Driving the new Volvo VNR

by James Menzies

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — If it takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb goes, perhaps it takes an industry to design a truck. That was Volvo’s approach to developing its new VNR regional haul truck, which was unveiled at ExpoCam in Montreal in April, and made available to the truck press for initial rides and drives here June 1.

When designing the new VNR, Volvo consulted with about 2,000 customers and drivers, and results of their input can be found everywhere throughout the cab. There were so many ‘why hasn’t anyone else thought of that?’ moments noticed during my time in the VNR, that it was clear Volvo was listening carefully to driver feedback, and not just going through the motions. 

Mostly, it’s the little things. For example, drivers can adjust the interior volume of the turn signals and hazard lights, from obnoxiously loud to barely audible. A good idea for those times a team driver is trying to get in some sleep in the bunk. Also, cupholders can be removed and relocated to the exact position the driver wants them at along a rail on the center console. The driver can even install additional cupholders there. And the cupholders themselves are versatile enough to accommodate everything from large Big Gulp-type mugs, to small Styrofoam cups or narrow water bottles.

Volvo powertrain marketing rep Allison Athey told me she inadvertently put the cupholders to the test, when she placed in it a full coffee without a lid and forgot about it. On the road, she looked down in a panic, thinking she’d made a mess of one of the very first prototype VNRs to roll off the line, and to her relief saw that the cup hadn’t spilled over.

Chalk it up to an effective cupholder design and the smooth-shifting I-Shift transmission. But enough about cupholders.

There’s lots to like about the new design of the VNR, especially if you’re a driver. Volvo defines a regional haul truck as a work truck that tends to make deliveries within a 200- to 300-mile radius. Common applications involve bulk haul, flatdeck, tanker, and city P&D. These drivers typically don’t live out of the truck, but they spend enough time in it that they deserve to be every bit as comfortable as their linehaul brethren, and that’s what Volvo brings to them in the VNR.

The interior is stylish and comfortable, with exceptional visibility offered over the short, tapered hood. For the first time, Volvo is offering a full range of seats, regardless of interior trim level selected. If you want to splurge on a comfortable seat you spend all day in, but save on the interior trim level, now you can do so. And why not? Tying the available seat selections to the interior package limits customer choice, and the new VNR is all about choice.

Seven levels of seating are available, including high-end RollTek and Bose Ride System seats. You can also choose heated and cooled seats, or a passenger seat with an integrated refrigerator to eliminate the need to clutter up the cab with a cooler. Even the most basic seats are extremely comfortable. I drove a VNR 400 on the highway and assumed my seat was an upgraded option, only to discover it was the most basic one on offer – the X1 vinyl seat from National.

The new Position Perfect steering wheel is more comfortable than past designs, and can house up to 19 controls. It’s also pretty much infinitely adjustable. The VNR is a modern truck that doesn’t discriminate; drivers of all shapes, sizes, and statures will be comfortable in this truck.

The new steering wheel even offers a neck tilt option so you can position it just right to see the new, colorful driver information display. This five-inch display uses strategic colors – red and green – to convey key messages to the driver with minimal distraction. The display is also customizable, and where drivers can adjust things like the signal light volume, but that’s only possible when the truck’s parked.

The door panels have been redesigned as well, the speakers relocated to offer better acoustics and deeper pockets that provide more storage. A cool blue interior light on the door offers interior visibility for the driver and passenger, and a new puddle lamp on the bottom of the door shines down on the step and any hazards below when the door is opened.

That’s another idea that had to have come from a driver. No more soaked work boots!

Even the door-mounted fingertip controls for the windows, locks, and mirrors were revamped for a better feel.

I drove two VNRs – the 400 with 48-ft. flatdeck trailer loaded to about 75,000 lbs on highway, and the VNR 300 with 28-ft. trailer on a city route – and both were incredibly quiet. This is in part due to improvements to engine design, but also thanks to a new rubber floor covering insert that keeps road noise to a minimum.

Both trucks were powered by the D11 engine rated at 425 hp and 1,550 lb.-ft. of torque and Volvo I-Shift 12-speed automated manual transmission. The D11 is the standard engine for the VNR and it’s plenty powerful enough for loads grossing up to 80,000 lbs on reasonably flat terrain. The 13-liter will probably be preferred in many Canadian applications.

The highway tractor I drove was set up with the XE package for optimum fuel economy through downspeeding, while the city truck had a direct drive transmission and straight torque engine configuration. Both had fleet-level interior trim packages, but these were very well-appointed cabs and perfectly comfortable to drive. The highway tractor had a 42-inch mid-roof sleeper, home to a more comfortable higher-end mattress, while the city truck was a day cab.

Both had ample, well placed power options inside the cab, another result of the consultation designers did with drivers. These include USB and 12-volt power outlets at the top of the dash, close to the slots and pockets drivers can use to store their electronic devices.

Volvo cleaned up the dash, making it more intuitive while eliminating unnecessary empty switch blanks. An optional touchscreen infotainment system is available, but both trucks I drove were without.

The exterior of the truck is indisputably more handsome than the 20-year-old VNM it will replace. The truck has a more modern, streamlined appearance. But changes to the exterior were as much about function as they were aesthetics. Bearing in mind regional trucks are often required to work in tight spaces where damage can easily occur, Volvo designers took steps to protect against damage and to simplify repairs when required. For example, the headlights are inset from the edge of the fenders, where they’re less likely to get cracked.

Two bumper end plates can be removed if the truck is going off-highway, or replaced if they get dented. Volvo went with all-LED lighting, which is rated at 10,000 hours, making even bulb replacements less frequent. The bumper hugs the chassis so it doesn’t stick out where it’s vulnerable to damage. The hood offers incredible visibility from the driver’s seat, and Volvo’s stylish hood-mounted mirrors provide excellent visibility around the truck without detracting from the truck’s appearance.

The hood is attached to the cab, offering easier access to underhood components. The air intakes on the side of the hood – while not as distinctive as the inverted hockey stick shape I personally am fond of – offer excellent ventilation, Volvo officials said. The truck has a 113-inch BBC, one of the best in the industry, and 50-degree wheel cut, for excellent maneuverability. I was really pleased with how the VNR 300 handled on a tight city route in Winston-Salem.

You can tell by looking at the VNR that it’s a more aerodynamic design than the VNM it replaces, which Volvo says will net a fuel economy improvement of about 1%. The new GHG17 engines Volvo rolled out earlier this year contribute another 2.5-3% improvement in fuel economy. So fleet owners will really like the new VNR and its ability to boost their profit margins.

But to me, this truck is really about the driver, and bringing unsurpassed comfort, versatility, and customization to a segment that hasn’t always been afforded such luxuries.

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  • Volvo has compromised their services. their models year 2018-2019, VNL’s, has issues like engine oil consumption, radiator coolant consumption. including me and my friends , we all are facing these issues. with the gross weight of approx 80,000 , in harsh winter climate of freezing temp like -30 C, no driver wants to drive a unit who has issues like this. i bought my second and third unit as freight liner once i had these issues, 7 of my friends also let their Volvo go because of that.