What's a "premium" truck worth? A few thousand dollars above the going rate for a mass-produced vehicle? Kenworth Truck hopes that's the way prospective buyers will look at its T170, which brings big-rig attributes to the lower end of the midrange market. The lightest and littlest "T" uses a tough aluminum cab taken from its heavier-duty conventionals, plus other design features that enable this Class 5 product to promise longer life and higher status.
The T170 is based on the old T300 medium-duty series, now renamed T270 and T370 for Class 6 and 7 versions, respectively. The 170 sits noticeably low to the ground, and when I first saw it at a truck show, I thought of pseudo-KWs built by enterprising guys back in the 1980s using W900 cabs and cut-down noses on 1-ton pickup chassis. But the T170 is the real deal, straight from Paccar's midrange truck factory in St. Therese, Que., near Montreal.
Most drivers would be proud to operate a Kenworth, whose name (like that of its corporate sister and serious rival, Peterbilt) carries a mystique that is largely supported by details of design and build quality, as well as superior resale value. And to have one in this weight class — 16,001 to 19,500 pounds gross — might well be an unexpected pleasure for almost everyone.
Sit behind the wheel of a T170 and you get a "big-truck" feel that instills pride and, owners can hope, greater dedication to the job. The instrument panel looks like it's lifted out of a "Doubaya 9" and even though it's not, it has the same squarish style with a wood-grain finish and large, simple gauges that provide no-nonsense information. And never mind that there really aren't that many (speedo, tach, three engine-condition indicators and fuel level) because there's also an electronic readout with further info. The headlight switch is a push-pull type once common in cars and pickups, and it's at the lower-left corner of the dash instead of up and to the right of the steering wheel, as the toggle and rocker switches are on many big KWs.
Close the door and you'll probably have to open it and slam it shut, because the cab is air tight and the door has to fight an air bubble inside that often keeps it from latching securely. KW drivers soon learn to crack open the window a bit before shutting the door, and compression of the door seal over time doesn't much change this characteristic. Most guys aren't annoyed by it, and instead smile if they think of it because they know it indicates how stout the cab structure is and how long-lasting it will be.
Dave Effinger, general manager of Peterson Truck Center in Louisville, Ky., sells Kenworths and GMCs, and knows the difference between the makes. "GMC is a good truck, especially for the money," he says. "But I've seen guys — roll-back tow-truck drivers, especially — tear up a cab in two years. You won't do that with a Kenworth."
Aside from its ruggedness, the cab offers good outward visibility through large, multiple windows, including one in each rear corner. The view over the short, sloped hood is good to the front but more limited to the right side until I got used to peering over it and through the peep window in the passenger's door. The flat glass in each mirror was remotely adjustable, so the view to the rear was good, as well. An air-ride seat with a built-in compressor (the truck has hydraulic brakes and therefore no air system) had many adjustments, and a tilt-and-telescoping steering column allows just-right wheel placement for almost anyone.
However, there's not a lot of room inside the cab. It's plenty tall, but rather narrow and short. It's wide enough for one or two guys, but not three. Leg room is cramped because the accelerator and brake pedals are mounted farther back than in many trucks. I've got short legs but had to keep my right knee bent at 90 degrees to work the pedals. They can't be moved forward because the firewall is just behind them, and this is a function of the short nose requiring a rearward placement of the engine. An extended-cab option offered on heavy-duty T and W models would be a good idea for the midrange Ts, as it allows moving the seat farther back and away from the pedals and steering wheel. Anyway, drivers tend to disregard this type of problem as they get used to driving a truck, especially if they otherwise like it, and I did, too.
There were just two pedals because this truck had the optional Allison 1000 Rugged Duty Series 5-speed automatic that removed most of the work of driving. An M-for-manual button and Up and Down arrows allow I'm-in-charge operation, but I soon left it alone because the tranny seemed to know what it was doing. It made the most of the gutsy 260-horsepower Paccar PX-6 diesel, shifting up or down just about when I would've. It downshifted almost aggressively as I slowed for traffic lights and an exhaust brake was very powerful, all but eliminating the need for service brakes except at very low speeds. The exhaust brake rapped like a Jake, something guys and gals who enjoy driving will appreciate.
The former T300 series was optional with Caterpillar's C7 diesel, along with the Cummins B and C. But Paccar dropped the C7 in favor of a deal with Cummins to make the private-label PX-6 and 8, and they are now the only engines available in Kenworth's and Peterbilt's medium-duty models. But the midrange trucks Paccar has offered over the years never had long options lists, and buyers of medium-duty trucks of any make are accustomed to it.
Anyway, the T170's lively performance was impressive because there were several tons of stone in the aluminum dump bed behind the cab. Only the well-settled ride hinted at the weight, but running with an empty body a little later during my visit added a bit of bounce to the driving experience. Still, the ride was smooth and not at all harsh.
That dump bed was one of numerous types available with an Ampliroll dual-pivot hook-lift body, which turns any truck into a multi-tasker. While the hydraulic hook-lift mechanism isn't cheap, it allows one truck to do the work of two, three or more. Merrel Corp., the equipment manufacturer, makes bodies, as do companies it has partnered with, according to its website. The dealership had ordered another style of dump bed and a flatbed to go with the versatile package. Terry Julius, a technician who has worked at the dealership since 1972 (and thus has the same tenure as Effinger), dropped the loaded dump bed into a slot at the rear of the parking lot and pulled aboard the empty one, and I was back on the road.
Maneuvering the truck for the body switch was easy because it had a tight turning radius — something I further proved by spinning it in circles several times — and backing it was a no-worry exercise because of all the windows in the rear of the cab. It's a fun truck to drive, and it has all indications of being a long-lived one, too.
But how costly is it to buy? "That depends on how much the factory wants to sell them," said Effinger. "Sometimes it can offer some aggressive incentives that make the Kenworth's price about the same as a GMC's." Otherwise, set up for the same application, the KW might cost $2,000 to $3,000 more, but "you tend to have more option content with a Kenworth. Buyers tend to order more equipment than they would with another truck."
The T170 is reasonably priced because it's built from the start as a Class 5 truck, with appropriately sized frame parts, for instance, that take cost out of it, Effinger further explained. Yet it has ruggedness and arguably greater quality that other trucks don't. So the KW mystique is more obtainable than one might expect, even if his expectations are high.