Earlier this summer Volvo Trucks unveiled the latest model of its Volvo VNL semi-truck, the first full redesign of the trucking industry mainstay since 1996.
The 2018 models went into production this month at Volvo’s New River Valley assembly plant in Dublin, Va., and Trucks.com was able to get into the vehicles for test drives near the company’s U.S. headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.
Although Volvo is producing multiple versions of the new truck, we tallied test miles on two models, the VNL 740 and the flagship VNL 860.
The drives demonstrated that the new VNL truly is a driver’s truck, but there’s a whole lot more going on under the surface that should make it popular with fleets for its reliability and safety. Moreover, the sleek, aerodynamic design shouts efficiency and competence.
Both of our test models were equipped with Volvo’s new 13-liter turbocompound engine. A turbocompound engine employs a turbine to recover energy from the exhaust gases.
The trucks also feature a newly released, extra-tall final gear ratio of 2.47 to 1.
Mated to the overdrive iShift automated transmission, this equates to extreme downspeeding, a function where the rear gear ratio is sped up in order to lower the speed of the engine and improve efficiency. That gives the Volvo the ability to cruise between 1,000 and 1,100 rpm at 60 to 65 mph, right on the fuel curve’s sweetest spot.
There was no opportunity to verify fuel economy, but Volvo says that this setup will gain 6.5 percent fuel savings over the 2014 13-iter VNL, already one of the more frugal heavy trucks.
The test route gave us a combination of interstate, divided state highways and two-lane rural roads over a nearly 70-mile loop. Trailers – a flatbed with concrete blocks on the 740 and a van on the 860 – were loaded to give the trucks a gross weight of around 77,000 pounds, giving a real test to the new turbocompound engines.
Volvo uses its number designation to indicate roof height and sleeper size. The 740 dictates a mid-roof and 70-inch sleeper; the 860 has a nominal 80-inch sleeper with the taller roof Other trucks available but not driven were the VNL 760 (high-roof) and 300 (day cab) models.
The 740 replaces the earlier VNL premium mid-roof model. The 860 is Volvo’s new top-of-the-line model. Our test vehicle was in the Globetrotter trim, the new premium level that has the most comfortable and attractive interior. It also features external brightwork and has the Globetrotter name emblazoned across the sun visor for drivers to show they have the premium model in the VNL lineup. Because the 860 has the biggest sleeper it also carries the XL designation.
Both trucks feature the turbocompound 13-liter engine. This D13 TC is available in two ratings: 425 horsepower with 1,750/1,450 pound-feet peak torque, which was the engine powering the 740; and 455 horsepower and 1,850/1,550 pound-feet powering the 860. These dual torque ratings indicate the TC is available as a High-Torque version or an Economy version where torque is limited in the lower gears.
Both TC engines make their torque all the way back to 900 rpm, which is absolutely amazing as this is only about 300 rpm above idle. However, the tall final drive and the overdrive 12th gear give an incredibly tall 1.92 overall top gear ratio. This is extreme downspeeding, and with tires on these trucks turning around 500 revs per mile, it calculates out to 970 to 1,000 engine rpms at 60 mph. So low-speed torque is all important.
The turbocompounding that boosts the low-speed torque uses a two-stage turbocharger where the second stage extracts additional horsepower from the exhaust waste heat and, because it is coupled to the flywheel, adds around 50 horsepower that would otherwise be lost up the exhaust stack.
On the Road — VNL 740
The new VNLs are so fully featured that before setting out, a review of the controls is mandatory, especially those on the steering wheel that control the driver display, cruise control, phone, stereo and a good deal else. In fact, there can be up to 21 buttons on the wheel, all there to keep the driver’s hands where they should be — on the wheel.
One minor quibble is the iShift transmission shifter, a small stick mounted to the seat, which does impede access to the sleeper. There is an option for a dash-mounted button shift selector which solves that minor flaw.
Some will find the seat-mounted shift counterintuitive. You shift the lever back to select drive and forward to select reverse. This is deliberate, as it matches an automatic car’s shifter pattern. There is no ‘Park’ position; you shift to neutral when not in drive or reverse. There’s a manual position where the driver can select preferred gears using the shift knob’s side buttons, but you’d be crazy to think you’re smarter than the combined engine/transmission controller.
As I eased the truck from Volvo’s campus, the new features of the revamped Volvo came into focus. While driver accommodations such as more spacious interiors and exterior styling are truly a step ahead, what became quickly apparent is the enhanced steering of the new models. And, yes, the performance of the Volvo 13-liter, turbocompound engine. The engine pulled like a locomotive from the moment we turned out of the staging area.
In this evolution of the Volvo lineup, a front-axle stabilizer is incorporated into the front suspension. The benefits on this simple upgrade were quite remarkable. The roll-control stabilizer/sway-bar imparts a far better on-center performance with the virtual elimination of any wander. There’s no sawing at the wheel to go straight down the road. It also virtually eliminated sensitivity to rough roads and road ruts and provided more precision in turning allowing a driver to ease through a curve. Volvo calls this development Precision Perfect.
The cabin proved to be exceptionally quiet, making it easy to discuss the features of the truck with Peter Blonde, a Volvo senior production manager, as we cruise along I-40.
On the highway, the engine revs to around 1,300-1,400 rpms and then the iShift would pick up the next gear and drop down to 1,000 rpm. The engine tackled a relatively challenging climb in 11th gear. As we cruised down the back side of the climb, the transmission shifted into 12th, and the rpms dropped back to a shade under 1,000 for our 60-mph cruise. It was all so effortless, and because the rpms were so low, it was with minimal additional noise over the truck at idle.
At cruise, with the adaptive cruise control doing all the work, the only sound was a little wind and road noise from the tires. The new floor covering does a masterful job of blanketing engine noise.
With the engine and transmission handling the chores, we were able to look out and enjoy the North Carolina scenery, an easy task given the revised hood, which has been lowered and fits tight around the engine’s cooling package. It also slopes off to the sides so the view to the road surface and the three-quarter view to the sides all add up to great forward visibility. The door mirrors are rigid and give an excellent view to the rear, with forward wide-angle mirrors on the hood providing an additional safety margin for spotting traffic that may have crept into the blind spots beside the cab.
And should a lane change be attempted without proper care, a warning buzzer sounds and a light on the A-pillar flashes to let the driver know a vehicle is there.
On the Road — VNL 860
Equipped with the Globetrotter package, the test VNL 860 had bright orange stitching accenting a black interior. The seats – there are seven different models available – were the top of the line, and though the drive only lasted about 1 ½ hours, they certainly impressed with comfort and range of adjustment.
And the slight extra wheelbase and a far smoother trailer gave the Globetrotter XL 860 a boulevard ride. The same excellent steering and ride characteristics in the 740 were apparent again, and the conclusion that Volvo’s efforts to make the new VNL a driver’s truck have achieved the desired result.
As earlier, we enjoyed the effortless way the engine propelled us along despite the unbelievably low rpms, just hanging in there on the grades, topping out some with the tach approaching 900 rpm before a downshift was made.
Regrettably, we had to return the 860 to Volvo’s campus when we could easily have driven back to California, enjoying every last minute in quiet, relaxed comfort.