KANANASKIS, Alta. – When Western Star was acquired by Freightliner four years ago, you could forgive some of the Western Star purists for expressing some concern about the future of the brand.
The company had already earned a reputation as a tough owner/operator truck and had developed a loyal fan base in Canada as such. The last thing most customers wanted was to see Western Star shed that identity and become just another highway tractor.
It seems those concerns were unfounded, however, if sales figures are any indication.
“Our market share continues to increase both in the U.S. and Canada,” said John Merrifield, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Western Star. He added sales are up 65-70 per cent over last year in North America and “we think those numbers are going to continue.”
The company attributes much of the growth to its expanding dealer network – particularly in the U.S. When Freightliner LLC acquired Western Star in 2000, the company only had 130 dealers in Canada and the U.S. (the brand isn’t available in Mexico). There are 320 dealers today.
The company also recently inked a new labour agreement with its 1,100 employees who are represented by four different unions.
And it has been aggressive about introducing product enhancements throughout its line, including two new versions of the Stratosphere sleeper, a 6900 XD twin-steer for extreme-duty applications and an expanded LowMax lineup – all within the last two years.
“We’re in the midst of a significant product offensive at Western Star – the biggest in the history of the company,” said Jim Crowcroft, manager, product marketing.
Even so, company officials said they have realistic expectations for the future and acknowledge the company will probably never top market share listings.
“It will never be a market leader – it will never be a 10 per cent player. It’s always going to be a niche product,” Merrifield admitted. “You won’t meet a Western Star every kilometre on the highway, but when you do meet a Western Star customer you’re going to find he’s very happy and very proud to be driving a Western Star.”
Merrifield predicted brand sales will peak at about 7,500 units per year in Canada and the U.S.
While the company has maintained the traditional Western Star values of ruggedness, durability and dependability, customers have also been able to benefit from the advantages of being affiliated with a conglomerate such as Daimler-Chrysler Group (DCG), said officials. About 40 per cent of Western Star trucks are financed through DCG’s finance program and technological advancements have trickled down from the parent company and ultimately found a home in Western Star’s trucks.
Recently, the company returned to its Western Canadian roots to celebrate the brand’s heritage and provide an opportunity for trade press editors to ride in and drive a contingent of Western Star offerings.
“It’s rugged country out here, the terrain is tough and the winters can be harsh,” Merrifield said, while visiting the Kananaskis region in the Rocky Mountain foothills. “It’s a tough part of the country and if you’re an owner/operator operating in an environment like this, you want a product that’s very dependable. One that you know you can take out and know you’re going to get back safely.”
He added: “This is where Western Star was born. Western Star in Canada has always been a strong brand. It’s been really big in the logging industry and the oilfields.”
Available for the ride and drive were the following trucks: a 4900 EX, 132″ BBC LowMax with 68″ Stratosphere sleeper, and Cat C15 475-hp engine; a 4900 EX, 132″ BBC LowMax with 62″ low roof sleeper and Detroit Diesel 60-14L, 515-hp powerplant; a 4900 SA, 123″ BBC with 68″ Stratosphere sleeper and Cat C15 475-hp engine; and a 4900 FA, 123″ BBC with 82″ sleeper and DD 60-14L, 515-hp engine. All trucks were equipped with 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.
The company chose a scenic route along the Trans-Canada Hwy. from Kananaskis to Lake Louise and back.
It didn’t take long to gain an appreciation for the quietness inside the cab. Part of this can be attributed to the space-age honeycomb material used to construct the sleeper boxes, which are still built in Kelowna, B.C. (see CCV sidebar, pg. 75).
“This material offers enhanced insulation properties, tremendous strength to weight performance and a smooth exterior for a first class finish,” Crowcroft explained.
While the company opted for lightweight, well-insulated material for the sleeper box, it used steel for the cab itself.
“Western Star believes steel is the perfect environment for a truck cab because steel is tough and strong and with today’s new high-tech steels, steel can be easier to repair,” said Crowcroft. “With an all-steel cab construction, drivers get a durable and long-lasting work environment. We think we have the best of both worlds (with a steel cab combined with the lightweight sleeper material).”
The one-piece floor provides easy access to the sleeper and with 22-inches of space between the driver and passenger there’s plenty of room to manoeuvre.
The cab itself features about 65 cubic feet of space while the sleeper boasts up to 295 cubic feet. The driver can enjoy 26 inches of legroom, proving driver comfort doesn’t have to be sacrificed to provide more space for storage and other amenities.
On the subject of driver comfort, the gauge location is fully-customizable on Western Star tractors.
“If a driver is used to having his odometer on the left, we’ll put it on the left,” said Crowcroft.
“If he likes to have his gas gauge top and center, we’ll put it top and center.”
A driver has to look a bit closer to see some of the other elements that separate Western Star from some of the other trucks on the market.
Tubular cross-members make the frame itself more durable and act to absorb and dissipate stress and twists to the chassis, he said.
A single steering shaft eliminates one u-joint, reducing the possibility of a failure.
Also, a large engine envelope makes it easy to access the engine and other under-hood components while also providing ample room for the improved cooling system required by today’s low-emission engines.
“We’ve enhanced all of our products to ensure that they all have plenty of cooling capacity to allow us to maintain all published engine ratings all the way to 550 hp,” said Crowcroft.
Despite the enhancements to the Western Star line of trucks, Crowcroft added. “We’ve achieved these new product implementations without sacrificing our heritage of quality craftsmanship, durability and configurability.”
Another area Western Star prides itself in is delivering solid resale value to customers.
“The resale value is one of the tops in the industry and it’s something we watch very closely,” said Merrifield. “We take a lot of pride in seeing how many times these trucks change hands.”
Crowcroft said Western Star trucks continue to demand good resale value even when the market is flooded with used sleeper-equipped trucks, because the sleeper box can be easily removed, converting it into a daycab.