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Star trek: Test driving Western Star’s 4900 FA

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - My first time behind the wheel of a Western Star and I'm given a decked out 2008 model. For so many years as a company driver, the only time I'd get close to a Western Star was whe...

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. –My first time behind the wheel of a Western Star and I’m given a decked out 2008 model. For so many years as a company driver, the only time I’d get close to a Western Star was when one passed me on the road.

But it would be easy to get attached to this driver-friendly, 13- speed Eaton Fuller matched with the big Detroit Diesel engine (14- litre with 470-515 horses).

I cut my teeth on Ford Louisvilles and they always seemed to be mated with Motown power. Something about the variable turbo on the Detroit 60 engine lets you bang through the low gears without any lag, and play the transmission like a virtuoso accordion player. And there’s that deep responsive tremolo as you top out in high range -like opening the throttle on a powerful motorcycle.

Western Stars can also be fitted with Cat or Mercedes engines, but this Detroit is all I need for checking out the gentle hills of the Niagara Escarpment along with Harper Ontario Truck Centre’s district sales manager Brian Howe.

My ride is a 4900 FA (set-forward axle) with a walk-in 82-inch Stratosphere sleeper that’s stand-up enabled from nose to bunk. From the outside it displays the classic Star lines: the belt buckle radiator and bowed-out sleeper cab; plenty of blinding chrome and stainless steel fixtures.

“A lot of Western Star owners want their equipment to look sharp,” says Howe. “Lots of lights, lots of chrome and lots of options.”

Indeed, I can see why owner/ops and specialty fleets love these trucks. Driver comfort is a big feature. Truckers spend a good portion of their lives inside the cab of a truck -and even big men and women would feel at home in a Western Star. Yes, those are real wooden cabinets in the bunk. When was the last time you saw real wood used in truck fittings?

The Western Star is 100% truck, nothing pretentious about it, no gimmicks. Canadian truck drivers have always had a close relationship with Western Star and remain loyal customers of the brand. The trucks were hand-built in Kelowna, B. C. up until 2002 when production was shifted to Portland, Oregon, where they’re still constructed with the same hands-on assembly procedures. Fourteen units per day roll out of the Daimler-owned West Coast plant, most of them headed for anxiously-waiting owner/operators or specialty haulers.

Western Star’s ruggedness and durability is legendary, and its attractiveness to vocational applications is easily explained. For a young country with extremes in geography and climate, the Western Star is well-suited to resource-based industries like mining, logging and construction. Twin steering axles are available in 4900-series trucks and in the heavy-duty 6900s.

But this 4900 is all highway. My ride is just a bobtail jaunt, but it’s enough to attest to the Star’s fine ride and driveability. Equipped with Freightliner/Hendrickson’s AirLiner suspension all around, even the front axle, the unit glides like a limousine. Still, I have the urge to hook up to a gravel trailer or a set of B-trains loaded to the hilt with lumber or coiled steel. This Western Star screams:”Work me!”

“This is not an entry level truck,” says Howe, who explains most Western Star buyers come to purchase the equipment after they’ve been in the business for a few years. “They’ve built up some equity and want to step up to something better.”

The traditional design of the Star with its large radiator makes it a perfect candidate for 2007 EPA engines with plenty of cooling potential to accommodate the demands of the DPF. The regeneration process is entirely automatic during highway use. “Most likely the driver won’t even notice it’s happening,” says Howe.

A dash-mounted switch allows the operator to initiate or disable the soot-burning function depending on the circumstances or location. P&D work may require manual periodic regeneration, i. e., after a long day in the city.

My test unit rolled on 3.73 rear ends and the big Detroit put out 1,650 ft.-lb. of torque at 1,200 RPM. No speed limiter on this horse, she kept creeping up to a buck and change on the 410 highway with nary a vibration. Quiet ride, too, sitting on Meritor axles (12,000 front, 40,000-lb rears).

According to Howe, automatic transmissions are not that common on Western Stars, but several options are available, including a full Allison automatic, or the Eaton Fuller AutoShift and UltraShift models.

“By far the 18-speed is the most popular on a lot of our trucks, not just for heavier highway operations but for other high horsepower applications,” he says. Alternate engine options available include the Caterpillar C-13 and C-15 models, and the Mercedes MBE 4000 that puts out 450 hp.

But when you’ve got it right, it’s not necessary to change much. And with the exception of the 2007 EPA engines, the 4900 is basically the same as last year’s truck. It’s still got the same rugged 5/16″ frame (125,000 psi) with tubular steel cross members.

What is impressive is the care that the manufacturer takes in routing the air and electric lines through the chassis. They’re bundled and set off from the frame by brackets. And electrical cords have a part number etched on the wire or cable every 18 inches for easy identification and replacement.

The partial wrap-around console is fitted with well-lit rocker switches and needle gauges -labeled with words instead of weird diagrams. In fact, there’s nothing digital or electronic on the dash except the fuel-consumption indicator.

The steering wheel itself is classically- styled of a standard diameter with leather sleeves, unencumbered by push button controls or extraneous padding.

The inside trim was a muted gray “Mesa, diamond-tufted vinyl with buttons,” that’s also available in maroon, blue and tan. Even the metallic trim around the instruments can be had in three styles: black, chrome or gold Western Star prides itself on its sleepers which have a flat floor and lots of head room. I liked the dinette seating package which gives it a home office/lounge/- kitchen feel. And I really liked the rear window option that would be a great help when blind-siding trailers.

Owners, especially, prefer the 4900 LowMax low profile models, a custom look that says: “this is my truck and I ride my way.”

And I found out it’s a myth to assume company drivers don’t drive Western Stars. As a reward for 10 years service with Woodcock Brothers Transport of Sebringville, Ont., owner Brad Woodcock buys his company drivers their own Western Star 4900 EX LowMax tractors, fully loaded and spec’d to owner/operator standards.

“When you walk out of a coffee shop you can be proud of it. And the drivers respect that,” says Woodcock.

Dave Ritchie, owner of L. Ritchie Cartage in Scarborough, Ont. operates a fleet of 38 Western Stars. “They’re a little bit more money, but I still think you get the best value for your dollar,” he says. “They enhance the image of our fleet and help in driver retention.”

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