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March 29, 2012

Kenworth Right-Sizes New Model

The number says it all. Kenworth's new and best-kept-secret, the T680, falls midway between the T660 and the year-ago launched T700. The 660 has the traditional narrow cab at 75 inches, while the T700 has the 90-inch cab out to the full width of the regulation. The T680 falls squarely in the middle with an 82.5-inch cab.

The T680 was launched at the recent Mid America Trucking Show. Sister brand Peterbilt shares the basic cab construction in its model 579, also launched at the show. Both are highly tooled stamped aluminum with complex panels joined by Henrob fasteners to create a rigid aluminum cab structure. The rivets are blind and no heads stand out on the smooth cab surface except at the rear corners to aid repair there. In this, the T680 falls between the T660 with its largely exposed Huck-bolt rivets and the smooth aerospace bonded structure that is underneath the sleek panels of the T700.

The new truck
Kenworth wants to appeal to buyers for whom the traditional narrow cab of the T660 is just too tight, as the seats are pitched close together, while at the same time targeting buyers who feel the T700, as a team truck, is too wide, making it difficult to see down the passenger side.

The T680 is designed to have a wide appeal with its stylish update of the corporate look, the extra accommodation over the T660 without the vastness or the T700 and a comprehensive rethink of the all-new interior. It remains to be seen whether customers will be loyal to the existing models or convert to the T680 – or whether the new truck will appeal to a slew of new customers currently buying other brands. Most likely, it will be a bit of both.

The cab structure features highly tooled door opening pressings and triple-sealed doors that guarantee excellent fit yet finger-only door closing effort. Styling lines guarantee integrity of the cab and structural stiffness; deep side window ensure great visibility to the sides and, through excellent new mirrors, to the rear.

While it may look a little funky at the windshield top corner and the side window line, the extra tall windshield brings light into the cab and enables a view of overhead traffic lights without the usual gymnastics involved in peering under the windshield top. The panoramic one-piece windshield is the only configuration available.
The hood is wider and lower than the other models with new headlights, and it’s in three parts for easy repair. The bumper is split for similar reasons.

Along with good side and rear visibility, the forward view is good with a steeply sloping hood and carefully angled "A" pillars for minimum intrusion into the field of view. As is Kenworth's way, mirrors are cowl-mounted (Peterbilt’s are mounted to the doors in its traditional fashion.)

Cab and sleeper
On the inside, everything has been done to make practical use of the additional cab width. The driving position faces a new instrument panel where gauges that previously had migrated across the dash are now reconsolidated to sit clearly displayed within the arc of the steering wheel. Newly designed switches can be used as rocker or toggle. The steering is adjustable and the pedals have been redesigned for optimum angles. The clutch now has an air-assist, which significantly lightens the load at the pedal and allows for the seat to be brought a little closer to the bulkhead with no loss of room around the driver.

The sleeper has been totally redesigned to make it a 270 degree living space, with the bunk conventionally across the rear. New cabinets have a unique passenger-side table that sits across the cab or swivels back to the bunk. This is a rugged work top that actually has been designed to sustain a 450-pound load. To make the most of the feature, there is a foot-operated swivel option for the passenger seat that brings it around to face the table. There “it can be used as a pull-up chair” for work, eating or other activities. Or, for relaxing, the seat can be kicked back like a Lazy Boy. The cabinet stack that supports the table has a microwave space over the table, and a flat screen mount and swivel so the TV can be seen from the turned passenger seat or swung back for ideal viewing from the bunk.

On the other side of the truck is the refrigerator space that houses an optional slide-out, top loading fridge and features a step for easy access to the optional upper bunk. Above is a tent-style restraint to encourage use of the safety system.

All in all, it’s an excellently thought-out space.

On the road
Driving the new day-cab model, the most impressive thing is its extremely rigid-feeling construction. There is no booming amplification of road or mechanical noise as sometimes occurs with the flat-panel riveted construction of the narrow cab. This new truck is extraordinarily quiet. Also immediately apparent is the terrific visibility through the low side glass, the panoramic, wide windshield, the sloping nose that can hardly be seen from the driver’s seat and the excellent, rigidly mounted mirrors.

I found the 10-speed manual shifted with the usual Kenworth precision and the truck steered well, staying on line and cutting into curves with the first movement of the steering wheel. The new instrument cluster works well, too, with everything in front of the driver and designed for maximum legibility.

Driving the sleeper model, with its 485-hp Cummins and 13-speed UltraShift transmission was a joy. Part of this was attributable to the Kenworth air-ride AG130 front suspension. However, the steering was not as precise as the steering in the day-cab, which may be a function of air suspension or just the fact that it was a much longer wheelbase.

But given the choice, the big sleeper would be the truck of choice every time for its quiet, comfort and spaciousness. The appointments are great and work as well in practice as they promise in theory. One particularly great feature is the door-lock switch on the sleeper control panel. Ambient red mood lighting adds to the presence of the interior and new, wider seats offer additional driver comfort.

The new, wider T680 should prove a very worthy addition to the Kenworth line. It may cannibalize a few sales from its T660 and T700 brothers, but more likely it will pull sales from competitive brands. It certainly deserves to do so.

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