Just back from the drawing board

by John Curran

GREENSBORO, N.C. – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, were the first words instantly springing to mind when Volvo sent through the invitation to the official launch of its completely re-engineered VN family.

Considering the popularity of Volvo’s lineup, one could be forgiven for questioning why the truckmaker would want to mess with its existing designs and risk losing market acceptance. But as with most equipment changes occurring these days, the decision was necessitated in large part by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware the U.S. enviro-watchdog’s new emissions standards take effect as of the first of this month. And with them, come a host of new engine designs – most of which incorporate some form of exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) – as well as a new array of operating challenges.

Quite simply put, the VN needed some major upgrades to accommodate the post-October engines and the manufacturer decided to take the opportunity to incorporate a host of improvements to its design. Many of these are intended to lessen the impact of EGR on fuel economy while also addressing some nagging problems surrounding serviceability and reliability.

“We think this puts us in a great position heading into the second quarter of 2003 and beyond,” says Susan Alt, Volvo Trucks North America’s vice-president of marketing. She adds the company’s production lines are already booked through the end of 2002 with dealer orders for the new tractors – which include VNL (the “L” designates a long hood design) 780, 670, 630 and 430 sleeper-equipped units and the VNM (the “M” designates a medium hood design) 200, 300 and 430 daycabs.

“Sales in the first quarter, are certainly going to be down,” explains Alt, “how far really depends on engine performance.”

Under the hood

Engine performance is something Volvo says isn’t likely to trouble its customers once they get a chance to see its offerings in action. The captive EPA ’02 D12 and the Cummins ISX will fill the envelopes of post-Oct. 1 Volvos with a range of horsepower from 365 all the way up to 565.

“These are two simply beautiful, beautifully simple solutions,” says Ed Saxman, a director with Volvo Powertrain. “There are no special maintenance requirements at all.”

The added heat generated by EGR was one of the biggest challenges facing the truck design team and make no mistake, real world miles have gone into finding solutions.

Live test data

While Volvo is confident its EGR engine is ready for the rigors of everyday, over-the-road use, there were some alarm bells sounded early on.

“We had some early mechanical difficulties with EGR,” says Chuck Pannell, who is best described as the father of the new VN line. “Specifically we had some thermostat housing leaks, but we’ve applied corrections and long-since solved it.”

He stresses this is why companies do testing in the first place; computer modeling will only take you so far. At the same time, Pannell explains the engineers used the opportunity to evaluate and address reliability issues experienced in the past not only by the test fleet, Bison Transport, but other Volvo customers as well.

“We analyzed our warranty matrix and looked specifically at the top 20 problems experienced by VN owners,” says Pannell. “Far and away, air leaks and certain electrical problems were Number 1 and 2.”

He says a new frame-mounted solenoid pack and removing air and electrical lines from the cab and dash will all but solve these relatively minor yet oft-time consuming headaches.

As well, Volvo has switched to Conmet unitized hubs, which go between 500,000 and a million miles without needing so much as a look from a shop tech.

“Even at 500,000 miles, that’s still 200,000 to 300,000 more than today,” adds Pannell.

But stretched preventive maintenance cycles wasn’t the only reason for the switch. Volvo’s John Moore explains hubs were also high on the warranty claim list.

“We had experienced some problems with leaky seals and dust penetration,” he says.

Both Pannell and Moore insist these improvements will translate into unsurpassed vehicle uptime and subsequently higher revenues and net profits – even after the maintenance bills are paid.

Going with the flow

As good as the testing was, it could not change the fact EGR-equipped engines thirst for more go-juice than today’s designs. So the trick for Volvo was remembering any cat can be skinned in a number of ways.

Since the engine was losing efficiency, the team looked for ways to improve the aerodynamics in the new line.

“We knew that as an integrated manufacturer, we had an opportunity to make the entire vehicle work in concert,” says Alt. “Cab, chassis and engine all needed to be developed at the same time to work as a single unit for the truck to be as efficient as possible.”

The cab has been repositioned, as has the fifth wheel, which allows buyers to pick a rig with a trailer gap as much as 12 inches tighter than before.

New headlight and fender designs have been incorporated not only for stylistic reasons, but to also improve the airflow around the truck.

The new two-piece mirror design does much more than improve the driver’s visibility around the A-pillar. Their breakaway nature cuts down on the need for expensive repairs.

“They also have lower air drag, which means greater fuel efficiency,” says Volvo’s Kevin Hawkins.

Why even the new splash shields under the front fenders have been engineered to reduce dirt build-up on the vehicle, thereby contributing to the fight for aerodynamics.

Every angle has been maximized to slash the drag co-efficient on the new VNLs by 3.2 per cent compared to its predecessor. The result is a cab design that can boast up to 1.5 per cent better fuel economy than the pre-October VNs.

But cab and component curves are just part of the VNL equation.

“Hundreds of parts were scrutinized, reconfigured and streamlined for a cumulative weight reduction,” says Pannell. Liberal use of aluminum and other high-tech, high-strength alloys – as well as composite materials – have worked to shed almost a full ton from the VN as it was introduced in 1996.

“Regardless of what the current freight rate is or should be, when you multiply that rate by an additional 1,500lb, our customers can feel the impact of this new VN in their wallets,” adds Pannell.

These advances, in conjunction with the cab design, almost completely negate any efficiency penalties tied to EGR.

“You’ll experience more of a difference in fuel economy from a good driver to a bad driver than you will from these engines,” says Saxman. “With the enhanced aerodynamics, you’ll see a zero to two per cent increase (in fuel use).”


Building a premium product and projecting a premium corporate image was the cornerstone of Volvo’s re-design efforts.

“When I was on the other side of that thin line we have, it was very easy to talk about premium product – it was always there,” says Michel Gigou, Volvo’s top executive in North America. (He made the comment in reference to the fact he used to hold a comparable position with Volvo’s sister company Mack Trucks Inc.) “Our commitment is to be the easiest company to deal with.”

Ask anyone in the industry today and they’ll tell you service is what’s going to sell the trucks of tomorrow. To this end Volvo expects to have 500 dealers and sub-dealers across North America in the not too distant future.

The company understands, mind you, a customer’s impressions are formed long before the tractor goes to the dealership.

Ease of serviceability can also color these opinions a great deal.

Volvo engineers have gone to great lengths to make the new rigs as mechanic-friendly as possible. The fluid checks and fills have all been placed away from the EGR components on the “cool” side of the engine.

Two-piece engine covers, three-piece bumpers and front fairings that can be removed without the use of tools all work to dramatically reduce downtime.

“We’re making sure the truck is ready to go when the operator is,” says Hawkins, a
lso adding, “we’ve made what was good, great.”

The battery box on every truck is located behind the driver-side front fairing, making troubleshooting much easier: Shop staff won’t be wasting time trying to locate components, they’ll learn one Volvo and they’ll know them all.

While making every truck similar in design doesn’t necessarily mean good things, in Volvo’s case it sounds like mechanics won’t be complaining.

“Our new alternator can be changed in only 12 minutes,” says Volvo’s Barry Yeager. He adds long-life componentry has been used wherever possible, such as wider poly-V belts (complete with their 300,000-mile road life) on the cooling system.

But how do they drive?

Exactly how the VED12-equipped VNLs perform in terms of drivability, was explained by one of the truckers lucky enough to take part in the proto-testing.

Part of the test route included hilly stretches with some steep grades running over fairly long distances. The unit, which was equipped with an automatic transmission, took it all in stride according to the trucker.

“If you’ve got a really heavy load, say 50,000lb, she’ll drop one gear,” the professional driver exclaims. “Me, I’m generally 30,000lb – she doesn’t drop any at all … it will get into 10th and stay there and it doesn’t overheat.”

In Truck News’ case, the official launch festivities included a test drive of the VNL 630.

“This 630 is a typical fleet spec,” explains Volvo’s director of marketing, Frank Bio, who was brave enough to come along for the ride.

Although it was only a short rip along the Interstate, the new integrated front air suspension and steer axle – Hendrickson’s Airtek – provided a very comfortable cruise even along the uneven road surface of the freeway shoulder.

Technically speaking, Volvo and Hendrickson describe this as a 21 per cent reduction in the g-forces transmitted to the vehicle frame.

The superior stability and handling were also apparent when cornering at speed. The manufacturers describe this as an improvement by as much as 67 per cent to roll stiffness over more conventional designs.

Reduced maintenance and weight coupled with the Airtek’s enhanced durability round out its benefits to the truck’s owner.

The component is standard gear on the 630 and its beefier cousins the 670 and 780 and is an optional up-spec on all other models.

Tough in the trenches

The VN wasn’t the only Volvo line to get a total tune-up in advance of Oct. 1. The company’s Class 8 vocational has been renamed the VHD 200 with, among other things, an automotive-inspired cab.

“With the new Volvo VHD 200, we’ve made sure drivers have an extremely safe and comfortable environment inside – no matter what they’re faced with outside,” says Alt. “There was a time when customers couldn’t get a tough vocational truck that was comfortable too.”

The unit’s new interior includes a wrap-around dash, also incorporated in the VNL and VNM designs, which was pioneered in Europe to minimize stress and fatigue while improving safety and serviceability. Gauges and switches have been ergonomically placed within easy view, or reach when necessary, of the operator to reduce distraction.

Optimized switches have also created more free dash space, providing maximum flexibility for body-builder and other aftermarket enhancements.

The new vocational can also be equipped with Volvo Link, the manufacturer’s two-way satellite communications system operated through the wiper stalk on the steering column.

At 89 inches wide and 114 in. high, the VHD 200 boasts the market segment’s roomiest cab – plenty of space for the driver and a work crew of two.

The single-rail frame is lighter than double-rail design, yet it’s still strong enough to match the latter in terms of performance. This means lower operating costs, higher payloads and improved handling.

Corporate synergy

Together the VHD, VNL and VNM series’ represent the next phase of what Volvo internally refers to as its 2280 family. Building off the $590-million European footings established with last year’s October launch, Jorma Halonen, the company’s worldwide president and chief executive officer, says $190 million have been spent on the North American lines. The number dropped in large part due to the fact Volvo has achieved approximately 30 per cent parts commonality with models from across the pond. However, Halonen and Gigou both stress, “This is very much an American truck.”

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