Last month's Hands-On Trucking article was set at a NASCAR track in Texas. This time it's a tractor painted up with the colors of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s NASCAR racing team. Am I on some kind of fast roll?
No, it's only coincidence. Volvo Trucks North America is a corporate sponsor of that racing organization, and part of what the builder gets for its promotional investment is the use of official graphics. One might say they are misapplied because the VHD tractor was not built for high speed, but for heavy hauling.
You might not see a VHD every day, as it's not made in high volume—about 1,200 were sold last year—and of course, the color scheme makes this vehicle unique. It's among Volvo's 2004 show fleet, and I spotted it on display at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville last March.
"I've gotta drive that," I told Kevin Thomas, a contractor to Volvo, who was in the booth that day. So he and Volvo's public relations manager, Jim McNamara, helped set up this demo a couple of months later.
Volvo's Heavy Duty model differs from the VN on which it's based in several ways: brawnier styling, tougher chassis components and a stronger cab that makes it suitable for vocational applications, such as pulling a lowboy trailer.
Thomas appropriately loaded the Ferree 50-foot, 50-ton lowboy with a Volvo wheel loader to give us some realistic weight—about 74,280 pounds for the combination, he said. Both the loader and the tractor had Volvo diesels, so except for some nearby cars, the trailer and I were about the only non-Volvo objects on the premises.
We were at the company's headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., from where we departed after I fired up the tractor's VE D12. This one had the strongest rating, 460 horsepower and 1,650 pounds-feet of torque. But it acts much stronger, and can be lugged way down.
I usually upshifted at 1,600 or 1,700 rpm, but when Thomas drove, he grabbed each higher gear at 1,400 or 1,500. "Just let it pull," he said, and it did, like a dozer's diesel, at least on level pavement. As with any engine, it pulled highway hills better if I kept revs higher, however. And at 1,500 to 1,600 rpm, the engine kept the rig cruising easily at 60 to 65 mph on the interstates.
The transmission was a Fuller 18-speed whose nine main gears can each be split into two ratios. That's especially useful while climbing a freeway ramp or coming out of a hole, because a split is faster than a full gear change. Otherwise, splitting was seldom needed with this engine, or any other I've driven that was paired to an 18. The gearshift was somewhat rubbery, but not as much as on VNs I've driven, and I never failed to find a gear I was going for.
We headed west out of Greensboro on Interstate 40, then swung north through Winston-Salem on the U.S. 52 freeway toward Mount Airey, the hometown of Andy Griffith and site of the fictional "Mayberry," where filming was done for his old TV show.
Well south of Mount Airey, though, we left the main highway and he directed me down narrow byways that I'd never have ventured onto alone with a rig this size. But he knew them well. "This is where I grew up," he said as we drifted into East Bend, a small farming town along Highway 67. Then we turned right onto a tree-lined county road past an old plantation house.
The trees formed a shady tunnel which contrasted with the sun-drenched green fields, making this lane a good subject for a landscape painter or, as Thomas noted, for a photographer. "We've used this for photo shoots because the trucks look good coming through here," he said. "We do it in the middle of the day when there isn't much traffic."
Good move, as there are no shoulders and no place for a truck or car to pull onto, only embankments on both sides that would've tumbled our rig into those idyllic pastures had I blundered either way, but I didn't.
The lowboy was 102 inches wide and the loader's bucket a tad broader, so keeping the rig centered in the 9- and 10-foot-wide lanes took a little concentration. Yet it wasn't tedious, because the steering was precise if a bit mushy—inevitable with power assist—and the trailer's tridem seemed to resist any jerky motions on the steering wheel. The mirrors told me that the trailer stayed planted on straightaways and followed nicely through the many curves on these back roads.
The scenic countryside was fully visible through Volvo's big windows, and the well laid-out automotive-style instrument panel made it easy to keep everything under control and know what shape the engine and other components were in. Logically placed switches include a pair for the engine brake, which uses back pressure from the turbo to slow forward motion. It's both strong and quiet.
Ride was solid but smooth, thanks to the T-Ride rear suspension and compliant but steady parabolic leaf springs on the front axle. With heftier components, including an 18,000-pound steer axle and 46,000-pound tandems, the VHD didn't have the limousine-like ride of a VN highway vehicle. But I actually preferred this tractor's firmness.
The VHD cab's rear sits on air bags that absorb a lot of shock and vibration, protecting the cab and everything in it, including the driver. The cab is wide and roomy—maybe more than it needs to be for vocational service, but big drivers will appreciate its spaciousness and most others will like the graciousness that size implies.
Volvo engineers say the VHD got many of the mechanical upgrades made to the VN series two years ago. These include a revised dash layout with the side wing placed closer to the driver, and easier-to-get-at parts, like the HVAC blower fan that can be changed out quickly.
VNs also got stylish projector-beam headlamps that look like they were taken off a Cadillac or Lexus, but VHDs stayed with four 7-inch-diameter halogen sealed beams. The simpler headlights hold up better in rough conditions and are cheap to replace, so make more sense for this type of vehicle. The lamps, set in handsomely chromed bezels, are wisely placed several inches away from the front corners so they're less likely to be bashed if the driver bumps something.
We never needed the headlights on this daytime trip, of course. And too soon the pleasant journey along back roads north of Winston-Salem ended as we headed back to Greensboro. Thomas watched like a wary granddaddy as I bent the rig through a couple of sharp corners without scuffing the trailer's right-rear tires on any curbs, and took us back to Volvo headquarters.
I climbed out thinking that the VHD is a competent and comfortable truck that deserves serious consideration, especially by anyone who operates Volvo machinery. There is some commonality in parts and similarity in layout between engines in Volvo machines and the VE D12 in this and other heavy Volvo trucks, so training and inventory could be somewhat leveraged. And the company says it has worked hard to grow its dealer body and concurrently build parts and service support for the engine.
The VE D12 is probably as stout an engine as you can buy and is easy for a driver to like. That's good, because it's the only one you can get in the VHD. Volvo management decided not to engineer in the Cummins ISX that's optional in VN models and is sold in the majority of them. And management banished the lightweight ISL, which is offered by sister company Mack in its Granite vocational model.
Would Volvo sell more VHDs if it offered more choices in engines? Probably. But there is a trend among all American builders toward vertical integration of components and chassis—something Mack has successfully done almost from its beginning a century ago. And based on its performance alone, Volvo can be proud of the VHD just as it sits.