King of the hills

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The folks over at Volvo are pretty excited about their new truck and engine combo introduced earlier this year – and for good reason.

The new D16 is the industry’s most powerful engine rated at up to 625 horsepower and 2,250 lb-ft of torque. And it comes packaged within the VT 880, a stylish premium truck that is sure to appeal to image-conscious owner/operators and perhaps the fleets looking to attract them. When the truck and engine were introduced to the media in February, a trailer tire blow-out brought a premature end to the trade press ride-and-drive.

Volvo made up for it in spades recently by hosting a more thorough run through the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. The scenic route they mapped out took us through some pretty major hills – a great opportunity to see exactly what the D16 engine was capable of.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

I had the chance to drive a Volvo VT 880 equipped with a 625 hp D16 engine with 2,250 lb-ft of torque and 18-speed Eaton transmission. The truck was loaded to 77,800 lbs and had a mere 10,000 miles on it when we set out from Greensboro.

Also along for the drive was a similarly spec’d blue VT 880, loaded to 78,040 lbs. (Volvo provided the scale tickets to prove the weight, and it’s a good thing too, as it felt like we were hauling nothing but sailboat fuel up some of the hills).

We set out on US52 from Greensboro on a beautiful June morning and before long we were pulling up some gently rolling hills – a subtle hint of the hills to come.

The VT 880 was fit with a prototype D16 engine as well as some other new technologies still being developed. Among them was a handy tool Volvo is calling the Sweet Spot Indicator. Ed Saxman, product manager, drivetrain, said we were among the first people to see the new technology.

The Sweet Spot Indicator uses a series of symbols to help a driver determine how to maximize his fuel economy by operating the engine at the optimum RPM. Icons appear on the driver display advising the driver to increase or decrease the RPM or throttle pressure. If the driver is operating within the proper RPM, two dollar signs appear to let him know he’s doing a good job.

“It’s a way to challenge that driver to run the engine in the most efficient way possible,” explained Saxman.

The system also tracks performance over time and shows how often the driver has operated in the sweet spot. (For example, the Sweet Spot Indicator showed Saxman and I combined to operate at the sweet spot for 91 per cent of the drive from Greensboro to the truck stop on I-81where we stopped for lunch.)

The Sweet Spot Indicator will soon be in production and will be available on both the VT 880 and VN models. There are many variables that affect a driver’s miles per gallon, but this tool provides a more consistent way for fleets to measure driver performance. Hopefully, fleets will use it to reward drivers who consistently operate within that sweet spot, now that it can be easily monitored.

Another new feature on the truck I test drove was an Immobilizer. It was a three-digit code the driver must enter before the truck can be turned on. With increased security on the mind of trucking companies (particularly south of the border) this is a handy theft prevention tool.

An interesting feature on the D16 engine is a progressive torque system called I-Torque (or Intelligent Torque). You can imagine the reaction of axle and tire manufacturers when Volvo told them it was building an engine capable of 2,250 lb.-ft. of torque. Such high torque levels would put enormous strain on the suspension, axles and tires – especially if a driver likes to stand on it when leaving red lights.

“I-Torque is a torque strategy that we have on the new 16-litre engine to protect the driveline and to some extent the tires from the excessive torque you get from such a strong engine in the lower gears,” Saxman explained as we drove along US52. “This engine will start out at 1,850 lb.-ft. and it will hold that through the initial gears. By the time you get into gear five it will bump up to 2,050 lb.-ft. torque and then over the range shifts is where the ratio in the transmission changes to 2.6:1 so in the high gears you will have full torque.”

The first significant hill we encountered was a gradual climb along US52 northeast of Greensboro. It was the first test for the D16 and we handled it with ease, climbing at 60 mph at 1,200 RPM in top gear. Piece of cake but with Fancy Gap looming on the horizon, the true test was still to come.

Fancy Gap is a steep uphill climb of 1,368 feet near the North Carolina/ Virginia border. The grade is up to 4.5% and the elevation at the top is more than 2,800 feet. Most loaded trucks are confined to the right-hand lane where they put their four-ways on and slowly make the ascent while four-wheelers buzz by in the fast lanes.

However with 625 horses helping me out I was able to climb Fancy Gap at 52 mph in 16th gear running within the sweet spot at 1,600 RPM. Remember we were grossing nearly 80,000 lbs and since we stopped at the rest area at the bottom of the hill, we were starting from a dead stop and not approaching the hill at 70 mph like many of the other trucks. Not bad at all.

Saxman told me the young truck had conquered Fancy Gap a few times already. The last time the truck climbed the hill averaging 40-45 mph in top gear, cresting the hill at a modest 52 mph (again, fully loaded).

We turned a lot of heads on that climb and you could see the envy in the eyes of some of the other drivers who lugged their way slowly towards the summit. Roadside signs along the hill that warned drivers to “Be Alert for Slow Moving Trucks” certainly weren’t referring to us.

Fancy Gap was a good test for the 16-litre engine, but there were even steeper grades ahead. As we travelled I-81 towards Bristol, Tenn. we were able to take most hills without losing any more than three to five mph – and these included some significant grades. On occasion the engine brake kicked in while travelling uphill – an unusual occurrence, to say the least – but we could easily have exceeded the 70 mph speed limit while running uphill if we wanted to.

The biggest hill we tackled was Sam’s Gap – a 3,760 foot elevation which we climbed losing only 15 mph along the way. On the way up the engine temperature never surpassed 210F. the VT’s big rad was doing its job and keeping the engine within acceptable operating temperatures. While we climbed Sam’s Gap at no less than 55 mph, the other VT 880 on the tour beat us to the top by a full minute and a half.

On the other side of the hill was a nine mile downhill grade of 6%. There were three well-used truck runaway lanes along the downhill grade but the 340 horsepower Volvo engine brake was able to keep our speed in check and we made the descent at 40-45 mph in sixth gear. Have I mentioned how quiet that engine brake is? Even the most ornery city bylaw officer will be hard-pressed to charge a Volvo driver for using the engine brake within city limits.

On the flat stretches, it was difficult to keep the speed to less than 70 mph because the truck drives at 80 mph as smoothly and effortlessly as most trucks do at 55. It felt nice to not have to worry about getting in the way of any other motorists.

“This is a left-lane truck,” quipped co-driver and product manager Frank Bio as we pulled out to pass some slow-moving passenger cars.

The traditional knock against high horsepower engines is their thirst for fuel. It takes a lot of juice to power 625 horses as well as the 340 hp engine brake. However, during our test run the fuel mileage was surprisingly good. Volvo officials were quick to point out this wasn’t a fuel economy run. We were running brand new engines through hilly terrain with drivers of varying skill levels behind the wheel.

But amazingly, the fuel mileage proved to be very reasonable with both trucks achieving slightly more than 5.3 miles per gallon. Not too shabby when you consider the trucks hadn’t even been broken in yet.

Saxman admitted fuel mileage will continue to be a concern among customers, but he’s quick to point out the ability to reduce delivery times will be a benefit.

“Trucking is a service,” he pointed out, noting the 16-litre engine can help companies ensure on-time deliveries. A point well-taken, especially if you routinely run the Rocky Mountains in Western Canada. He added, however, that “If you use it for hot rodding and aggressive acceleration, (the fuel economy) will hurt you.”

While Volvo hasn’t yet affixed a price tag to this truck, it will be priced competitively with like-products, the company says. That probably translates to US$130,000-ish, Saxman suggests. Ultimately, the market will determine the price and if early orders are any suggestion, price won’t be a deterrent. Volvo initially hoped to receive 200 dealer orders after the initial introduction of the VT 880. There have been 300 and counting, suggesting it won’t be long before the VT 880 is a common sight on North American highways.

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