The hardest part of learning to drive the International LoneStar semi-tractor truck isn’t muscling around its heavy mass. It isn’t maneuvering the massive 274-inch wheelbase, or hauling the 20-ton concrete blocks strapped to the trailer.
The hardest part is simply putting the manual transmission in gear.
On a recent test drive I climbed into the new LoneStar and prepared to lap a 3-mile oval track at the proving grounds in New Carlisle, Ind., owned by International’s parent company, Navistar International Corp.
The LoneStar, with a menacing chrome grille that resembles the mask of the growling supervillain Bane, is visually striking. It can be intimidating upon approach.
On the road, however, the LoneStar is meant to portray success — not fear. Navistar customers often purchase LoneStars as rewards for their top drivers. The comfortable interior, state-of-the-art amenities and advanced safety technology make the truck a luxury entry in the Class-8 segment.
“It’s an image vehicle,” said Tom Harting, director of heavy-duty platforms at Navistar.
If LoneStar drivers are typically among the best on the road, I wouldn’t qualify.
From the passenger seat, Harting showed me the process of shifting through gears. The LoneStar has a clutch pedal and a 30-inch tall transmission stalk that can be thrust into a traditional H-gate pattern with four positions — plus reverse and a Lo gear for steep grades.
Here’s how to operate the 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission in the LoneStar:
- Press the clutch and put the stalk into first gear
- Release the clutch and accelerate to 1,400 rpm
- Release the throttle and allow the revs to fall to 1,000 rpm
- Shift into second gear (the engine speed has been optimized so the clutch isn’t necessary)
It’s harder than it sounds. Once you’ve shifted through gears 1 through 4, you have to unlock the next set of gears — numbers 5 through 8. To do this, you have to grip the transmission lever and flip the range-selector switch at the top. And then you have to move the shifter back across the H-gate to the newly unlocked fifth gear.
That’s what I attempted to do.
I let the revs fall, grabbed the lever in the bottom right position and muscled it up toward fifth. The travel distance between the two gears is vast and not particularly smooth or communicative. For a novice like me, it was difficult to know when I was actually in gear.
Just when I thought I had found it, Harting immediately reached over and jostled the transmission into a different gear. I had gone too far. “You almost put it into reverse,” he said.
My stomach dropped in terror. Suddenly a smile flashed across Harting’s face and he laughed. “It’s all good,” he said.
I laughed too, masking an exhaled breath that could have been heard across state lines. The problem is not with the transmission. The problem is that it was my first manual semi-truck drive, and the multiple levers and prerequisite steps left me scatterbrained. I didn’t know what I was doing.
It gave me new appreciation for the people who do.
The rest of the drive was a breeze. The LoneStar hums along thanks to a Cummins X15 turbodiesel engine with 605 horsepower and 2,050 pound-feet of torque. Around the oval at 55 mph the truck is composed and comfortable. The cabin is quiet, and the plush leather seats were the best of nearly a dozen International vehicles I drove that day. Advanced air disc brakes brought the machine to rest without drama.
“We really try to make them great to drive,” said Dennis Mooney, vice president of product at Navistar.
Trucking companies are motivated to buy vehicles their drivers like because a driver shortage makes it difficult to retain talent, Mooney said. Navistar is courting those customers with new amenities designed to appeal to drivers.
The International LT Series and RH Series, for instance, feature an attractive digital display and Bendix Wingman Fusion safety technology. There’s also a new 12.4-liter A26 engine with 450 horsepower and 1,700 pound-feet of torque and a 10-speed Eaton automated manual transmission. In other words, no shifting.
The larger LT is straightforward to drive and optimized for fuel efficiency. The RH regional hauler is more maneuverable and has an extra set of helpful mirrors mounted to the hood for added visibility in tight spaces. Without a manual transmission demanding my concentration, the big-bore A26 and Eaton transmission delivered easy loops around the track. Even at full throttle the interiors were quiet enough to hold casual conversation.
The A26 engine also comes standard in “severe service” vehicles typically used for jobs in the field like utility cranes and fire engines. I drove the International HV Series Dump, a 58,000-pound vehicle redesigned for 2018 with a fully modernized interior.
The HV Dump pairs the A26 with a six-speed Allison automatic transmission. The combination is gutsy around Navistar’s demanding durability test course. Up steep inclines the engine uses 1,700 pound-feet of torque to crawl to the top and 475 horsepower to maintain acceleration. The truck rolls easily over chatter bumps — inverse speed bumps designed to test suspensions under load — and twists over large alternating mounds to stress axle articulation.
“We literally try and break our trucks,” Mooney said.
Using accelerometer sensors to gather data, Navistar engineers can simulate more than 350,000 miles of driving in little more than three months, said Chad Conley, director of severe service at Navistar.
The course was the perfect place for my introduction to heavy-duty trucking. The land was originally developed by Studebaker in 1926 (a row of trees spelling the defunct automaker’s name is still maintained on the grounds). Today, the proving grounds showcase how driving a semi-truck is approachable but requires significant seat time to master. As with fly fishing, you can have all the right gear and perfect conditions, but there’s no substitute for experience.
Navistar hopes that veteran truckers will be drawn to the comfort, technology and driving characteristics of its new International trucks. I found them perfectly pleasant. Stare long enough at the LoneStar and its chrome grille starts to look less like Bane and more like a smile.
But at least for now, I’ll leave the manual transmission to the professionals.