By Suzanne Stempinski
I couldn’t wait to get a chance to drive International’s LoneStar. From the time it was first introduced in February 2008 at the Chicago Auto Show, I bugged the “Powers That Be” to let me get behind the wheel. That awesome front end, the tremendous visibility, all the bling. It looked as if it could be a ride to be savored.
The year was filled with more press releases, a few test trucks on the road, and an advertorial film that just whetted my appetite. I waited relatively patiently. Scheduling conflicts and a wintry blast from Mother Nature spoiled my first chances to get behind the wheel, only making me more anxious to get my hands on one.
Fast forward to early February 2009 – nearly a year after its introduction. Sunshine one day, rain or snow the next. Didn’t care. Location set at Melrose Park in the Chicago area. Perfect. The day dawned rainy – drizzling one minute, torrential downpours the next. I made my way over the river and through the murk to see “That Truck,” gleaming in the parking lot. Behind it, a 53-foot trailer loaded so that GVW was around 72,000 pounds. Dry weight on just the tractor is approximately 19,100 pounds.
One of the things I requested was routing. After many years of driving truck in and out of Chicago, the last thing I wanted to do was to end up “delivering a bridge.” The scrap yards are filled with top-peeled trailers from drivers who didn’t need to ask for directions.
My journey was to take me out of Chicago, winding out to I-80 with a turnaround at a major truck stop before heading back. I was assured that there were no scales to cross. Fine, great.
I walked around the truck and trailer. The anticipation practically had me licking my lips – or maybe it was just the rain pelting my face. Nah. The V grille, the lights, the fitted bumper, shiny wheels, swooping fenders – it all creates a distinctive and unique look. Shiny fairings conceal under-truck storage, and miniskirts (partial fairings over the tanks) open to provide tank fill access.
I’d rather see the fuel tanks mounted toward the back of the bunk than up front to keep the weight off the front end. By the time you read this, that option will be available.
Shaking off the rain, I climbed inside. I spent a little time checking out the appointments in the cab and sleeper. Lots of storage, strategically positioned. Tucked my purse behind the seat, paperwork within easy reach.
The rubber floor mats in the cab transition to wood floors in the sleeper. The curved couch was comfortable, the space inviting. Bolster pillows at the corners come off when the Murphy-style bed folds down from the back wall. Lift up any of the three bottom sections to access under-bunk storage.
Workstations unfold and pivot into position – good ergonomics – and tuck away when no longer necessary. The cabinet designed to hold a TV was set too high for my comfort. With a little imagination, mounting a drop-down or corner-mounted flat screen would be a better option. This upscale sleeper design is also being made available for the ProStar.
Instead of seats that swivel (has anybody actually used those more than a couple of times to be sure they work?), wider cabinetry behind the driver’s seat could accommodate a portable toilet. With a good-sized refrigerator, space for a microwave ... this really is an inviting home on the road.
Sliding back behind the wheel, my eyes swept a wide expanse as I adjusted the seat and mirrors and prepared to start my journey. Gauges were easy to read, well-positioned. A quick do-it-myself tutorial and I was ready. No CB radio, no I-Pass or PrePass decorated the windshield.
The 500 hp Cummins sprang to life with a throaty rumble. Seat belt in place, wipers on, I relished the vibration, released the air brakes, and slid the Fuller 18-speed transmission smoothly into gear.
I took a look at the directions and frowned a little. My husband and I spent many years hauling LTL freight from Chicago to LA, and I didn’t think the scales on I-55 had been eliminated. But I had more immediate concerns. Potholes everywhere. Badly patched or just big gaping craters. I swear I saw the remains of a couple of VW bugs and a Yugo.
The truck maneuvered beautifully; the heavy-duty air suspension cushioned the bumps, pits and dips. No need to fight the wheel as I made my way through city streets toward I-290. That 53-foot trailer took a long time to ease around corners and bank through turns. I missed my 48-by-102 spread axle trailer, but this was not about the trailer – it was all about the truck.
I-290 took me smoothly east to I-294, an Illinois toll road, where I headed south. The truck was turning heads; people waved at me using all their fingers. I pulled up to the tollbooth. $1.50 later, I eased out and, Bluetooth earpiece firmly in place, called my husband before I merged on to I-55.
“Where are you, and why are you calling me when you’re supposed to be driving the LoneStar,” he asked.
“I am driving the LoneStar, and that’s why I’m calling you,” I replied. “First I’m calling to tell you that this cab is really quiet. The fact that you can’t hear it is great. But, second, please tell me that the scale on I-55 in Bolingbrook is gone, closed or out of the ground.”
“Nope,” he replied. “They’re still in business. And I’m sure they’d be happy to see you again. Are you sure you’re driving truck? I can’t hear anything.”
“I’m sure; thanks honey, bye.”
And with that I signed off and opted to go with Plan B.
There’s an old truck stop just before the scale at Route 53 in Bolingbrook. I decided to pull in there instead. It shortened my trip by only a few miles, but seemed prudent under the circumstances. No logbook, no bills of lading, no permit book – no visit with the DOT seemed like a better idea.
Even though I was taking a test drive, not more than 50 miles from my point of origination, and the truck had a manufacturer’s plate, it seemed a wiser course of action not to tempt fate (or have a compelling need to call for bail). With a valid Illinois CDL, ignorance would be no excuse.
The truck stop was packed at 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Long-haul trucks, local drivers, container haulers were busy pulling in and out. There aren’t many truck stops close to Chicago, and this one also benefits from having a certified scale. Before I finished setting the brakes, people started walking toward the truck, eager to check it out and talk about it.
“Where’d you get that? Is it yours? Can I take a look? Look at all that chrome!” The LoneStar is a celebrity.
A couple of owner-operators, OOIDA members Tommie and Yvonne Bryant from Springfield, TN,
who are leased to Landstar, climbed inside for the nickel tour.
“We’ve been wanting to take a close look at one of these,” Yvonne said. “I thought we’d have to wait until we got to Louisville. This looks like it could make a good team truck.”
Together we opened and closed doors and drawers, cabinets and the couch and bed. It was easy and quick – every step of the way.
After a 30-minute break, I made my way back the way I came. While four-wheelers have their unreasonable biases about truck drivers, as a driver I’ve drawn a few conclusions of my own. The smaller the car, the more aggressive and foolhardy the driver.
Twice on my trip, somebody in a hurry decided to wedge their way between me and an off-ramp or turn. Not smart on their part, but I wasn’t going to argue. Not only that, but with the excellent positioning of the mirrors and the scope of visibility, nobody hid in my blind spot.
The truck rode like a dream, and the turning radius was tight. With a decent load in the box, going from stopped at a toll to running the speed limit took very little time. No strain, no grinding, no lag or lull, just smooth transitions through the gears.
Although the digital screen option, including truck-specific GPS, was not in this particular truck, it is techno-forward in every way. Spec’ing it with an automated transmission is a smart option, and one that can result in superior fuel economy, reduced wear and tear on the drivetrain and even better performance.
I strutted my way back to Melrose Park, smiling in the rain. After I waited a year for the chance to drive the LoneStar, the truck did not disappoint. For owner-operators or fleet owners, this should be considered an “aspirational” truck. High on style and fuel economy (test trucks averaged 6.2 mpg), low on maintenance costs, this truck is definitely one to watch. If I were in the market to buy a truck today, I’d take a long, hard look at this one. LL
Suzanne Stempinski can be reached at email@example.com.