Who's the "I" in Volvo's I-Shift automated mechanical transmission? In this case it's Perry Allen, a driver for Klink Trucking at Ashley in northeastern Indiana, who's assigned to Number 299, an '09 Volvo VHD dump truck with the self-shifting gearbox. Allen likes the nicely outfitted truck and the work-saving tranny, and pointed out its smooth operation during the October morning I spent with him as he hauled dirt and aggregate around nearby Fort Wayne, Ind.
The "I" could be Wayne Klink, founder and president of the fleet, which hauls aggregates, asphalt and other building materials with 89 trucks and tractors — 84 of them Volvos. He, too, likes the transmission and has one in his personal "distribution" truck, a tanker that sprays liquid asphalt on roads undergoing chip-and-tar treatment. He's trying out automated transmissions to see how they can benefit his operation, and said he previously tested four Eaton Fuller UltraShifts, which are back at Eaton being reprogrammed for faster shifting.
Volvo VHD104B Test Set
Allen had one of the UltraShifts and said he prefers the I-Shift. As we drove south toward Fort Wayne using Interstate 69 and county and state roads, he pointed out many examples where the Volvo product shifted more quickly and smoothly than its competitor would have. Stop signs, traffic lights and varying speeds kept the tranny busy, and usually it was efficient and unobtrusive. If it hadn't been an object of curiosity — it's still a rare component and is made rarer because it's available only in Volvos — we probably wouldn't have talked about it.
The electro-mechanical device is very popular in Europe, Volvo says, but far less so in North America, where owners are more frugal and drivers simply expect to shift for themselves. Like the UltraShift, I-Shift is primarily an on-highway transmission but Volvo engineers approved its use in Klink's on/off-road fleet.
The "I" could also mean intelligent, because I-Shift usually chose the correct gear for the situation and shifted up or down as needed, just like the auto tranny in your car or pickup truck but with brief pauses between each ratio as the device shifts up or downward among its 12 ratios. But it wasn't brilliant. Allen pointed out the times when it started out in 1st even when the truck was empty, a quirk that can be overridden by selecting Manual and thumbing an Up button; the brain allows the start-out gear to be as high as 3rd, and clutch engagement was always very smooth, with absolutely no chatter and no front-end hopping. From 1st it would go quickly to 2nd or 3rd and then skip-shift upward from there.
Later, when I drove, the transmission did the 1st-gear thing often, but once or twice took off in 4th, skip-shifted to 7th, then 9th and finally 11th, where it stayed for most street cruising above 35 or 40 mph. Sometimes it chose other gears, but they all worked fine in propelling the truck; the only reason I noted them is that I watched the brightly lit read-out in the info panel below the speedometer and tachometer. Given a light foot, the engine tended to stay between 1,200 and 1,500 rpm at street speeds; a heavier foot sent revs a few hundred rpm higher, but the tranny almost never hung in a gear too long.
And the I-Shift shifted quickly between Drive and Reverse, which is important while maneuvering at jobsites and while trying to rock out of mud, Allen said. If the truck was pointed downhill, as it was at one construction site we delivered to, the clutch quickly engaged and we moved backward without unintentionally rolling forward — a good thing, because a van and a pickup were parked just ahead. I wise-cracked that the van was rusty and a good whack from the Volvo wouldn't really matter. But I feathered the brake pedal with my left foot while spinning the steering wheel, and released the brakes only as we began moving rearward. A wider pedal face would make this a little easier for a driver's left foot to reach the brake, but I could also have used the trolley handle on the dash.
The Volvo's wide cab gave me the impression that it was almost too wide for street lanes, but of course it wasn't, and I soon got accustomed to it. The big right-side window compensated for its distance from my eyes and, thanks also to good mirrors, I never had trouble seeing what was alongside. The truck steered precisely, turned rather sharply and stopped promptly, all with minimal work from Allen or me. It rode smoothly, too, and the nicely appointed interior gave a deluxe feel. Noise from the D13 diesel was minimal and the I-Shift made the most of its 425 horsepower, so the truck accelerated briskly.
The VHD is a wonderful truck to operate and Klink testifies that his drivers really like all his Volvos, including earlier models. Overall they give few problems; have good trade-in value (or did when the truck market was better); and his dealer, VoMac Truck Sales & Service in New Haven (a Fort Wayne suburb), is tops.
VHDs might appeal to more customers if they had a choice of engines, but the 12.8-liter D13 is the only one available. This one's a clean-burning '07-legal model, so there's virtually no soot or odor in its exhaust. Volvo Powertrain makes the diesel in Maryland, but the I-Shift comes from Sweden. That its electronics and those of the engine are related (so to speak) is probably why they work so well together. A slow trend toward automatics in general among heavy truck buyers might boost the I-Shift. Klink said he plans to buy more of them, partly because they help inexperienced drivers — which Allen is not — perform better. And they'll work less while doing it.