Volvo’s original VNL tractor, which debuted in 1996, was a cutting-edge design that set a standard for Class 8 aerodynamics still in place today. Which is one reason the company’s first new Class 8 on-highway design in 20 years bears more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor; why fix something that ain’t broke, after all?
But, exterior styling aside, a lot of other developments have occurred over the past two decades. And it’s obvious that even more are rapidly approaching. This new VNL reflects many of those current and future trends. Volvo took everything it has learned about tractor aerodynamics, powertrains and driver comfort and safety over the past 20 years and distilled those lessons into this new truck. And the results are impressive.
Volvo is, of course, synonymous with safety. So it’s no surprise to be greeted by wide, serrated steps and generous, tactile-coated grab handles when you climb up into the VNL cab and into the plush driver’s seat. Entry into the cab is made easier by the fact that Volvo’s new, Position-Perfect steering wheel is pivoted up and almost entirely out of your way. Once you’re settled in, simply depress a foot pedal to the right of the steering column. All the way down and you can quickly set the reach and height of the steering wheel. Pressing the pedal halfway down allows you to tilt the angle of the wheel just so, for a comfortable and safe drive.
Out in front, the VNL offers an impressive, panoramic view out over its sharply dropped front hood. The narrow, dramatically sloped hood is great for both forward visibility and aerodynamics. Views to both sides and the rear are excellent as well, with generous, door- and hood-mounted mirrors providing a wide-angle view around the tractor-trailer.
Directly in front is an all-new dash display, with crisply defined gauges and read-at-a-glance graphic readouts in the center section. Additional vehicle controls are situated at ergonomic angles facing the driver and within easy reach. But I never went for them. The weather was clear and every vehicle system I needed to access could be done so from the new Volvo steering wheel, which features 21 separate buttons or switches. In talking to drivers during the VNL’s development, Volvo engineers discovered that while steering wheel controls are generally liked, they are often difficult and frustrating to use. So a lot of time was spent on making the controls on the VNL steering wheel as easy and intuitive to use as possible, with large, clearly marked buttons making it a snap to back out of a menu item and get back to a “Home” page. The predictive cruise control buttons are a great example of the thought that went into the steering wheel. Once your cruise speed is set, push the left-hand-side toggle up to increase your speed, or toggle it down to slow up.
Looking around, you can’t help but notice how convenient everything is in relation to the driver’s station. The truck is absolutely awash in handy storage bins, nooks and crannies, both big and small. Cup holders can be quickly moved left or right to suit your particular preferences, and a nice little “landing deck” just under the center instrument cluster is the perfect place to rest your smartphone or tablet. And in an age where we all live and die by the availability of power outlets, Volvo made sure to provide a whole host of both USB and AC power outlets to keep your gadgets charged up and ready to go.
That design philosophy holds true as you move back into the sleeper, which features ample storage cabinets, flat-screen TV mounts, a mini-microwave berth and conveniently-located HVAC and lighting controls. Volvo also revamped its mattress offerings to offer better back support — a slick reclining bed for reading, working, and sleeping is available as an option. Better yet, everything in the sleeper is designed to tight mounting tolerances to resist road vibration and keep noise to a minimum. Given how quiet the new VNL is, its designers probably didn’t have a choice in the matter, as any pop, rattle or bump would instantly jump out at you. But the overall effect is impressive: There was no banging or thumping coming from the rear of the cab to distract me, even when we were driving through the rougher road portions of the drive and construction zones.
On the Road
Starting out down the road, the first thing that jumps out at you is how quiet this new truck is, even at low speeds. As I mentioned during a road test of the Volvo VNR regional haul tractor back in July, Volvo engineers really went the extra mile in terms of noise abatement inside the cabs of these two new trucks. The overall effect is remarkable. Powertrain noise is minimal, even when accelerating. In coast mode, or in throttle-neutral situations, road and wind noise are the loudest exterior sounds you hear in the cab.
The truck is so quiet, in fact, that road noise levels are far more noticeable than usual in a Class 8 truck. At one point, on-highway marketing manager Jason Spence, who was riding shotgun, apologized for a faint bumping noise coming from overhead. He explained that the air dam had not been properly bolted down before the drive, and an occasional gust of wind was catching it and giving the top of the cab a little thump. But, I noted, the sound was so faint, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear it at all over the powertrain rumble of many other Class 8 powertrains on the road.
My test truck was a pre-production Globetrotter VNL 760 high-rise sleeper. I had a Volvo D13 purring away in front of me, churning out a smooth 425 hp through a 6x2 drive axle. The engine features Volvo’s latest powertrain enhancement, its new compound turbocharger system, which essentially takes rerouted exhaust gases and converts them into usable horsepower. The result is an extremely low-revving drivetrain that achieves peak torque at 950 rpm. According to Spence, the compound turbo makes the downsped Volvo drivetrain even more efficient. Spence says it alone adds an impressive 6% boost to the VNL’s fuel efficiency performance, compared to the previous version of the Volvo XE powertrain, and it makes a noticeable difference in terms of acceleration and lugging and completely eliminates the shuddering vibrations that many downsped powertrains generate when running at lower rpms.
Once we were settled in and heading east on I-40 out of Greensboro, I opted to engage Volvo’s predictive cruise control system to see how it performed. The system uses real time GPS data to evaluate the road ahead and set the truck up to deal with whatever terrain is coming your way. But the Volvo system goes a step further: It actually learns the routes you drive and stores the actions it takes during the trip in its onboard computer. The more often you drive a particular route with the system engaged, the better it “learns” the road and its particular quirks. Over time, the system refines its performance, meaning that fleets running repetitive routes can actually improve fuel economy on the runs once the predictive cruise control system perfects the way it handles the road.
Stabilizer Bar Magic
I complimented Spence on how well the VNL handled at both low speeds and when we were cruising on the interstate, with tight, crisp, steering response. Spence told me one new innovation on the truck was a front stabilizer bar co-opted from the company’s line of vocational trucks and modified for long-haul driving. The stabilizer bar makes a noticeable difference in the way the truck handles and feels on the road. There’s virtually no lateral sway at cruise speed. The truck just doesn’t feel top heavy at all, even on freeway ramps, and doesn’t try to wander around on you on straightaways. The VNL pretty much stays where you want it to, and goes where you need it to, with minimal steering inputs. It makes for a much more confident feel in tight traffic or surroundings and requires a lot less work from the driver on the open road.
At the end of the day, HDT equipment editor Jim Park and I huddled up to talk about our experiences in the new VNL, and we both had to admit we were deeply impressed with the truck. Volvo has done a fine job of engineering a thoroughly modern long-haul tractor that ought to make both fleets and drivers happy to operate. The truck is so sleek and its powertrain so efficient, Volvo engineers are optimistic that, in time, the new VNL will help stretch the long-haul fuel economy envelope out from its current 10 mpg frontier to numbers north of 12 mpg. And it does so in a way that respects the hard work drivers do and eases many of the rigors that come with living a working life on the road.
Find out what Equipment Editor Jim Park thinks about the new VNL – including an overnight in the sleeper – in the October issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.