Think “Volvo Trucks” and what comes to mind? Probably its comfortable and capable VN series of highway tractors, for which the builder has gained recognition and a solid following in a highly competitive industry. But there’s also a vocational series called VHD, for Volvo Heavy Duty, with stronger chassis and other specs to endure the rigors of on/off-road service, which, if the buyer wishes, can be outfitted with much of the interior style and grace of the limousine-like VNs.
One example is our subject vehicle, shown to reporters during an open house last fall at the modern New River Valley plant in Virginia, where Volvo builds all its heavy truck products for North America. Executives demonstrated several tractors with special equipment (principally the Adaptive Gearing version of the I-Shift automated mechanical transmission). Also on the premises was a VHD daycab tractor, set up for heavy hauling both on and off road.
I bagged some wheel time in the tractor, though that time was limited to a short excursion: out of the plant area and onto Interstate 81 for about 25 miles to a turnaround point where I shot some photos, then back to the plant. It was enough to experience the tractor’s attributes.
“It’s an oil field truck,” explained Jason Spence, a marketing manager who pointed out the tractor’s special equipment prior to our drive. The build sheet says “tractor/lowboy trailer,” so yes, it could be involved in oil or gas drilling and production, which would take a rig far off paved roads. That’s what distinguishes the VHD from the VNX heavy-haul tractor that I wrote about last summer; the VNX is primarily a highway tractor while the VHD is on/off-road.
A look at the VHD’s specifications box reveals some beefy special equipment, including an extra strong main frame, to stand up to twisting forces from uneven terrain, and high-rated axles that help provide a gross combination weight rating of 110,000 pounds – a limit imposed by an I-Shift. Volvo recently announced a heavier-duty version of the I-Shift, which should allow a GCW rating closer to 200,000 pounds possible with a manual transmission.
Getting in and out was rather easy because of the well-placed handles and wide steps, though I’d quibble with their vertical placement: The first step is no-sweat close to the ground, maybe just 14 or 15 inches; the second is what looks like almost 2 feet; then the third is another comparatively short up-hop onto the cab’s floor. So there’s no 1, 2, 3 rhythm. But that was my only gripe with the vehicle. Its ride quality is very good, in spite of necessarily stiff suspensions; and there was little road or engine noise while underway.
The cab is crafted of high-strength steel, which cuts weight over more common carbon steel, and is galvanized against rust. Doors close with a satisfying thunk and inside the driver’s workplace is very roomy, almost overly so, as this is the same basic cab as used on VN tractors that guys and gals have to live in. Then again, it can be outfitted with a two-place passenger seat if needed, though this one had two individual suspension seats. There’s an initial sense that this is a really wide truck, maybe too wide for a standard travel lane, but that fades after a few miles. Trim is pleasant in an automotive way, with a wide, curving dash containing the instruments and controls that are easy to see and use.
Side windows are big and dual-pane mirrors well placed, the windshield is huge and the sloping hood provides few obstructions, so a driver’s view of the road and jobsite in all three directions is very good. This being a day cab, there was also a rear window that’s good for checking the whereabouts of the trailer’s rear while making tight right-hand turns or while backing, even if the headache rack blocked some of that view.
The steering column tilts and telescopes and pedals are well placed, so, with proper adjustment of the air-ride seat, most drivers should be able to find the correct position. A smart driver will study the multiple adjustments on this National Comfort high-back seat, or any seat, and a wise boss will instruct him or her on the many possibilities. Fleet managers say drivers’ complaints about seats usually disappear when they learn how to adjust them to fit their individual bodies.
A VHD can be had with a Volvo 12.8-liter D13 or a lighter 11.8-liter D11, and we had the larger diesel. It was rated at 500 hp and 1,750 lb-ft, so we never lacked for go power. And it was mated to an I-Shift, so I had little to do but punch the proper pedals and steer, unless I wanted to play with the ratios for extra powering or stopping performance, the latter with the engine brake.
When traction is good, leaving the tranny to make the decisions works just fine. But I-Shift does have several control options for maintaining momentum when things are loose underfoot. Drivers should learn or be taught what those can do. One difference with this tractor: The Performance mode, if selected, remains on until the driver elects to go back to Economy. This stretches shift intervals, providing more engine revs for tough going. In other models, controls are usually set to automatically return to E after a set amount of time.
All in all, I was rather impressed with this VHD, as I have been with VHDs in every instance I’ve driven one. Its sales are not high, partly because of Volvo’s apparent preoccupation with highway vehicles, and also because there are plenty of worthy competitors in the on/off-road market, including from Mack, Volvo’s sister company known for its vocational models. VHDs remain worthwhile and well worth a look from any potential buyer.