Mack Anthem Impresses Over the Long Haul

Dec. 22, 2017

Leaving Allentown, Pa., on a bright autumn morning in a convoy of new Mack trucks had me feeling like I was in a presidential motorcade. Up ahead were police officers holding traffic for us as we swung off Vultee Street onto Leighigh Street, where inexperienced drivers might have trouble negotiating the slight acute-angle corner, and Mack brass didn’t want them to get into any binds. Some of those guys were younger trade-press reporters with not-often-exercised commercial drivers licenses, but as an old CDL holder I had turned that corner many times over the years during visits to Mack. Still, I appreciated the greater room that the cops had made available and the celebrity status that we briefly enjoyed.

We were headed out of town, with an eventual destination of Atlanta, in a convoy composed mostly of Anthems that will replace the Pinnacle Axle Back, Mack’s popular highway hauler. It was an extended hands-on experience of the vehicles’ capabilities. There were eight tractors in all, plus a Granite dump in a procession that was sometimes in orderly succession and sometimes spread out as we motored down the Interstates. I drove three tractors on the first leg, a daylong journey to Greensboro, N.C. For me that was more than enough to form impressions of the new model and be impressed by it, and I flew home from there.

The night before departure, during a splashy introduction in downtown Allentown, executives had explained that Anthem is named for its American roots, and indeed, a stylized U.S. flag is part of a new emblem that’s fastened to each vehicle’s sides.

Brothers Gus and Jack Mack founded the company in 1900 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and five years later moved to Allentown. For years Mack trucks, as popular off road as on, “built America,” executives boasted. Anthem’s styling cues hark back to construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (even if that predated the company by about 17 years): In the Anthem’s grille are simulated towers, spans, and bolt heads, and of course a huge MACK in chrome letters. Blocky streamlines run along the hoods’ flanks and fenders, suggesting toughness, durability, and longevity. Those, plus driver comfort and acceptance, are goals in the visual and mechanical design of the Anthem. Publicity materials call it “all-new,” even if much of it isn’t.

The cab, chassis, and powertrain components are mostly proven parts carried over from the previous line. In a series of phase-ins, 11- and 13-liter MP series diesels are receiving extensive updates to deliver better fuel economy and meet more stringent greenhouse gas emissions limits imposed by the federal government under President Barack Obama. Although Donald Trump’s deregulation-minded administration is backing away from them, truck manufacturers, including Mack, are staying the course because this saves money for customers and, they say, benefits the environment. Besides, it would make no sense to throw away many millions of dollars in advancements.

Mack’s mDrive automated transmissions have likewise been improved, with smoother shifting and additional ratios for vocational and heavy-haul operators. Standard as a 12-speed, the mDrive is now available in Heavy Duty 13- and 14-speed versions with low-low ratios for better startability, and have tougher parts and lube oil meant to add life. The Granite, claimed to be America’s best-selling Class 8 straight truck, now comes standard with the 13-speed version of mDrive. These worked flawlessly in the 475 miles on the Allentown-to-Greensboro run, as well as during a preliminary warm-up the day before departure at Mack’s former technical center, now its Customer Center, in Allentown.

Anthem will be available as a daycab for local and regional service and with several sleepers to facilitate over-the-road duties. Most versions were present at the Customer Center, assembled near an oval track, and these were lined up for the start of the convoy at 7:30 the next morning. Also part of the proceedings were a five-axle Granite dumper and what used to be called the Pinnacle Axle Forward; now named simply Pinnacle, it retains its high hood and squarish traditional styling that already suggested ruggedness. Its grille now resembles that of the Anthem, and both models bear a family resemblance to the Granite.

Pinnacle and Granite (left) for 2018 have the same fresh interior as the Anthems. Except for equipment dictated by specific applications, the interiors were alike. They also had blocky lines, reminding drivers of the more aggressive appearance outside, but drivers are soothed with comfortable seats and easy-to-read gauge faces, a bright driver information display, and a large optional flat screen on the right-hand panel. A major new feature is a flat-bottomed steering wheel, like those in some Chrysler-built cars of the 1970s. The flat lower rim offers more room for one’s legs and eases movement from the driver’s seat to the sleeper, if a vehicle has one. Otherwise, the rest of the rim is round, and I didn’t think about it while driving. It was a pleasure spending time in each of the trucks.

My convoy dance card, so to speak, included, in this order, an Anthem low-roof sleeper pulling a 50-foot flatbed, a Pinnacle Axle Forward high-roof sleeper with a 53-foot van, and an Anthem daycab and 38-foot dump trailer. All had high-power diesels and mDrive automated transmissions, which were more than adequate for pulling their loads on the level and over many hills. All tractors rode and maneuvered well, and were generally quiet and comfortable. I was grateful for the end-dump’s relatively compact length as my rider and I missed some turns while searching for our stop-off place, a resort complex east of Greensboro, well after dark. I had to squeeze through a filling station while executing a turn-around to get back on track.

If you think styling doesn’t matter in the world of commercial trucks, you’d change your mind if you had seen professional drivers gather around the new Mack Anthems during a pause at a truck stop on the way down. “Hey, I like that,” and “That really looks good,” were common comments I heard as they eyeballed the bold-looking noses, and climbed inside for a look at the attractive and comfortable interiors. What drivers think has been important to fleet managers who know the attitudes of folks behind the wheel matter more than ever.

Drivers are becoming increasingly scarce in many segments of trucking, particularly long-haul. So fleets need all the pulling power available for recruiting and retention, and Mack officials decided that the Pinnacle Axle Back, whose styling was on the bland side, needed a boost in desirability. Hence the bold-looking Anthem, whose pairing with that dump trailer and flatbed show that it’ll do more than haul freight.