There's a funny story about the Sterling 360's name. In a short bull session following a press conference last year, a couple of Sterling executives related that they considered calling the truck "AC 360," as in a circular 360 degrees, because the truck is "better all around," which became its marketing slogan.

I don't recall what AC would've meant, but they decided on just "360" - and soon learned of the then-new CNN program, "Anderson Cooper 360." Whew, that was close. But who knows, maybe this would've become the news commentator's official ride, kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hummer.

This 360 is Sterling's version of Mitsubishi Fuso's made-in-Japan FE145, a Class 4 low-cab-forward vehicle rated at 14,500 pounds (there are also lighter and heavier models sold under both nameplates). They compete in a crowded segment dominated by domestic conventionals.

The 360 is in the Sterling lineup because execs wanted to provide dealers with something to sell besides its medium- and heavy-duty conventionals. Sterling gets the 360 from Fuso because it's a sister company through their common ownership by Daimler AG of Germany.

The 360 is a slick and nimble truck that deserves more sales than it gets, and that goes for all imported and domestic low-cabovers sold here. Execs at all the importers thought that a recent entry into the market by Ford and International, with their jointly built (in Mexico) LCF and CityStar, would boost interest in LCFs, but it hasn't happened. Most buyers still prefer conventionals.

This particular truck was on the lot at Valley Freightliner-Sterling-Western Star in Cleveland, Ohio. Susan Gallik, an exec at Sterling's PR agency in Cleveland, arranged with salesman Andy O'Donnell to let me drive it. This was on a cloudy, chilly day, and the first thing I can say is that the 360's heater worked fine.

As to work applications, O'Donnell said he had just sold a couple of 360s with dump bodies to a local park district. People there like the trucks because they're compact and easy to run on sidewalks and maneuver around buildings and other obstacles.

That's not to say that these trucks are small. Low cabovers sometimes look little in photos and even in person - until you walk up to one. Then you find that the cabs are wide and their beefy frames easily tote full-size bodies. Compactness comes primarily from the no-nose design; all those BBC inches that would be taken up by a conventional's hood, fenders and everything underneath becomes payload space on an LCF's chassis.

Put another way, a cabover provides several feet more room for a body and load in any given overall length than any comparable conventional. And the LCF's wheelbase will be shorter, aiding maneuverability.

The cab tilts up to reveal the engine, and a mechanic can just step around a front wheel and do his service and repair work while standing there. It sure beats crawling under a truck or leaning under the hood of a typical midrange conventional. The 360's cab tilts easily; just pop the lock behind the cab, grab hold of the body and raise it. It can almost be done with one hand, and the lift mechanism locks in place so wind won't push it back down.

The engine is a Fuso 4M50, a 4.9-liter (299-cubic-inch) four-cylinder turbodiesel running through an Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes up to 175 horsepower (Fuso advertises it as 185) and 391 pounds-feet of torque. It's more than enough for city duties, and should easily keep up with normal stop-and-go traffic. On the freeway it begins running out of steam at about 65 mph; it'll do 70 or more, but has to work harder at it than big-cubic-inch domestic I-6 or V-8 diesels, which is no surprise.

Economy with an I-4 should be better, and Sterling claims that testing against a competitive four-cylinder LCF showed the Sterling is 19 percent more economical. But as they say, "Your results may vary."

After I'd snapped some photos, I observed that "360" implied a compass' full 360 degrees, and I made Gallik and O'Donnell wait outside in the cold while I spun the truck in a circle - two or three of 'em, actually - in a wide driveway. I didn't put a tape on the resulting tire tracks, but the circle's radius was really tight (any dimension will depend on a truck's wheel cut and wheelbase). A low cabover gives you the feeling that you can turn so sharp that you'll T-bone yourself if you're not careful. That might almost be true if we had been pulling a trailer.

As it was, the 14-foot American stakeside body was all that was behind the cab. The body was interesting in itself, constructed partly of composite plastics that should last almost forever. Its floor was smooth-surfaced plastic that hadn't yet been blemished with a load. Because the body was empty, I couldn't make a judgment on the truck's behavior under load.

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The roomy cab, though, was full, as the three of us all piled in for a jaunt through the neighborhood, and we each had plenty of sitting and leg space. Gallik, a tall lady, was in the middle seat but had plenty of legroom because the dash-mounted transmission selector leaves the flat floor completely clear. The cab is so wide that there's room for a "stuff" tray just to the driver's right, and the driver's seat has a fold-down arm rest. On each door is a raised horizontal bar that acts as an arm rest, at least when the window's down.

Power windows and door locks are standard, as is a tilt-telescoping steering column. Interiors are attractively trimmed with comfortable two-tone cloth-faced seats and easy-to-use gauges and controls that are pretty much straight from the Fuso FE. Sterling says it has packaged certain features and pre-engineered the chassis for various vocations, so ordering is simple. Most FE and 360 cab exteriors are painted a rather common white, as this one was, but you can also get more daring red, green, blue, silver and black.

Entry into a low-cab-forward truck takes a little practice, but is pretty easy on this one due to its setback steer axle and the wide step ahead of it. That step is less than a foot from the pavement, and doors are claimed to be the widest in the LCF segment, so the first part of the climb isn't bad. Then you just slide sideways onto the seat. In getting out, you can just turn to the left (or right if you're the passenger) and hop down.

I'm describing all this because most Americans have never been in a cabover. Conventionals - many of them based on the domestic Big Three's pickups - still take about 80 percent of the midrange commercial truck market because they are very competent in their own right, they usually cost less than a cabover, and are thought to be safer and better riding.

Cabovers can have a good ride, even with the steer axle right under the driver and passengers, because the springs are long and compliant. So the ride is bus-like, with a lot of vertical motion when going over bumps and through potholes. The streets we traversed on Cleveland's south side had a lot of broken and bowed concrete - typical for an old city in a cold climate - and those springs got a good workout. The ride was sometimes bouncy, but it wouldn't have been much better - only different - in a conventional. On smooth freeway pavement the 360 rode fine.

FORD REDESIGNS ITS POPULAR F-150 FOR ' 09

Ford's F-150, America's perennial best-selling vehicle and part of a truck line that has claimed sales leadership for 31 years, may well keep that distinction, thanks to an extensive redesign for the 2009 model year. The full-size half-ton pickup, used primarily for personal transportation but also as a work truck, has edgier exterior styling, posher interiors, all V-8 power, and chassis upgrades that Ford says make the truck more capable and useful. The new F-150 in many iterations goes on sale this fall.

Choice is the watchword. The '09 F-150 will have three cab styles, four box lengths and seven trim levels, yielding 35 possible combinations, Ford executives said in an announcement at the Detroit auto show last month. Among the cabs is a Super Crew that's 6 inches longer than the current model, and features a fold-up rear seat that leaves a completely flat floor for secure hauling of bulky boxed items.

Grilles follow the bold theme established by the'08 Super Duty pickups and soon extended to E series vans, and include Ford's now-signature three horizontal bars with side "nostrils." Some are in black and others have chrome trim. Bed lengths range from a traditional 8 feet to a 5.7-foot type that goes with the longer Super Crew cab. A new tailgate is styled to resemble the grilles, with three stamped-in "feature lines" that tie in to the tail lights and curve upward to form an aerodynamic lip at the gate's top. The lip also makes room to stow a tailgate step first introduced on the SuperDuties.

The now venerable two-valve-per-cylinder 4.6-liter Triton V-8 will become the base engine. The 4.6 can also be ordered with three-valve heads, and the three-valve 5.4 V-8 remains the top engine. More efficient combustion enables each to get about 1 mpg more than the current model, and even the base 4.6 gets better economy than the current 4.2-liter V-6, which is being dropped. The base V-8 comes with a 4-speed automatic transmission, and the optional V-8s come with a new 6-speed automatic. All engines meet Low Emission Level II requirements.

Chassis are claimed to be stronger to allow more payload and trailer towing capacity. Trailer Stability Control and an integrated trailer-brake controller are among available equipment. The frame continues to have fully boxed rails joined by crossmembers whose ends run through the rails for great strength, and the '09 frame claims 10 percent greater torsional rigidity than current models. The front suspension has double wishbones, long and short arms, and coil springs over shock absorbers - a smooth-riding design borrowed from the Expedition SUV, but further refined for the F-150.

The rear suspension is a Hotchkiss type with a live axle and leaf springs 2 inches longer than current springs. Shocks remain outboard-mounted (a feature introduced in '04 F-150s) for positive control of wheel movement. An electric-locking differential is used on the FX4 model, and transfer cases on all 4x4s can be either electronically or manually controlled. Four-channel ABS with Roll Stability Control is standard. Wheel-tire choices include 17-inch sizes to enhance off-road ability.

Interiors have new fabrics and real metals that suggest a "built" rather than "designed" look, Ford says. There's more storage space, including a center-console compartment large enough to hold two laptop computers - a nod to the fact that many owners work out of their trucks. Gauges have fresh faces, and switches and buttons are larger for easier use. Navigation systems are optional. Radios have Ford's new Sync hands-free control system plus USB and MP3-player input ports. Sound-deadening materials are progressively employed up the trim-level ladder, and the top-of-the-line Platinum model is said to be quieter inside than a Lexus LS450.

Trim packages start with the base, workaday XL, then ascend to STX, FX4, XLT, Lariat and King Ranch. The apex is a new Platinum package, with extensive "satin chrome" pieces in the grille and on the tailgate, "tuxedo-stitched" and embroidered seat covers on power captain's chairs, ash wood-grain accents and brushed-aluminum elements. All trim levels get new badges that resemble hand-crafted belt buckles, Ford says.

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