Volvo's VT 800 Heads Right Down Your Alley

Sept. 28, 2010


VT 800's big, shiny nose is appropriate for the big trailer and load that follows. Much of the chrome and bright-metal trim is standard with the VT series.
The D16 is Volvo's, and North America's, biggest truck diesel. This one is rated at 550 horsepower and up to 1,850 lbs.-ft. of torque, and comes with a quiet and strong integral engine brake.
Tall steps lead up to the wide cab. Interior-mounted handles are well placed and stay clean in bad weather.
Posh "supreme limited" interior is nice looking and comfortable, and its tan hue nicely complements the "golden amber" exterior paint.
A prototype tractor sits on a short, 188-inch wheelbase. Most production models will have longer frames.
Test Set


Truck: Volvo VT 800 daycab heavy-haul tractor, BBC 133.7 inches

Engine: Volvo D16, displacement 16 liters (994 cu. in.), 550 hp @ 1,900 rpm, 1,850 lbs.-ft. @ 1,000 to 1,600 rpm (1,650 lbs.-ft. in first four gears), with integral engine brake

Transmission: Eaton Fuller RTLO18913A 13-speed

Front axle: 13,200-lb. Meritor FF967, on parabolic leaf springs

Rear axles: 40,000-lb. Meritor RT40-160P, w/3.58 ratio, on Volvo Non-Torque Reactive suspension

Wheelbase: 188 inches

Brakes: Meritor Q Plus S-cam w/Meritor Wabco ABS

Tires and wheels: 11R22.5 Goodyear G149 front, G372 rear, on Accuride polished aluminum discs

Fifth wheel: Holland FW35 air-slide

Fuel tanks: Dual 100-gal. polished aluminum

Trailer: Ferree 50-ft. by 102-in. Tri-axle lowboy

In this story:

After years of paring down its model lineup to the freight-carrying VN and the low-volume VHD vocational truck, Volvo Trucks seems intent on slowly expanding its range of offerings. Early last year it brought out the big-nosed VT 880 sleeper-cab highway tractor, which was built around the then-new D16 diesel, and executives hinted the VT series itself would be expanded.

Late last summer they showed what they were talking about: a non-sleeper version of the 880, called the VT 800, also featuring a big engine, big nose, and a modern rendition of "large-car" styling that should please drivers and image-conscious fleets. The VT 800 is aimed directly at heavy hauling and other construction-oriented trucking tasks that require extra muscle.

The first VT 800 was displayed at a truck show in Dallas, but wasn't available for driving until last fall. I traveled to Volvo's Greensboro, N.C., headquarters to get my hands on it. This was the display truck, complete with gleaming "golden amber" paint and bunches of chrome, and it was hooked to a loaded trailer and ready to go.

A long, tall hood is a VT's most obvious feature, and it's needed to house the D16 and accommodate a 1,700-square-inch radiator to cool it. The D16's ratings range from 500 to 625 horsepower, while the optional Cummins ISX goes from 475 to 565 horsepower. A big radiator is important when a Big Power engine is pulling a heavy load up a long, steep grade at low speeds where there's little ram-air flow to help, and is even more important since the advent of exhaust-gas recirculation that shrugs off additional heat into the engine's coolant. Come 2007, when higher doses of EGR will be used, that "rad" will get a still bigger job.

The big hood is about 8 inches longer than one on a VN, from which the VT series takes its styling cues, from the Cadillac-like projector-beam headlamps to the smoothly rounded contours in the fiberglass and sheet-metal panels. The VT 800's bumper-to-back-of-cab measurement is 133.7 inches, so this is a long machine, even without a sleeper.

The VN's high-strength steel cab is also used on the VT, which means it's very stout and crashworthy. More important to everyday use, it's got more than ample dimensions in all directions. Some people prefer a narrow cab for a vocational truck, but it's hard to argue with the gracious feeling that spaciousness brings. It's a very quiet cab, which means you can converse with a partner in normal voice tones, and are shielded from most road noise. Yet you can hear enough engine sounds to appreciate what lurks under that hood.

The D16 is Volvo's largest engine and indeed is the strongest truck diesel now available. The 994-cubic-inch inline Six was introduced in 2003 as the European D16C (the latest in a series that goes back 20 years). With an exhaust-gas recirculation system to make it emissions legal in the United States and Canada, it became the D16D, though the D suffix is dropped from the designation here. Its features include an overhead camshaft operating four valves per cylinder, high-pressure fuel injection, a sliding-nozzle turbo, and rear-mounted gear train.

Interior amenities

This tractor's deluxe interior trim package, called "supreme limited," includes leather-covered seats and about a half-acre of nicely molded, well fitting plastic panels on all wall surfaces, plus a panel across the top of the windshield. There are pockets for paperwork and holders for beverage containers, and ample storage space for tools and all kinds of other stuff behind the seats. The wide doors close with a solid thunk! And there are no rattles to mar the traveling experience.

You might think that big hood would block a lot of forward and front-quarter vision from the driver, but it doesn't. The hood slopes downward, making visibility to the front actually very good. Smaller cars and cycles can disappear directly along the right side, but good mirrors kept me informed of where they were. And I quickly learned to sense where the VT's corners were as I maneuvered on interstate highways and secondary roads.

My drive was literally out of Volvo's headquarters. Spokesman Jim McNamara had tapped contractor Kevin Thomas to set up an appropriate trailer and cargo: a Ferree 50-foot by102-inch tri-axle lowboy toting a Volvo L110E wheel loader. Thomas had obtained this same trailer for other Volvo excursions here and in Arizona, where the company unveiled the VT 880 last spring. There was an L110E aboard that time, too, and it provided enough weight — 42,000 pounds — to solidly ballast the already heavy steel trailer.

The tractor alone scaled at just over 19,000 pounds with about 100 gallons of fuel — not exactly a lightweight, but that can be explained by the 16-liter engine and the fact that this is a prototype. Production models might be lighter, though heavy-haul specs usually result in considerable heft that operators don't seem to worry about, especially if they run on oversize/overweight permits to legally carry massive loads. On this day the rig weighed almost exactly 80,000 pounds, so this was not exactly a heavy-haul run, but was hefty enough to simulate one.

As on a previous trip with a VHD tractor, Thomas guided me out of Greensboro on Interstate 40, then north on U.S. 52 through Winston-Salem and beyond, then onto a set of state and county roads that took us back toward the interstate.

He's a smooth driver, and tutored me on the best way to manipulate the balky gearshift on this VT. I've enjoyed float-shifting transmissions on other truck makes and models, but I can't shift most Volvos worth a shoot. In this one, I had a devil of a time making decent upshifts in Low range, so Thomas advised me to upshift sooner than I was, at 900 or 1,000 rpm rather than 1,200 to 1,500. I tried it and it worked.

This D16 was rated at 550 horsepower, and at these low revs it makes a lot of torque. In the first four gears of the transmission's Low range (that is, Low through 3rd in the Eaton Fuller 13-speed) the D16's Intelligent Torque feature limits output to 1,650 lbs.-ft.; beginning in 4th gear, an extra 200 lbs.-ft. is made available. The idea is that maximum output isn't needed to pull a load at low road speeds, so why not avoid stressing gears, shafts and bearings until really necessary?

At higher speeds, the engine needs to rev a bit more, especially to maintain momentum on upgrades. Its most efficient range is 1,400 to 1,600 rpm, and that's where I tried to keep it. I was able to shift well in 5th through 8th gear, each of which, of course, can be split. However, the transmission regularly hung up in 7th gear (11th or 12th ratio) as I slowed for stop signs, but I learned to engage the clutch slightly during deceleration to break the torque lock that the gearshift seemed to be imposing on the tranny.

Driving impressions

Our meandering route through the scenic back country outside of Winston-Salem tested my ability to keep this wide rig between stripes, as some lanes were only 10 feet in width and the rig was close to nine. The lower edges of the loader's bucket hung over by 2 to 3 inches on each side of the trailer, blocking my mirror-view of the tridem's wheels except while going around corners. Then I could see that the wheels were following along just-so and the entire rig was responding as though I knew what I was doing.

Let the credit go to the VT's excellent maneuvering ability. The steer axle had enough wheel cut to allow sharp turns, swinging that big nose around almost as though it wasn't there. Helping, too, was the short 188-inch wheelbase — a foot or two shorter than such a tractor would normally have. On the narrow straightaways, the TRW Ross power steering was stable and precise, and the ride smooth and shock-free. If not for the gearshift problems, this would've been the best truck I'd driven in many months.

You see more and more freight-hauling Volvos on the road, and now with the VT 800, you could well see some heavy haulers. If so, you can admire and envy the driver, because he'll have one of the finest rides going.