By Suzanne Stempinski
Of all the miles I’ve spent crisscrossing the country, picking up and delivering freight, the Pacific Northwest was one destination I never made it to – until now. And this time it wasn’t just driving a truck, it was the opportunity to drive a handful of Kenworths, on highways, on surface streets and on the Paccar Test Track at Mount Vernon, WA – about 90 minutes north of Seattle.
You know, the ideal test for a truck is to see how it handles in a variety of circumstances, including different weather conditions, and our day north of Seattle gave us a little of everything – starting out overcast and misty, transitioning into rain, then snow, more rain, some brilliant sunshine and blue skies, snow and hail and finally an unusually heavy blanket of snow taking us back down to Seattle.
We were given our instructions for the day – a list of trucks, the order in which we were to drive them, a packet of suggested mapped routes that would put the trucks through their paces, and a phone number to call in case of emergency.
I started with a W900L with an 86-inch Studio AeroCab sleeper, a Cummins ISX600 engine and an Eaton 18-speed AutoShift transmission. It’s a big, muscular, traditionally-styled truck – big hood, big motor, big everything. Pulling a 48-foot trailer, we were grossing between 76,000 to 80,000 pounds.
As I pre-tripped myself and the truck, I appreciated Kenworth’s look of understated style. With brushed-nickel finish, chrome bezels already installed, plenty of wood grain and obvious attention to comfort and detail, it’s starting to feel like a luxury automobile.
All the gauges were clearly marked, easily visible and reachable. I got a good look at Kenworth’s GPS system – a
5-inch color screen with detailed mapping and guidance. Good thing. I hate being solo in unfamiliar places and absent a map-reader or tour guide. I’d take all the help I could get.
On the downside, I learned later, their GPS uses an automotive system, not one specific to the trucking industry. That means no bridge heights, restricted weight indicators or hazmat routes.
OK, time to go. Turn left out of the gate, head toward the highway – local traffic was plentiful. I could feel the leashed power of the Cummins engine, just growling down the road. The cab was a little noisy, and at lower rpm there was a lot of vibration.
No matter what adjustment I tried, the seats had too much bounce on rough roads. But once I merged onto Interstate 5, the truck performed admirably. Mist turned to rain turned to snow as I pulled some grades that must have been weather dividing lines. I avoid using cruise control in inclement weather, but even with my foot in it, the engine held its speed steady and only dropped two gears as the truck strolled up the hill.
Smooth and confident, with power to spare, the truck crested the top. After the snow/rain changeover, I engaged the cruise control until traffic got heavy. The 43-mile round trip took about an hour and as I pulled back into the Tech Center, I could see my next ride.
A silver T2000 was calling my name. This one had a Cummins ISX485 with 1,650 lbs.-ft. of torque and an Eaton UltraShift transmission.
With tremendous visibility through the large, curved windshield and a new map in hand – no GPS this time – I adjusted the seat and mirrors, checked all my gauges, and started feeling flushed.
In no time I was sweating from the back of my neck practically to my toes.
Nerves? A hot flash?
Nope – in making the seat adjustments I had inadvertently turned on the seat heater. Boy, oh boy, it works really well. I enjoyed a pretty good laugh at my own expense, turned off the bun warmer and hit the road, this time heading west on Highway 20 toward Anacortes.
This truck was incredibly quiet with very little road noise seeping into the cab. The UltraShift transmission was so smooth; I could barely feel the shifts. The two-pedal system is noticeably less jarring than even the AutoShift.
Highway 20 is kind of a “local” highway – stretches with stop lights interspersed with segments of highway. It offers beautiful bay views on the north side of the road. Some roughly 4- to 5-percent grades about eight miles out brought me to a scenic turnout overlooking Fidalgo Bay, just a short distance from Anacortes.
The turnout was also on the uphill side of the grade. I coasted in, set the brakes and hopped out to stretch my legs and enjoy the view.
Merging back onto the highway on the uphill grade with the UltraShift was a breeze – no grabbing and clutching, no pushing to be in the right gear. Even if it’s a well established habit and something you do every day, there’s always that brief moment of relief as the truck settles into the correct gear with a manual transmission.
Running up the hill and regaining full road speed took very little time, and by the time I reached the top and prepared to exit into town I was feeling great. Until I realized I missed my exit and took the next one, which took me into town and down a couple of side streets while I got back on track.
No harm, no foul, no tickets, back on the right route and heading toward the Tech Center. The combination of transmission, cruise control and engine brake worked beautifully and I made the 30-mile round trip with ease.
I was excited about the next truck – heck, I’m excited about all of ’em. This was the new T660, with a 72-inch AeroCab flattop sleeper, an ISX 450 and the Eaton 10-speed AutoShift.
The “anteater” profile has been updated – in some very sleek and stylish ways. The fairings are curved and the aerodynamics have been tweaked to new levels so that fuel economy can be maximized – in a beautiful package.
The dash is driver-friendly and the sleeper was designed for comfort and practicality. I slid comfortably into the seat and prepared to head back on the road to Anacortes. This time I made the round trip without any detours. Even fully loaded, the truck had no problems pulling the grades. The digital data display was positioned for easy visibility. All in all, an impressive ride.
After running up and down the road, we had the opportunity to be driven and/or drive on Paccar’s Technical Center Test Track. On the outer track, trucks could run up to 60 mph. I took a ride in a T800 with a 62-inch sleeper, ISX 525 and Eaton RTLO18918B transmission.
With a pretty good bank in the curves, I felt like I was on the track at Talladega, but I don’t think it was really quite that steep. I was nervous, but my Tech Center driver assured me he does this all the time and no one ever tips over. Whew.
One of the available T660s featured Kenworth’s new Clean Power system, designed to optimize engine-off cab and sleeper temperature for up to 10 hours. The storage cooler, which is about the size of a microwave, fits under the bunk and cools to freezing as the truck is driven down the road or if the truck is connected to shore power.
The battery-powered cooling system, turned on from the sleeper control panel and powered by an inverter, keeps the sleeper at a comfortable, cool temperature.
For heat, a small diesel-fired heating unit, also mounted under the bunk, warms the cab and sleeper and is thermostatically controlled. This system will be available as a factory option.
I had a couple more trips in a T660 planned, but as schedules go, ours was revamped. That was OK – I had one more road trip to make at the end of the day – this time as a passenger in the T660, equipped with the Caterpillar C15 and an Eaton 13-speed UltraShift transmission.
The 86-inch AeroCab sleeper featured the Pendleton Limited Edition Interior. The rich brown leather and embroidered wool created a lush and elegant ambience. I relaxed in the second seat for a while, enjoying the view, listening to the purr of the engine.
A poor-fitting door let in too much road noise. Optional armrests that fold back and stow behind the seats were a neat feature and helped open up the space between the seats. I headed to the back to relax on the suede and leather couch and see how it felt from the co-driver’s perspective.
It was a little squeaky back there. I couldn’t quite figure out where the noises were coming from, but I’m sure they could either be resolved or would simply become routine and getting rest would not be a problem.
The sleeper was spacious and well-appointed. In addition to a cleverly designed closet, storage and work space, there was room to store a portable toilet under the bed.
I was ready to grab that Pendleton blanket and settle in for a nap, but with snow turning to hail, I decided to pay attention to the road back to the Tech Center. The combination of highway and country roads made for a beautiful drive in spite of the inclement weather.
It’s a great collection of trucks. They’re worth checking out.
Suzanne Stempinski may be reached at email@example.com.