The 9900ix is International's premium tractor – fitted and finished to suit the very high expectations of the owner-operator with a taste for classic styling and modern amenities. The big, sculpted hood and the detailing added to the exterior of this beauty set it apart from the moment it catches your eye.

Kim Maxwell, director of sales at Hill International in East Liverpool, Ohio, calls this one his "baby." The truck was delivered with a deep burgundy paint job, polished aluminum tanks, shore power plugs, a C15 Cat rated at 475 horsepower, and 11x24.5 Michelin XZE's. Maxwell took me on a quick tour of his baby before I headed off into the twisted mountain roads that are the only way back to I-80, 50 miles north.

He had plenty to show. "The rookie sticks come from the factory with a plug inside each one," he said. "This means there is no splicing necessary. Steve Hill is the boss here. He's on International's Heavy Duty advisory board and has been able to get some things done that help us give our customers a better truck, like the rookie sticks with plugs and the polished aluminum air tanks that have been moved forward of the fuel tanks. This truck came from the factory with those features."

A look beneath the catwalk behind the mid-rise sleeper is a convincing testament to what a change moving the air tanks is. There is much more space between the drives and the back of the sleeper beneath the catwalk to fit power take off gear, for example.

Let me reflect here for a moment on an aspect of the driving experience that begins well in advance of applying fuel. We have already had the exterior tour, which in my mind gets the bells ringing and the juices flowing. It is here, with a foot on the step and a hand on the rail, that the first impression must carry through, up into the cockpit. If you don't get it, the performance of the beast is dulled, no matter the deep-throated and powerful Cat C15 will twist you up the hills and run straight out through the flat land with the greatest of ease. If you don't get that deep down satisfaction from your ride, you're not going to stay married very long.

There is no denying the dash stands out. Its white dial faces light up even in broad daylight, beaming out against the wood burl, where a full gauge package keeps the driver informed and alert. There are 16 gauges, including a pyrometer and turbo boost and an axle load gauge as well. The steering wheel is adjustable so that most drivers will be able to read all the gauges without a head bob.

Hill has gone to great lengths to find a load for this ride and International sits under a 53-foot rental. I knew I would not have the easiest time getting out of the small, crowded lot. And visibility in the mirrors is nearly always an issue with big owner-operator trucks, and the 9900ix is no exception. It takes plenty of craning and patience to watch the trailer clear corners on both sides, a circumstance partially mitigated by the adjustable mirror on the passenger side.

On the plus side, the truck's wheel cut, both to the left and right, permits excellent maneuverability but can get you jacked into spots where you almost need to get out and look to make sure your mirrors aren't fooling you.

Operationally, that was the only drawback I noticed, from the time I eased out of the lot until I brought the truck back the next day. I hit U.S. 11 and headed north pulling 53,000 gross up and out of East Liverpool and it felt like I was going to have a good time playing with that Eaton Fuller 13-speed and the 475. It's a long pull out of the valley where East Liverpool lies, the kind of grade you want to get a run at. I got on at the bottom and didn't have a running start but managed to grab gears all the way to the top. I backed off at the summit and settled into 12th, figuring to save some of the fuel I'd burned on the way up by not splitting the top.

I had used the splitter on the way up to keep the C15 tuned in to a midrange rpm, where the fuel consumption is lower. At the top and in the flat I shifted up at 1,600 and let it lug to 1,100 before shifting down and let the broad torque band work for mileage.

The 475 Cat and the 13-speed Eaton Fuller work well together. But if I were to buy a truck of the sheer size and imposing character of the 9900ix, I would want the C16 or the Cummins ISX rated at 600 horsepower. This truck is meant for long haul and could easily be used in heavy-haul applications, especially given its 110,000-psi frame rails.

When I-80 appeared, I headed east back into the Keystone. On the big road you can gallop and relax a little and feel the ride, listen for rattles, understand the truck when it is throttling.

I expected to feel the fractured pavement more, given I had only 53,000 gross. There was minimal noise from wind moving around the door-mounted mirrors.

I slept 50 miles from Hill that night and slept well. The bunk is chock full of features to make life on the road more livable. There is a fridge, a microwave, a drop down DVD, plenty of lighting, and the sleeper console is well placed in the corner where most guys decide to put their pillows. There is a lighted compartment under the bunk with a lock box. A bureau sticks out a little too far into the bunk space for total sleeping comfort if you sleep with your back against the wall.

This is not a truck made for a team. The bed is small and only the most compatible and thin man and wife will find it adequate. There is no top bunk in the 72-inch mid-rise model I drove. But the amenities will please the single driver who wants to live out there and economize with shore power and a stocked fridge.

I got back to the Hill place in mid-afternoon. The nuclear power plant in Shippingport is right on the river and tempted me to take photos. I spent plenty of time maneuvering in parking lots and enough skinny two lanes to know this truck is capable of getting anywhere you want to take it.

It's big, but handles better than some other premium classics with big hoods. If you're looking for a truck with class that can still work like hell and provide comfort with power, you might give it a shot.