LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While in Louisville for the Mid-America Trucking Show, I was fortunate to be among the very first to take Kenworth’s newly introduced T680 for a drive. The odometer read 208 miles, precisely the distance from the Chillicothe, Ohio assembly plant where it was constructed.
The T680 is Kenworth’s “most aerodynamic truck ever,” with engineers somehow improving airflow by 10% over the T660, which Kenworth considers to be the incumbent best-in-class model by which to compare. A 10% improvement in aerodynamics translates to a 5% fuel savings. You have to take a close, hard look to see how and where Kenworth improved on the already slippery T660, while expanding the cab width to 83 inches (2.1 metres). In terms of cab width, the T680 fills a space between the narrow T660 and the ultra-wide T700 and won’t replace any existing offerings, Kenworth announced.
Company officials attribute its aerodynamic improvements to things like: an optimized bumper and hood, full-height side extenders, close-out fairings between the cab/sleeper and fairings, chassis fairings extenders and flush-mounted lighting.
The cab is constructed of stamped aluminum and the 76-inch sleeper is integrated into the body. The T680 I drove featured that same 76-inch sleeper, but it’s also available in a day cab configuration. The new truck comes standard with the 12.9-litre Paccar MX engine, but a Cummins ISX15 is optional and was the engine under the hood of the truck I drove. Interestingly, the T680 I drove was equipped with an Eaton UltraShift Plus transmission labeled ‘Paccar by Eaton.’ I’m told the transmission I was given is exactly the same as Eaton versions I’ve driven before, but over time Paccar will work with Eaton to tune it specifically to the requirements of the Paccar MX engine to fully optimize performance. I should point out, the truck I was driving was a prototype, which could explain the curious combination of a Paccar-labeled transmission paired with a Cummins engine.
It begs the question though, will we one day see a Cummins-branded UltraShift?
It’s unclear to me whether the Paccar-labeled transmission is purely a branding initiative or whether Eaton – clearly under pressure with the introduction of a Detroit-branded automated manual transmission – is taking aggressive steps to further improve the integration of its UltraShift Pus with specific engine designs? To do so requires a certain level of trust, as both the transmission and engine manufacturer must be willing to share sensitive details about how their respective products function. And as an independent supplier, Eaton must also carefully manage its relationships to ensure all its partners are treated fairly. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
At any rate, the UltraShift Plus is a fine transmission and I’m always pleased to see one when I climb into the cab, because it allows me to focus on what the truck itself has to offer rather than the location of the rpm needle.
In the case of the T680, there was much to enjoy. The fit and finish of the interior was pure luxury, whether judged by the eye or the fingertips. Kenworth has located the five-inch driver performance centre display on the primary gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, yet clearly visible through the wheel. This is a sensible move, as it makes it easy to read the display without diverting your eyes from the road ahead. In fact, you can glance at any messages without turning your head whatsoever.
The truck came equipped with Kenworth’s NavPlus ‘infotainment’ system, which can be used for navigation, satellite radio control or as a digital display of secondary gauges. Using the NavPlus system does require the driver to divert his eyes from the road, but it’s an intuitive system that can be enjoyed with little driver input.
Behind me, the sleeper cab offered amenities that long-haul drivers will appreciate during their off-duty periods, and is easy to enter through a wider, unencumbered entranceway, assuming there’s no shifter in the way. The T680 comes with a rugged, foldout work desk that is as heavy-duty as any you’ll find in a sleeper cab. You can spec’ an optional rotating passenger seat that, when coupled with the desk, provides an office-like workstation that sure beats working from bed.
Unused space has been cleverly converted to useful storage, which officials say results in 65% more storage capacity than the current best-in-class offering. That figure almost seems too substantial to believe, but a closer inspection reveals no wasted space and plenty of options for stowing clothes and gear.
Back up front, the windshield is 50% larger than competitive models, Kenworth claims. Again, that number seems almost unbelievable, but the visibility from the driver’s seat is excellent. Perhaps some of the 50% in extra glass comes from above; I did notice it was easy to read traffic lights without bending down to peer out from underneath a sun visor or the roof lining. The windshield also seems to let in an extraordinary amount of ambient light.
By the way, I had plenty of opportunities to look at signal lights on my drive. I took my passengers on an unplanned detour through some tight city streets amidst busy afternoon traffic after prematurely exiting the Interstate. That’s alright, though, I can attest to the truck’s maneuverability in tight quarters; I didn’t jump a curb or cause any damage to Louisville’s infrastructure – not to mention the truck – even as an admitted novice when it comes to city driving. And of course, this was with a full-sized sleeper cab and pulling a 53-ft trailer.
When it comes to drivability, I find many of today’s trucks have a seemingly loose steering system that takes some getting used to. They’re simply not as responsive as the passenger vehicles I’m used to driving on a daily basis. The same can’t be said of the T680 and this was the most resonating impression the new truck left upon me. The steering was incredibly responsive and I was comfortable with its handling almost immediately.
In fact, the acclimatization period that typically occurs when setting out in an unfamiliar truck was practically non-existent. Everything about the Kenworth T680 was slick, from its exterior design to the attention to detail afforded its interior. Little things like backlit gauges that will no doubt produce a pleasing appearance during nighttime driving, to a seat that’s ultra-comfortable and automatically adjusts to the driver’s weight, make this truck a pleasure to operate in every possible way. I would say I have the body composition of your typical trucker, so it should come as no surprise that I found the driver environment to be comfortable, since most trucks are designed for guys like me. But Kenworth also said the cab was designed to suit everyone from a woman in the fifth percentile to a 95th percentile man.
“This is a major leap forward in accommodating drivers,” said Wally Peltola, design instructor with Kenworth.
The other thing I noticed during my drive was the quietness of the interior. Now, it’s difficult to write about any new truck model without commenting upon the lack of interior noise; all truck OEMs have made great strides in this area. Still, even with that in mind, the T680 seemed exceptionally quiet and three of us were able to chat comfortably without raising our voices. All these little things add up to a driving experience that’s less fatiguing over the course of a day.
With a 5% fuel economy improvement over the Kenworth T660, operators could save as much as $4,000 per year, the company claims. Kenworth announced Kansas-based TransAm Trucking placed a staggering order for some 1,000 T680s. Not a bad way to launch a new model, Kenworth. Any owner/operator that can afford a new T680 will surely be the envy
of his peers, however the sad reality is emissions requirements have made premium trucks like the T680 an elusive dream for a lot of owner/operators.
I expect it will find more of a market with image-conscious fleets, including private fleets and those who want a new tool in their arsenal with which to attract and retain drivers.
Having finished my drive, I climbed from the truck and noticed one more interesting characteristic when I closed the door. The door closed so easily and soundlessly that I assumed the passenger door was open, which it was not. Upon unveiling the truck for the first time the day before, Preston Feight, Kenworth’s chief engineer waxed poetic about the door, like only an engineer can.
“This is an incredibly capable door,” he insisted. “Just the sound of it is beautiful.”
Certainly, the door provides a car-like closing experience – as much as the closing of a door can be characterized as an experience – thanks to a pressure relief valve that equalizes interior and exterior pressure. The door is also triple-sealed against the elements and road noise, which surely contributed to the quiet ride I previously alluded to.
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