Main Test – Ticks all the boxes

In Tests32 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineSeptember 15, 2017

Running at 44 tonne, performance is not an issue. Ashton‘s Hill in the Athenree Gorge near Waihi is despatched without fuss.

‘Ticks all the boxes‘ can mean so many different things to so many companies. To some it‘s rampant sophistication, to some the latest and greatest, and to others no frills simplicity. Kiwitrans purchased their first new truck earlier this year, a Western Star 4884 with an S60 EGR Detroit Diesel. We went to sample the truck, ask why they bought it, and find out why it was sold to them. The answers tick all the boxes.

The country‘s population is exploding, increasing consumption and stretching our infrastructure‘s ability to cope without an immediate revamp.

Throw into the mix a couple of mass recovery exercises as a result of force majeure and you realise just how critical moving ‘stuff‘ – lots of stuff – around our nation is at the moment.

The kicker is, however, that all this is going on at a time when it appears nigh on impossible to put the right number of bums in the seats of our national truck fleet. For the right mind there‘s opportunity, but you need to know how to go about it, who to recruit, what to buy, and from whom.

Kiwitrans is a young trucking company that hails from the small industrial hamlet of Kopu, near Thames. They‘re making the most of the opportunities the current environment offers, with strong growth in their first two years.

When the time came for their first new truck late last year they chose a Western Star 4884 on the back of a great run they‘d had from an earlier secondhand Star of the same spec. They took advantage of great pricing on a spec now one rung off the cutting edge, but still able to deliver the goods.

They‘re a big presence on the road, but in the right hands the long semis fit in without any issues.

Gentlemen, chose your… continents

The Atlantic Ocean separates the Americas from Europe and Africa. It also separates one belief in how a truck should feel, with another.

Forget dimensions and mass, that‘s largely constrained by space on the European side and lunacy on the American. As for the rest of the truck, Europeans have tended toward a softer, quieter, more insular feel, while Uncle Sam‘s operators have traditionally preferred a more seat of the pants experience. Even as the European automotive monoliths have swallowed up their counterparts in the US over the last half-century, they‘ve been careful not to eliminate the ‘Americanness‘ from the home-grown brands.

Aside from needing to placate a very parochial customer base, any ambition to bring the US around to their way of thinking has always been kept in check by the presence of PACCAR, and her two icons of all that‘s glorious about US trucking

They, on the other hand, have of course used their purchase of a significant European brand to help refine the traditional aspects of their own products. The whole thing, like the universe itself, exists and evolves as a result of a finely tuned balancing act.

Being the luckiest little country in the world, New Zealand just happens to have the global community‘s most cosmopolitan trucking industry by brand. We can choose whichever side of the Atlantic we want, or a mix of both. Our own dimension and mass regime means a mix of Euro and US in a fleet is more often than not the way of things.

Take the fleet from which this month‘s test truck was plucked. Kiwitrans chose Freightliner Argosys and MAN truck and dog combinations for bulk, timber and pallet work, and Western Stars for container and fast change support work.

The last Western Star we reviewed was the 4900 series belonging to DJ & RJ Transport. We thought it was an outstanding vehicle and, like all the US product now, far more refined inside than most ‘public-bar‘ conversations overheard would lead you to believe.

There‘s no arguing that sales of the Western Star brand have languished over the past couple of years. Sure, we live in a time where the cabover is king, and Penske stablemate MAN seem to have no problems departing the sales yards. Even so, this honest toiler is still not claiming its fair share of what it‘s entitled to.

The big semi‘s cavernous receiving area once the curtains are open. (Above) The unbroken billboard provides immense space to get your
message across. (Below)

Yin and not a yang

Compared with last month‘s Mercedes-Benz Actros, climbing into the cab of the seven-month-old Kiwitrans Western Star 4884 was like visiting a parallel universe. Apart from having a cab with driving controls at the front and a sleeping compartment immediately behind, not much else is comparable.

And that‘s to say nothing negative about the Star, or the Mercedes-Benz for that matter. It‘s not a case of one‘s light years better than the other, because they‘re not a pair that will form the last two in a decision-making process; as we intimated above, that preference will be established at the start.

Both trucks are trying to skin the same cat – to cart the most freight and provide the highest return for their owners, and both obviously achieve this because in each case the owner has returned to their respective brand for a second bite of the cherry.

Inside, the Western Star is all ‘West‘, with gauges for all occasions and buttons for Africa. There‘s woodgrain, stitched upholstery, plastic mouldings and cloth, in either black or varying shades of grey, with plenty of bold badging to clearly identify the truck‘s identity. It‘s not the full monty spirit of the independent trucker wall-to-wall diamond-buttoned look, it has a slightly ‘fleet‘ feel to it, but it all comes together to make a truck you‘ll run to with glee in the wee small hours if the America thing is your groove… Joe certainly does.

Driver Joe Timothy absolutely loves his new ride, more than his last one, the first Western Star 4884 the company brought secondhand. But this truck has only ever known the Kiwitrans livery and that‘s the way things are likely to remain…for a very long time.

Serious trucks

The floor mat in the passenger footwell is emblazoned with a big red star and the phrase ‘serious trucks‘. It‘s probably a sentiment that most people in and around the industry would associate with Western Star.

They‘ve built their brand around a no-nonsense message that waves the banner announcing a good, solid, basic truck with the big American bonnet. A truck that will serve both its first, second, and – if not tortured beyond reason – third owner well. Because of this they‘ve found their homes most often in applications like logging, heavy haulage, and tip work. In terms of a line haul application it‘s Halls Group that put the brand on the map, and that‘s also where the Kiwitrans‘ trucks have been placed; purchased for all the reasons mentioned above.

Kiwitrans CEO David Malanaphy explains it: “We bought our first Western Star because it was time to make a statement. We‘d started out with some secondhand trucks, Freightliners, and they got us running, but I wanted to start getting our true livery out there, livery that said who we were and what we were about. I also wanted a truck that was strong, easy to service and repair, and would serve a young company well. It needed to make a statement on a number of fronts: image, professionalism and utility. It also needed to be affordable.The Western Star ticked all those boxes perfectly.”

Kiwi and proud of it. The Western Star is proving to be a great tool for delivering the message.

The first Western Star was purchased with a new MaxiTRANS Freighter semi last July and has performed faultlessly from the time it arrived, certainly doing its job on the image front. Rapid expansion in the succeeding months meant more gear was needed, resulting in an order being placed for the new truck, which arrived late in 2016.

The driveline in the new truck comprises the 14-litre Detroit Diesel 102-2U Series 60 EGR motor, producing 386kW (525hp) and 2500Nm (1850lb/ft) of torque. It‘s a Euro 5 emissions spec and comes with the usual Detroit five-year or million-kilometre warranty. Behind the engine sits the Eaton 20918A 18-speed AMT transmission and Meritor 46-160 axles on 46,000lb AirLiner suspension. It‘s a three pedal AMT box requiring the clutch for complete halts and lift-offs, giving it a traditional feel for low speed manoeuvring.

It‘s not the latest engine componentry by any means, but Penske is aggressively marketing the trucks to operators looking for the right truck at the right price. Among the customers most interested in such a proposition will be young companies like Kiwitrans, wanting a truck that lifts their own image and saleability.

The support they get will determine where they go next, and once again that‘s exactly how the Kiwitrans/Penske relationship has evolved, with two MAN TGX 35.540s firmly ensconced in the fleet since the arrival of those first Western Stars.

Drivelines are drivelines. Ask any civil or mining contractor how many engines their motor scrapers have had and it‘s likely they won‘t be able to tell you. The Western Star‘s robust chassis and simple driveline architecture means upgrading the S60 after a few years and starting afresh with a half-new up-to- date truck is totally plausible. Getting two lives out of the rest of the truck is pretty much a given.

And who‘s to know, with powertrain evolution progressing at the rate it is, that investing in this type of deal is not wise buying. A brand new, off the shelf horse like this with warranties and support will give a decade‘s impeccable service and the accountant won‘t be haemorrhaging if redundancy at a paradigm level is an issue toward the end of its tenure. It‘s potentially a savvy purchase whatever way you skin it.

People sinking vast amounts of dosh into the latest internal combustion tech today are making a statement that they believe diesel will still be a dominant energy source in a decade, and the trucks they‘re buying now will have great resale value for users beyond that timeframe. That‘s probably a fair call, but I wouldn‘t bet the house on it.

 

A snug fit, but all 14 litres of it are in there with remarkably little intrusion into the living compartment.


On the road

Pulling out of the yard in the wee small hours of a wintery morning the cab‘s alive with the sound of the engine getting into its work.

There‘s no question its presence is far more apparent in the Western Star than last month‘s Actros, probably a good 15 to 20 decibels ‘more present‘ in fact, hovering at around the 76 to 78 mark. But it‘s totally inoffensive, and because you‘re sitting so close to the driver,
conversation at normal levels is a cinch. We actually enjoyed the sound of the motor working away on undulations and hills.

There‘s a ‘we‘re all in this thing together‘ feel to the Star that the Actros certainly didn‘t convey. That was more of a ‘you relax, I‘ve got this,‘ or a, ‘let me do it, you have no idea‘ sort of feel depending on your level of self-esteem; very European in other words.

Kiwitrans run the truck at 44 tonnes with a 26 tonne sticker on the 8×4 tractor. We‘ve got about 25 and a half tonne of pavers on, giving us 43.7 tonne gross. At 12 horsepower to the tonne the engine makes light work of it all. Spending a lot of its life in heavy traffic, the 1.9kpl (5.3mpg) life-to-date fuel burn is probably acceptable, all other things considered.

We pass through the city of sails prior to gridlock and on into lower Northland toward Whangarei. The Bombay Hills were dispatched at 45km/h in 14th pulling 1500rpm and Schedways Hill at 38km/h in 11th pulling 1900rpm. Once again, we hear the same story from Joe on the AMT transmission: “I leave it in auto until the going gets a bit trickier and then flick it in to manual.” It seems to be an oft- recurring theme.

The shifter‘s mounted on a tower just to the left of the driver. Joe says they‘ve inched it forward a bit in this truck, and that in the old girl it was a tad further back and not a natural drop for your hand from the wheel. The shifter head itself is nothing unfamiliar, with a forward-locking trigger for moving the stick and manual shifts made via a two-way toggle on the right-hand side.

Joe said deep down he‘d probably have preferred a stick but is pretty settled with the AMT. The reality is he won‘t be on the truck forever and more and more of the next generation have only ever known automated manuals. Give them a gear lever proper and it‘s like listening to a teaspoon in a blender. At least anyone will be able to make the Western Star go forward and back.

If the south side of SH1 on the Brynderwyns is Mordor, then the north is most definitely Hobbiton, and the sooner the southern flanks see the business end of a large tractor fitted with a bulldozer and towing a scoop the better – regardless of what frogs or trees are living there.

The dawn run off the northern slopes along the Waipu straights and into Whangarei, looking out across an American bonnet at Bream Head is all that makes trucking great in one magnificent symphony and vista.

The Western Star‘s 40” Stratosphere sleeper is a snug hut with plenty of stand and stretch room and a generous bunk. Joe‘s work sees him home almost every night and although he‘s always got an overnight bag, it‘s not often opened. For this reason the truck doesn‘t have the locker and fridge option under the bunk; however Joe has his own little 12-volt cooler at his side.

There‘s plenty of storage in a cab like this, including internal access to the outside lockers by lifting the bed. With one glaring exception – read on – we thought the fit and finish in the Star was exceptional. The clean matches on the mouldings and general tidiness of assembly impressed.

The passenger seat is bolted directly to a floor covered with a heavy matting that‘s easy to clean. We had no complaints about the ride on the left-hand side in the four hours travel up north, even on Northland‘s appalling roads. Considering there‘s a second steer right below your chuff it was remarkably smooth.

It‘s all American and if that‘s your groove it‘s just what the doctor ordered. 

A smart and tidy overhead console. 

‘Welcome to my… loom.‘ Really? Like a big dangly cobweb in an otherwise immaculate residence. 

The stratosphere suite is not a bad ole place at all.

Joe obviously has the full air suspension seat with all the adjustments, and with the steering column able to be sorted for elevation and rake, it‘s easy to set it up just the way you like. His only quibble about his workspace was the switchgear on the dash. Initially you think the tidy location of all the uniformly sized switches in the one place on the wrap is a great idea, especially if you‘ve got a slight OCD tendency, but the reality is it‘s not quite as cool as it first looks.

“Nothing‘s on the stalk except indicators and dip,” said Joe.

“Everything else is a switch on the dash; wipers, lights, engine brake, and cruise, as well as all the things that are normally switches. You‘re always looking away to make sure you‘re homing in on the right switch. I‘m okay now, it‘s pretty much intuition, but you miss having the basic stuff on wands.”

The only other niggles we had was access from the left and the big ungainly loom that‘s visible when you open the driver‘s door. It‘s a conventional truck with tool and battery box steps depending on what side you‘re on. The steps are great, but on the near side you‘re fishing for a grab handle. Not a biggy really, but it‘s quite a reach to the one handle that is there.

As for the loom, come on Penske people, I‘m sure it wouldn‘t take much just to clip that up and present a swish looking finish to anyone looking in. It‘s a shame because the rest of the assembly is so ‘trick.‘

As Joe unloaded I wandered around the tractor. Not being an engine that requires DEF there‘s an immediate sense of space around the chassis; not that the S60‘s successor, the Euro 5 DD15, needs DEF either. The set forward front axle on the Star enhances the space further. Even if the motor had SCR and all that goes with it, there‘s enough chassis to work with, even on an 8×4 tractor.

As we said above, the entry steps on the driver‘s side conceal a toolbox that‘s ideal for things like gummies if you were a logger or a tip truck driver – handy dandy. When you stand back and look at the truck‘s 3650mm BBC, it‘s amazing what that measure contains. The engine under the snub 4800 series bonnet that barely intrudes into the living area, and the ample space in the cab. It‘s a great looking gig.

“The rig is just the style of truck I love,” Joe reiterated. “I always get comments on it. It‘s a cool truck.”

Big tail

We left Northland with a load for Auckland and after that it was pick-ups and head for home. The manoeuvrability of the big quads with two steering axles is always staggering.

Following them in a car as they wind around the city, and seeing where you can get what is essentially a 14.2m long piece of steel that‘s roughly two and half metres wide often defies logic. It‘s far easier to do it from the driver‘s seat looking in the mirror, where they‘re only ever about 2” long.

Joe enjoys the variation in the work the truck gets. There‘s a collection of semis the two Stars can tow including a skeletal, a flat deck, and a swing-lift, although Joe‘s regular is the Roadmaster curtain quad featured in most of the photos. It‘s an 07 model that the company gave a ‘birthday‘ to before hooking it up behind the new truck.

Joe and the Star fulfil an all-rounders role with anything that can go in a curtain being accommodated, and although bound only by the sea, the bulk of days are spent in and around the golden triangle and a little farther north.

From the wheel

The Western Star is a truck that‘s like a favourite pair of old work gloves to be honest, meaning as soon as you‘re in it feels comfortable. It‘s a truck that‘ll be your mate in no time.

Because the snout‘s so short the rake angle from the firewall to the grille is quite acute, giving a unique bonnet edge view from the driver‘s seat. Placing the truck on the road is easy.

Because the air cleaners are set well forward there‘s actually good visibility at intersections, the west coast mirrors needing more ‘peering‘ around than the air intakes. In fact they‘re so well forward Western Star could actually give the door a few more degrees of opening as the mirror arms stop well short of the intakes.

Everything falls to hand and Joe‘s comments on switchgear were bang on. Looks tidy as hell but when you‘re unfamiliar it‘s a search for some things for sure. At least in the Freightliners you know the weird switch is the wipers! A multifunction wander a smart wheel is well overdue.

Everything that makes trucking great in one simple scene! Why would you do or be anything else.

The steering was light – very ‘Freightlinery‘ in feel (no surprises) – and directional control was great, the twin steer providing its hallmark assuredness; extra nice on a short wheelbase truck with a big straight lump out back attempting to influence proceedings. No issues with the brakes.

Our good old friend the AMT. They‘re an exercise in throttle control. Get it right and the world‘s a happy place, get it wrong and the world gets ridiculously busy. God bless human intuition.

Summary

There‘s no doubt the Western Star was the right truck for the right company at the right time. It drives superbly well and it‘s ageless looks and the appeal of an American bonneted truck will always present a spectacular advertisement for Kiwitrans.

Western Star‘s reputation for durability and a bulletproof driveline means bringing the engine bang up to date at some point and getting another whole life is not out of the question. There are a few minor tidy-ups in the cab that would update the experience.

An important thing to remember is the Penske‘s sales staff fitting the truck to the need and the circumstance. The right man on that job initially has resulted in the right MAN joining the Kiwitrans operation further down the track…twice.

Everything that makes trucking great in one simple scene! Why would you do or be anything else.