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July 6, 2011

Driving Kenworths

The marketing people at Paccar twins Kenworth and Peterbilt decided a couple of years back that the money wasted at some of the truck shows could be better spent. I would have to say I agree. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach maybe 50,000 people seems such an extravagance; the same money in advertising dollars would reach as many as a million readers. But you likely hear the noise of my grinding axe ...

Whatever, the Paccar folks decided that they could better spend their marketing dollars getting up front with their customers and prospects by getting them close to the divisions in much smaller groups. They bring them in to their production facilities, wow them with some hospitality and a plant tour and – here’s the best part – assemble a bunch of trucks for them to drive.

I say this equally selfishly, because once the commercial partying is done, small groups of the trucking press get to shirt-tail on the event, coming along for a day’s drive (with a little bit of hospitality, thank you) of a bunch of different trucks.

Just recently, that was Kenworth and the location was the Chillicothe, Ohio, plant. There was a wide diversity in the 12 trucks there on the mid June driving day: everything from a funky-looking T470 winch truck through P&D medium duty hybrid and distribution T660 – a new model at Mid America this year – to the over-the-road heavies including T800 heavy-haul, the new T700 and the ever-popular T660.

The winch truck was interesting as it showcased the Paccar winch division’s products, so giving this likely little known enterprise of the Paccar empire some additional visibility to the guests who come to view the products. The little yellow truck was equipped with a mechanic’s service body and a big Braden winch that would make it an excellent field service truck. Interesting as it was, I didn’t see a pressing need to drive it, especially since there were the T700s to experience, along with the more familiar T660 and the ever mouth-watering W900L all decked out in premium trim.

Though the first I took out was a fleet-spec T700.

The T700 is the replacement for the somewhat ill-starred T2000 – an odd case of progression upward from 2000 to 700. And make no mistake this do-over is an outstanding upward progression. The fit and finish of the T700 is superb – something glaringly missing on the T2000 when it was rushed to market in 1996. In fact, the T700 is finally the true wide-cab model in the KW lineup: it even looks like it belongs, with strong styling cues to the other KW models, a link the old T2 lacked.

The T700 has a completely contemporary look, a modern interior in the best Paccar Lexus-like feel, and door fits and seals that make it a quiet place to work. Some of this comes from the Balsa-wood floor that is a carryover from the T2, some is much better fit for the doors, some, for the MX powered trucks, is from the engine.

The MX is the European 12.9 liter DAF engine that has been configured for the post 2010 North American market. The Paccar folks are very forthcoming about the engine: it has had its issues with aftertreatment sensors. But reports from the field say that Paccar has been really quick to respond and fixes have been equally quick to find their way into production, so the engine is fast earning strong support for its reliability and fuel economy,.

One thing’s for sure: this unit pump engine is quiet. I took my sound-level meter to the drive day and applied it to each truck I drove: the T700 fleet, the T660, the T700 premium and the W900L. The best of all was the T7 premium with 62-64 dB – the same level as I had measured in a Dodge Ram 3500 with a Cummins diesel the previous week.

The T700 had splendid interior appointments. Back in the sleeper it was an order of magnitude quieter, so such a shame that the optional Takata lane-departure-warning system should shout out so loudly.

It may be possible to reprogram the lane-departure warning to be less obtrusive. That would be handy if the truck were driven by a team, as with the setting we experienced, a lane warning would definitely waken a sleeping co-driver and give him a fright at the same time. ‘Wake up! Truck about to crash’ is not something that’s very comforting.

Here’s a very cool thing, though. The lane-departure warning is fully integrated, so when the warning is triggered, the cruise control unlatches. Think about that: cruise control: lane departure? You definitely want control back in the hands of an alerted driver. That’s a cool feature.

The T660 was an opportunity to revisit a truck that I have appreciated several times in the past. In fact, it seems hard to believe, but I first drove one in March of 2007 with an early release of the 2007 Cummins ISX 500. Over the last several years of economic slowdown, the T660 is still a relatively rare sight on the highways, but that is bound to change. In fact, the news in Chillicothe was all good: Kenworth has recalled 1,000 people back to build trucks and line rates are encouragingly back up to around 120 a day.

Finally there was the W900L. That’s the long-nose, old-style, bluff-front KW that has grown out of the W900A, W900B and is now the flagship of the KW range.

Getting on board was just like coming home.

It has this long hood just going off, not to infinity, but close. With the 525 Cummins ISX under it, it made all the right noises and did all the right things. It had the sweet, sweet KW shifter for the 18-speed transmission. It was the archetypical long-nose conventional and I loved it for that.

Trucks like this W900L, the Peterbilt 389 and Freightliner Coronado may be anachronisms and destined for retirement when the carbon dioxide regulation of 2014 comes around, but there will be mourners. I will be a standard bearer in the funeral march. Trucks like this W900L are just superb. They go down the road with the minimum steering input and they ride like a dream. When you drive, the gears just drop in without your thinking about them or even considering the clutch. The hood rears up in reaction to the engine torque then shows you where you need to be in the lane. And that big, tall radiator out there allows for 500-hp plus.

It’s just so right. And it looks so good.


  1. I have one of the W900L truck and I know how superb they are, according to my views I never wanted them to get retired. Eventhough they gets retired I will be driving it just for fun.

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