A lot has happened in the 20 years since Volvo Trucks North America last introduced a Class 8 highway tractor. The excitement among Volvo engineers, designers and executives at the company’s New River Valley, Virginia, manufacturing facility and sparking-new Customer Center was palpable for the official unveiling of the 2018 VNL tractor on July 11.
Volvo’s VN model, which debuted in 1996, was a tremendous step forward in terms of aerodynamic design. So in terms of styling, the new VNL is more of a refinement instead of a departure. The design DNA the new VNL inherited from its predecessor is clearly evident, although the new truck features a pointedly more wide-bodied stance, with tapering lines flowing down and toward the rear of the tractor. It is an aesthetically pleasing look — this is a sharp-looking truck — but it is also a design with function: The new truck boosts a 1% boost in aerodynamic efficiency compared to the older design. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But, as Volvo on-highway product manager Jason Spence, notes, when you’re in an industry that celebrates a tenth of a percent boost in fuel economy, 1% is not bad at all.
More savings come from pairing the new aerodynamic design with Volvo’s latest fuel-focused powertrain technologies. This includes downspeed cruising at just a shade over 1,100 rpm and a new, compound-turbocharger option for the high-horsepower D13 that will be available next year. All told, Volvo engineers say the new VNL delivers a full 7.5% boost in fuel economy compared to the latest models of the previous-generation VN tractor.
In the Cab
While the truck’s exterior builds upon proven Volvo design cues, inside the cab things begin to look — and sound — markedly futuristic. Chief designer Rikard Orell noted during a press briefing that “the human being is central” to all the design elements incorporated in the new tractor.
This philosophy is immediately evident climbing up into the spacious 70-inch high-rise sleeper models. Every detail in the cab and sleeper has been carefully and thoughtfully planned out with driver safety, comfort and efficiency foremost in mind. Volvo now has seven separate seat offerings for the new truck — and it has completely untied them from any specific trim level packaging, so drivers and fleets can spec Volvo’s highest-end seat for the lowest trim VNL without any hassles.
Storage space is abundant and well-placed. A new, modular accessory storage system allows you to buy additional cup holders and small cargo baskets and easily position them anywhere along the doghouse you like. Once in place, they hold fast without any rattling or popping. Expansive windows allow natural ambient light to flow into the cab, which is complemented by new “Cool Blue” cab lights positioned in critical areas to improve safety when entering or exiting the truck. The new lights are designed to be easy on the eyes in low-light conditions and are engineered to be soothing, promoting rest while reducing stress.
Up front, in the VNL’s “office,” a completely new, modern dash allows drivers to easily configure the Driver Information Center to provide information they deem critical. The overall layout, background and use of colors help quickly relay information at a glance. The new Volvo steering wheel is absolutely covered with system control buttons and switches, but the layout is logical, intuitive and easy to use, and helps drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. There are times, however, that a driver simply must reach out to flip a switch or press a button. Orell said in those instances, Volvo designers used the idea of rock climbers to guide their design, placing switches in logical, easy-to-reach locations and giving them a unique tactile “feel” so driver can instantly tell if the’ve got the switch they need without taking their eyes off the road.
The VNL launch was attended by scores of journalists from the U.S. and abroad. Test drives were limited to a few laps around the test track surrounding the new Volvo Customer Center. But I was still able to get several circuits in and get a basic feel for the new truck. And I was impressed. It’s hard to say for certain without a decibel meter, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this is the quietest Class 8 highway tractor I’ve ever driven. The low level of ambient noise inside the cab is truly amazing and very close to what you get in a higher-end passenger car these days.
More high points have to be awarded for the views out over the nose and to the sides of the tractor, which are simply outstanding. New, heated, hood- and door-mounted mirrors are standard on the VNL and give panoramic views to the rear of the truck. Drivers I’ve talked to are divided about the “hockey sticks” on the nose of tractors these days. But I like them and find I use them quite a bit when maneuvering at low speeds.
Speeds on the Volvo test track are limited to 45 mph, so I can’t tell you much yet about how the truck rides and feels at highway cruising speeds. But I can tell you the outlook is promising. The truck tracks true on straightaways and handles nicely through curves. I drove both D11- and D13-powered trucks, and found I had ample power with both. That said, the low-end torque generated by the D13 is more than up to the task of getting a fully-loaded 53-foot trailer up and moving quickly and then settling into a quiet cruising mode once you’re in higher gears.
Volvo is promising longer test drives of the new VNL later this summer. But based on what I’ve seen so far, the company has a truly capable, fully modern fleet truck ready and raring to go. Drivers will love the tremendous attention to comfort, while fleet executives will appreciate Volvo’s usual intense focus on safety systems and fuel efficiency. The new VNL is an elegant blend of technology, functionality and practicality that clearly sets the stage as Volvo prepares to help move trucking into the 21st century.