TEST DRIVE: Kickin' up some dust with Kenworth

By Suzanne Stempinski, Land Line contributing field editor | 8/18/2017

A recent trip to the Pacific Northwest gave me the opportunity to get behind the wheel of some Kenworth vocational trucks – a variety of dump trucks and mixers – and take them for a ride.

With the uptick in the economy, Kenworth is enjoying the growth in their business, particularly in the vocational segments. An increase in housing starts and the gross domestic product numbers has translated to an improvement in the volume of truck sales and orders.

Kenworth closed out 2016 with 382 dealer locations and anticipates having more than 400 by the end of 2017. That includes 4,700 service bays. Dealership owners and principals invested more than $600 million over the past five years in new facilities and upgrades to existing locations.

The Kenworth T880 and T880S are sturdy, capable and stylish. The T880S has a 114-inch BBC, allowing body builders the flexibility to increase payload, while still complying with bridge laws. Under the hood, I had a choice of the Paccar MX-11 or MX-13, offering a variety of drivetrain and horsepower options up to 510 horsepower for dynamic performance, as well as a mixer featuring the Cummins Westport ISL G-Near Zero emission natural gas engine.

My first ride of the day was a T880 red and black dump, grossing around 68,000 pounds. Under the hood was the Paccar MX-11 engine with 430 hp and 1650 lb-ft of torque and a 213-inch wheelbase. Bendix air disc brakes and the Eaton Ultrashift Plus transmission made for an appealing package.

Starting production at the end of July, there’s a new bright trim air intake for T880 and T880S. It complements the chrome mirror shells, chrome bumper and other bright options available.

The roads around Snoqualmie, Wash., are hilly and filled with mountain curves. It’s beautiful country with fields filled with flowers, berries and fruits.

I climbed aboard, got settled and eased into drive. My passenger, another editor who did not have a CDL, and I chatted our way down the road. While my seat had air-ride, his did not but he said it was still a very comfortable ride.

The dash layout is smart and the gauges were easy to read. The door-mounted mirrors are set far enough forward that I could sweep my gaze from side to side without cranking my neck.

Navigating down a grade, I could barely hear the engine brake but I know it was working as it held us at a steady speed. Remember when the rat-a-tat-tat of the engine brake stopped conversations? Not anymore. We passed a roadside fruit stand offering Mount Rainier cherries and other locally grown produce. I put it on my “I’ll be back” list and kept going.

We cruised through a roundabout and headed back to the beginning. The return leg was equally uneventful. Pulling that now uphill grade was effortless for the MX-11. I was impressed with the very smooth ride from beginning to end. Having the UltraShift Plus transmission meant I never had to think about missing a shift or finding myself in an incorrect gear. A workday with this truck would be a good day well done.

Next up, we grabbed a yellow T880S Bridge Mixer, loaded with gravel and water. Another MX-11 430 hp engine with 1,650 lb-ft of torque, this one came with an Allison automatic transmission.

As we sat parked, the mixer spun enough to send the gravel up the inside of the drum and then it dropped, rocking the cab with every big slosh. With a reminder to be careful on the curves and turns, we took the same route as before.

The biggest difference in the ride was really all about the mixer. The jerky movements of the drum really smoothed out when the truck was running down the road, but I was still very much aware of the pitch and sway.

Our return leg included a stop at the fruit stand and as we purchased cherries and peaches, the woman running the stand looked up and said, “Is that your truck? It sure is shaking back and forth.” Yes ma’am, and we’re headed back with it now.

Our afternoon drives changed from on highway to off-road at the DirtFish Rally School, one of only a handful of facilities in the country offering the opportunity to drive rally cars on a dirt course. It sits on the site of an old Weyerhaeuser paper mill – one of the founding businesses of the region.

No rally cars for us – it was all about trucks and dirt and dust. What a great opportunity to get a little adventurous with a rally course and trucks designed for on or off-road applications.

A T880S dump truck with a MX-13, featuring 510 hp and 1850 lb-ft of torque on a 230-inch wheelbase simply rocketed around the course. It was a good day to kick up some dirt and put these trucks through their paces.

And the T880S natural gas mixer wasted no time making its moves. Featuring the Cummins Westport IL G Near Zero NOx emissions engine rated at 320 hp and 1,000 lb-ft of torque, it was a clean way to shake up a little dust. For local applications, this vehicle could be a superstar.

Kenworth has not adopted self-canceling turn signals, and the fixed point for the seat belt harness did not give me a way to adjust the belt so it could ride my shoulder instead of my neck. But all the trucks were roomy, powerful and surprisingly quiet. These are trucks that will give you a good day’s work, day after day.

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