous cabinets overhead in the cab and big door pockets.
IN THE SLEEPER
Back in the sleeper, the storage seemed less generous than of old. To be sure, large bins over the unbelievably comfortable full double pillow-top mattress provided lots of room, but there was no hanging storage, which is always very useful. This may be a consequence of the extra-large bunk. Also, it's time the cabinets were reconfigured to get away from the conventional bulky TV and accommodate a flat screen. That would open up more cabinet space. To be fair, this VT was equipped with a microwave and a TV, which robbed it of some storage. But the custom refrigerator by Norcold made up for some with its narrow but deep profile.
The sleeper curtains were doubled, with one for the bunk area and another to sweep around the side glass and windshield, giving a couple of options for a single or team-driven truck.
The various control panels for the sleeper were in several locations that again deliver great functionality once they are mastered. I was confused by the Cummins Comfort Pro and Dometic control panels for the APU climate control, but then I spent only a day with the VT and there was a lot to see and discover. I don't doubt the climate control would be very effective with its dedicated air-conditioning outlets at the foot of the bunk. Also the Cummins Comfort Pro is one of the new generation of APUs that will conform to California's upcoming emissions legislation set for January.
Throughout, the sleeper and the cab, the trim level of the Premium spec is nicely highlighted by wood trim. I found the dark fabric of the rear wall a little at odds with the remainder of the tan hard trim and the blue of the cab. A little more coordination might add to the appeal of a very comfortable cab.
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.