Bottom Line
First Drive
Freightliner’s new Coronado
When I saw the reaction to the new Coronado at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas last November, I knew Freightliner had a hit.

by Paul Abelson, technical editor

Drivers seemed to like the styling, and the truck is based on the now 5-year-old Century Class platform, which has had ample time to have all its bugs worked out. When president Jim Hebe and engineering vice president Michael Von Mayenburg presented the truck to the press corps, they stated their goal was to present Classic XL buyers a modern alternative that kept the styling features that had made the Classic XL popular.

The Coronado has a big, square grille, a huge chrome bumper and stainless light panels on the visor and across the base of the cab and sleeper. The bbc (bumper to back of cab) dimension is 132 inches, the same as the Classic XL and both Kenworth and Peterbilt extra long hoods, so it qualifies as a "large car." A polished 150-gallon fuel tank on each side is framed by bright diamond plate boxes. One, on the driver's side, is for the batteries. The others are weather resistant, for general storage. Boxes and tanks seem to sit on a polished running board that goes from steer to drive tires. The fenders, removable for easy replacement, are sculptured around the chrome-accented 7-inch round headlights and smaller parking/running lamps. The muffler is below the cab for better noise control, but the exhaust flows through two massive stacks just in front of the sleeper. The overall effect is a classically designed truck with lots of chrome, stainless and polished aluminum.

Closer inspection, however, reveals many subtle concessions to aerodynamic efficiency. The hood is sloped, the bumpers rounded, and instead of the traditional cylindrical air cleaners that dominate the Classic's cowl (and create lots of turbulence), the Coronado has chrome-grilled air scoops that are much more aerodynamic, and carry the styling themes through the truck.

Freightliner headquarters is in Portland, OR, which is also where the 2000 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Truck and Bus Meeting took place. I was due to cover Jim Johnston's participation in the Safety Forum (more on that elsewhere in this Land Line) and to make my own presentation during a session on cabs, instruments and controls. What better opportunity to take a test drive. It took some convincing, since the only Coronados available were prototypes. Even some of the smaller parts, being hand-built and one-of-a-kind, cost more than I make in a year. I guess my driving record (accident free since 1991) was good enough, because chief engineer Jim Tipka arranged for me to drive Chassis X-2. X-1 is the engineering "mule," used exclusively for development. My ride, X-2, was on the show floor at GATS and was used for photography for advertising and brochures.

X-2 has a Caterpillar C-16 600 horsepower engine, mated to an Eaton AutoShift 18-speed and Dana 3.70:1, 40,000-pound drive axles. It sports a 70-inch raised roof sleeper on a 265-inch wheelbase. The tractor weighs 18,148 lbs. The trailer they found for this trip was relatively light, but heavy enough to show how the rig would handle. The truck scaled 11,250 lbs. on the steer axle, 30,800 on the drives, but only 24,800 on the trailer tandem, for a total just under 67,000 lbs. Instead of Eaton's pedestal-mounted shifter, the AutoShift was controlled by Freightliner's own SmartShift, a paddle-like device mounted on the right side of the shift column, a finger-reach behind the steering wheel. At first, I found Eaton's controls to be more intuitive, after years of driving various cars with automatics. SmartShift is more like the paddle shifters found in high performance sports cars. You can just move the indicator to "D" and let the computer do your shifting, or you can slide the selector from "automatic" to "manual" to shift when you want with a flick of the fingers; toward you to downshift, away to up-shift. If you can't make a shift, the computer will just keep in gear, so there's no danger of being hung out in neutral. Once I got used to it, I liked the SmartShift better.

Inside, the cab is as roomy as the Century Class, on which the Coronado is based. Its appearance, however, is quite different, as befits an owner-operator truck. The dash is done in a burl wood treatment. It's plastic, as is the burl wood treatment on the steering wheel, but it's as well done as any artificial wood I've seen. The grip area on the steering wheel is real leather, and quite comfortable to hold. The interior is well done, but I learned a long time ago that trim and design are matters of taste. Just because I might like something doesn't mean you will. But unlike other Freightliners I've driven, this did not have the overwhelming feel of plastic.

The proprietary EzyRider seats with their air adjustable controls and lumbar support are quite ergonomic. That's a fancy engineering way of saying they stay comfortable for long periods. Coupled with the tilt-and-telescope steering column and the adjustable pedals, it's possible for just about anyone to find a comfortable seating position.

The proof, as they say, is in the driving, so when the technical briefing was over, I saddled-up and headed for the road, with Jennifer Harris from Freightliner marketing in the passenger's seat and engineer Al Merkle in the sleeper. They were along to answer questions and, I suppose, to protect this valuable truck. I started with a few loops of Portland on the interstates, just to get used to the feel of the truck. Once I was comfortable, I exited onto US 26. Those of you who have driven there know how long and steep the hill is. Al estimated it was 5 percent. It gave the Cat C-16 its first major test. I merged at about 20 miles per hour, then it was foot to the floor for the next several miles. I crested the hill at about 50; pretty respectable acceleration under most conditions, but not all I expected from this combination with the light weight we were pulling. It turned out my feeling was right. After we got back and I mentioned that I thought the engine should have shown more, the engineers checked and found a defective pedal sensor. It seems that the Cat 600 was about 10 percent down on power. Even so, the powertrain performed smoothly all day, and even a lead foot like me behind the wheel, managed respectable mid-six fuel economy figures.

I found a truckstop with a lot next door that was unimproved - I think that's the polite term for being full of potholes - where I could put the Coronado through its paces dodging holes and bounding over ruts. It behaved remarkably well. Not once did I feel as if the bumps would rip the wheel from my hands, and when I found a safe area to do so, I took my hands off the wheel to find the truck tracking relatively straight. Bump steer was minimal.

We headed east on I-84, along the Columbia River. The scenery was beautiful - one of the joys of driving - but at times, the crosswinds were fierce. The Coronado handled the winds easily, due in large part to its smooth curves. On the highway at speed, the handling was excellent, with the leaf-and-a-half front suspension tracking well.

The brakes had a smooth, even feel, with what seemed like road feel, something often missing with air brakes. The Jake Brake held well on hills, and it was surprisingly quiet, even when I tried to get it to sound off. This may disappoint drivers who get a charge out of the noise they make with their Jakes, but the quieter exhaust will go a long way to stop the spread of those "No Engine Brakes Allowed" signs that seem to be springing up all across the country. The truck was unusually quiet, even compared to other aerodynamic premium trucks. Freightliner did its homework on sound insulation and component isolation. The Coronado was almost car-like in its sound level.

I used the turnaround at Multnomah Falls and headed back to Portland, but not before taking a few pictures of the Falls and enjoying some great prime rib at the Stone Lodge. The Coronado was just what I expected, considering it's based on a tried and true platform. The Century Class was the first of the modern, 21st century trucks, and by now, it should have had all the bugs worked out of it.

All the new technologies will be available in the Coronado. The larger cooling capacity, new front suspension and advanced electronics, go hand in hand with the styling to enhance an already good vehicle. And the stylists have done a good job reducing the overwhelming feeling of plastic common on many Freightliner fleet trucks. All in all, I think you'll like the Coronado. I know I was happily surprised, especially with the attention to detail.