Bottom Line
Test Drive
Driving the 386

By Tim Barton
special correspondent

While first impressions can be misleading, 650 miles behind the wheel of the Peterbilt 386 - due to hit dealers this fall - tell me that this Pete is well worth considering.

This truck is marketed as a premium fleet vehicle. But plenty of owner-operators will find this new offering appealing for its rakish good looks, economy, maneuverability and overall drivability.

The 386 has been purposely designed to cut its way through the wind. It is a one-stack truck with full fairings, including fuel tank and toolbox housings. Under the sharp slope of the hood, a Cat C-15 rated at 475 hp at 2,100 rpm and 490 hp at 1,600 rpm, proves responsive in traffic, and I am at cruising speed in ninth quickly, heading toward Abilene, TX.

The 386 looks as if it can run, and it does. The Fuller 16909A is a simple and fuel-efficient tranny that matches well with the Cat. Certainly the broad torque band can help save fuel. There is plenty of low-end grunt as far down the rpm range as 1,000, and I leave it there as much as possible before grabbing eighth in the central Texas hills.

Pulling 40 tons, the 475 horses perform well. Its torque is solid all the way through the rpm range until 1,600 when horsepower

begins to require thicker streams of diesel. The owner-operator who wants a sexier transmission can convert the nine to a 13 speed, according to Peterbilt, a plus at trade-in when the sleeper can be detached and the truck turned into a construction vehicle.

There are three choices of interiors, with gauge packages including pyrometer, air filter sensor and manifold pressure. I like the manifold pressure gauge as an indication of fuel consumption.

The Cat ACERT engine responds to being driven for fuel mileage, and this truck should get between 5 and 6 mpg on the highway in typical coast-to-coast, mixed terrain, high-weight lanes.

The manifold pressure gauge gives an instant readout of how fuel consumption climbs and dives with throttle pressure. If you watch that gauge with the truck in cruise at highway speed, you can get a sense of the sweet spot - noticeably smaller since the introduction of the 2002 EPA compliant engines - but worth finding nonetheless.

The basic package is extremely driver friendly, inside and out, and the mid-level version Pete 386 made me want to see that place where the aerodynamic 387 and the 379 meet.

Take the hood, for example. One of the first things I noticed when I got in the truck was the hood, which is much more radically sloped toward the radiator than the 379. You can see a groundhog from behind the wheel.

The side windows are bigger and the peephole has been resized in the right direction. I could find no blind spots on this vehicle. Mirrors are beautifully and simply mounted on the frame, not the door, providing excellent visibility even on the blind side.

The cockpit is small and gives the truck a drivability I enjoyed. Its 47-percent wheel cut helps carry this impression throughout the typical process of taking tight corners and reversing into small holes. I was comfortable in the National seat, particularly because it comes with two armrests. The steering wheel can be adjusted to the proper height and distance to see the gauges.

There are two sleeper options, including the 70-inch version I drove. The fit and finish continue throughout the sleeper, and there is ample storage and lighting. A top bunk is in place, which many will use for storage, and it is constructed to allow for such use without the worry of flying belongings.

The 386 handled well and flowed true to course with both hands off the wheel. This characteristic comes through on the Texas two-lane headed south.   

 I also begin to notice that noise levels are low; I am tired and I have another 200 miles and the little things can get annoying. I am glad to find the radio in the dash, where it belongs, rather than in the headliner. This is when a well-thoughtout, well-made truck shows its lineage.

I spent the night near Waco and started north late to stay out of morning rush hour and think about the last 500 miles.

The new more efficient ventilation and HVAC system kept the truck comfortable on a very hot Texas night, but I woke up wishing for a system to maintain the fuel efficiency of the vehicle by providing heat or air without the necessity of allowing the engine to crank. There are plenty of aftermarket products that will help a fleet save money and a driver save fuel.

If driving is about getting freight to its dock on time at the lowest possible cost, the driver is more or less an expert at energy management. Every pedal movement and shift, every braking event can be done with saving energy in mind.

In braking, Pete leads the pack with its introduction of the Bendix air disc brake, an innovation in the states that has been standard in Europe for quite some time. The 386 brakes well and evenly using the new air discs and fleets will have the knowledge that they will be ready when new stopping distance requirements make their use nearly unavoidable.

I am back in Denton, TX, by early afternoon, ready as any driver to pack up and head for the house. But as an ex owner-operator, I have the feeling I'd be a lot more willing to call dispatch for a load if I had this truck to get back to. It looks like a winner to me.

Contact Tim Barton at or visit his Web site at