Driving an icon

By Suzanne Stempinski, field editor

Since 1961, the Kenworth W900 has roamed the road, embodying the spirit of the owner-operator. Solid, substantial, ready to take on anything thrown its way, it’s the kind of truck you would aspire to own. Square-nosed, big-hooded, with high horsepower and luxury features, it says, “I’m special and I know it.” It was made even more popular when it appeared in the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” driven by country singer Jerry Reed. And the cool factor continued unabated with a special edition featured in the James Bond 007 thriller “Licence to Kill.”

The W900 has starred on highways and in truck stops, at loading docks and in parking lots. And in 2015, Kenworth proudly introduced the Icon 900, an updated version.

Recently I had the opportunity to test drive a few KWs at plant in Chillicothe, Ohio.

My eyes lit up as I walked around this truck. A vintage-style paint job enhanced the look. The grille seemed to extend for miles. No bubble nose or sloped hood here. Enhancing the already-eye-catching W900L are a big, square front bumper; stainless cowl-mounted air cleaners; stainless visor; and LED lights around the air cleaners, along the steps and on the side along with stop, turn and tail lights.

Under the hood is a Cummins ISX15 at 550 hp/1850 lb ft torque, with a Fuller 18-speed transmission with 3.55 rears. Behind the seats, the 86-inch Aerocab sleeper stretched invitingly: diamond-quilted slate gray interior, premium heated leather seats, lots of storage space in the back, and a couch that expands into a bed. I prepared for takeoff.

The seatbelt angled across my neck. It’s tough being short in a tall truck, but I dropped it as low as it would go and lifted the seat where my feet were flat on the pedals and my eyes put the hood ornament on the center line. The one-piece windshield offered good visibility. The space between the seats was narrow.

I was reminded of the W900L my husband and I owned. It was a beauty, and in 1996 I thought it was the biggest, baddest truck on the road. It would run like a gazelle and get us from Chicago to California and back again as fast as we could turn it.

With a load of sailboat fuel in the 53-foot trailer, I was ready for anything. Easing my way out of the parking lot and onto the road, I shifted through the gears as smoothly as if it were just last week that I was running a manual transmission every day. The throaty growl of the engine had some heft to it. Cruising the highway with my hand on the shifter reminded me of so many roads traveled before. I was a big dog.

Our route ran down the highway, past farm fields, and back through a couple of charming towns with narrow roads and stop signs – a great way to put a truck through its paces. I rocked back into the syncing of gears and skip shifting manually. I must admit, fuel economy was not the first thing on my mind, but I kept an eye on the driver information display. Strategically located electronic gauges and digital information center reminded me that this was not my old truck.

I returned to the plant and parked with a big grin.

Next up was the latest in high

tech – the Kenworth T680 Advantage. Not my first time behind the wheel of this truck either. It was sleek and stylish, with elegant lines, sculpted fairings, recessed LED lights, a huge expanse of windshield, and no visible air cleaners. The curved cowl-mounted mirrors minimize wind drag. The hood is angled to deflect wind up and over the roof line. The front bumper is curved and so are the headlights. It is intended to be the most fuel-efficient truck featuring the Paccar MX-13 engine, integrated with the Eaton Advantage automated 10-speed transmission, 2.67 rears, and fuel-saving drive axles.

I closed the door and was wrapped in quiet. The 76-inch high-roof sleeper soared above my head. The wide cab is spacious everywhere, including between the seats, with a smartly engineered dash and easy-to-reach storage. High tech meets road warrior. I buckled up and prepared for the same route, but it felt altogether different.

With the sloped hood and large windshield, the outside was almost inside. The automated manual transmission left the gear determination to the truck programming. Instead of listening to the rpms, I focused on other ambient noise in the truck and found few distractions.

I covered the same ground in about the same time but when I got to a stop sign in town, a woman in a power chair crossed the road in front of me. In the T680 Advantage, I watched her from curb to curb. In the W900 Icon, I would have seen her disappear and reappear from behind the hood.

I returned to the plant and then traveled as a passenger in both the Icon 900 and T680 (with the new 76-inch mid-roof sleeper, which will be going into production in September). There’s a big demand for a mid-roof sleeper – especially for flatbed and tanker trucks that will benefit from the lowered roof profile. Tight design and close attention to maximizing storage space make it an appealing option.

The series of test drives left me thoughtful, comparing and contrasting trucks that are designed for very different audiences. LL