Every jobsite of any size features hard-working machines of many types, but they can't get there by themselves. That's why, in the world of "construction trucks," there are road tractors pulling equipment trailers.
What you see here is a good example, and the Volvo tractor is newer than it may seem. The second-generation VN supersedes the original model of 1996–97, which in turn succeeded the WC-series tractors and WG trucks that dated back to the old White Motor Co.'s Road Boss and Constructor conventionals of the 1970s. From White's bankrupt ashes in 1981, Volvo began building a presence here; AB Volvo of Sweden invested considerable time, money and effort improving its American-built highway products to where they are now virtual 10-wheel limousines.
Most long-hauling Volvos have long hoods and generous-sized Integral Sleepers (a name from the White days) and are about as smooth and comfortable as they look. This tractor is a VNM-430, for Volvo medium-hood; the N means nothing—really—as it's only an internal code name that got carried into the designation of the new series in '96.
The 430 suggests sleeper length. Volvo says it's 42 inches, but the sleeper adds only 32 inches to total cab length. Although I spent no time in the bunk (except to sit on it while shooting some pics), the 430's sleeper has few storage places for clothing and such, but enough to live out of during short road runs.
The VNM was hooked to a Great Dane 48-foot drop-deck semitrailer loaded with a Volvo EC140B LC excavator—not a particularly heavy load, and we weighed a total of perhaps 65,000 pounds. "We" included driver James Powers of Lexington, N. Ca., who works for Thomas Industries of Greensboro, which moves trucks around the country for Volvo. This was "his" rig during the demo, during which people of varied driving ability drove it around a preset course along wide boulevards and on a nearby interstate highway.
Most drivers, me included, took the first right turn too sharply and dragged the drop-deck trailer's wheels over the curb and onto the grass. This, Powers good naturedly acknowledged, was because the trailer's 10 foot-1 inch spread axle was easy to misjudge; on a subsequent trip with the same rig I pulled farther into that intersection before cutting right, and the wheels cleared the corner nicely.
Volvos have not been known for light weight, but the new models might. Engineers have wrung about 1,500 pounds out of the typical new VN. That should let many operators carry more payload and simplify operations for long-haulers who sometimes have to limit how much diesel fuel they pump aboard at each stop.
Under the hood was a VE D12 diesel, which, executives say, continues to grow in popularity. Like sister company Mack, Volvo pushes its own powerplants but also offers various Cummins diesels. Volvo stopped selling Caterpillar engines some years ago, and last year dropped Detroit Diesels because Detroit is now owned by DaimlerChrysler, parent to arch-rival Freightliner LLC.
This VE D12 was rated at 430 horsepower, plenty to pull this load and most others. Volvo engines to me have always seemed gutsier than their ratings said, and they are fun to drive. Older D12s and the latest ones with V-Pulse exhaust-gas recirculation systems include some innovative technology, like a standard engine brake that doubles as a prewarmer for inlet air during cold startups. Volvo has worked hard to get parts and training into its dealer system, but Cummins is still a more familiar brand. Partly for that, Cummins-powered Volvos have historically brought higher resale than those with Volvo diesels.
During my short trips in this and other VNs, I noted the revised layout of the wide, wraparound dashboard. It has rounded corners and an upscale look that many drivers will appreciate, or maybe not, if they're used to the "truckee" look featured in old-line American makes with narrower cabs and traditional styling. Volvo says a recent tour of the United States by a troupe of new VNs brought overwhelmingly favorable comments about the styling and comfort from drivers who inspected them.
I'll bet a few of them banged their left knees on the grab handle just to the left of the dashboard. Do it once and you'll learn to keep your knee tucked in. The handle certainly makes for a sure-handed climb into the cab. That and another to the rear of the wide door opening are wholly inside the cab, where they stay dry and clean. I'd prefer at least one grab handle outside the door, but there aren't any.
Behind the wheel, I found the automotive-style gauges legible and easy to read. Rotary switches control headlamps and a new heater-ventilator-air conditioning system. Daytime running lights are standard, which drivers may or may not like (folks are more likely to see the truck coming, but the driver cannot easily signal another trucker who's overtaking him).
Other switches on the VN's instrument panel are big, easy to use rockers. There were also a dozen blanks for additional switches; each blank might tell a hired driver that his boss missed an opportunity to order some neat accessory. Then again, the boss might be happy to add driving lights, work lights, and switches for all sorts of equipment when he knows that they can be readily popped into the dash and plugged into the new electrical system.
The big, wide cab of a VN makes gear-shifter design important to the ease, or difficulty, of changing gears. The Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmission in this tractor was on the rubbery side, but a semi-electronic Lightning 10-speed transmission in another tractor, and an 8LL in a VHD dump truck, were rather precise. So shift quality seemed to depend on transmission model, at least in these preproduction vehicles.
VNs have become well known for their soft and compliant ride, but the VN series goes further with the availability of a Hendrickson air-ride system on the steer axle. Whether this is needed is a question the buyer will answer on the order sheet, but like the many other details, it shows Volvo's dedication to improving the driver's lot in life.
What you can't see from the driver's seat or in the pictures are the many under-the-skin improvements in the new VNs. Engineers pointed out that all components are now positioned for easy access and replacement as the truck ages. Fluids are easily checked and filters easily changed; air lines are color coded, and many wires are labeled on both sides of the firewall for technician convenience. The hood's composite material is said to be more rugged.
Volvo executives and engineers believe that good aerodynamics are far more important than traditional styling, so phased out squarish designs years ago. If you want a "large car," go elsewhere, but if you want to cheat the wind and save fuel, then a Volvo's for you.
The VHD and VNM are less smooth in style than the longer, highway-oriented VNL, but well researched aerodynamics are basic to them, as well. On all new VNs, even the Volvo grill logo lets air pass through almost unobstructed. Such attention to detail is no doubt found on Volvo machinery, and if you run them, you may well feel compelled to haul them with Volvo road power. If so, here you go.