Dave Whyte treks to Allentown, the spiritual home of Mack Trucks North America
Being invited to the home of Mack Trucks to drive the latest models bearing the bulldog hood ornament was an invitation too good to refuse.
Since its inception 116 years ago, the Mack brand has become a genuine industry icon. Having built a name for itself through the tough days of trucking, when driver comfort was not in the design brief, the company went on to build some of the most recognisable and desirable trucks ever to grace the highway. It also built a reputation for strong engines, including the famed E9 V8. The twin-stick transmission also proved its worth, and was still in production up to 1999. But this success was not without its challenges, and history shows the company changing hands numerous times before being bought out by Volvo Group in the year 2000, the company’s centenary year.
The acquisition of Mack by the Volvo Group resulted in some changes for the company, including the introduction the Volvo derived MP engines and mDRIVE transmissions across the entire Mack range.
Today, the Mack range in America offers one the most efficient and technologically up-to-date drivelines on the market, and it all wears the Mack brand. While it would be easy to assume that the American Mack branded power plants would be identical to the ones on offer to Aussie customers, the truth is they are a little different. While the basics are the same, a lot of work has gone into the American engines, resulting in reduced weight, increased efficiency, and, in the case of the MP8, extra power through the use of turbo compounding.
The 2017 model range brings with it a few changes in driveline and emissions technology. The MP7 and MP8 have both received significant upgrades, including common-rail fuel injection, a two-speed coolant pump and a new “wave” piston design. Also on the upgrade list are a pre-assembled camshaft, shimless rockers and a two-piece valve cover. The result of all this work, the valve cover excepted, is a fuel saving of two to five percent on both engines.
The announcement of a power increase for the 11-litre MP7 powerplant, available from January 2017 with power ratings up to 425 hp, brings it in line with many 13-litre engines in the power stakes. The updated MP8 will be available to American customers from October this year in power ratings up to 505 hp and 1860 ft-lb, an arena once occupied by the E9 V8 (but without the clouds of soot).
The MP8 TC, with turbo compounding, will be available mid 2017, with Mack claiming a fuel saving of up to 8.8%, depending on application and driveline specification. The MP10 engine remains unchanged, though it is interesting to note that American customers only get power ratings up to 605 hp, a far cry from the Aussie version at 685 hp. I am told this is due to emission regulations concerns, and I wonder if this could be the first sign that forgoing horsepower is now a better alternative for manufacturers than coming up with new ways to beat emissions.
Speaking of emissions, the MP7 and MP8 engines are now fitted as standard with the one-piece ClearTech One exhaust aftertreatment system. This unit is smaller and lighter than the previous two-piece design, freeing up space on the chassis and allowing more flexibility around fuel packaging or body fitment. This unit combines the DPF and SCR into one package, with the SCR downstream of the DPF to avoid any issues caused by soot or hydrocarbons entering the system. The older two-piece system is also still available for specific applications where it may be more suitable.
Transmissions have also come in for some attention, with Mack now offering the mDRIVE HD13 and mDRIVE HD14 transmissions. The new 13-speed and 14-speed transmissions are based on the standard 12-speed mDRIVE transmission with the addition of either one or two crawler gears, and will be available on both vocational and highway models. The mDRIVE HD13 will be offered as standard on Mack Granite models, while Mack Pinnacle (known in Australia as the Mack Vision) buyers will be able to spec either the 13-speed or 14-speed as an option, with the 12-speed remaining as the standard. This lends itself to increased “downspeeding”, enabling highway runners to operate the engine at lower rpm and save fuel. All American mDRIVE transmissions now use a redesigned transmission control unit, and are fitted with a new clutch, with a larger torsional dampener to reduce vibration through the driveline.
While all of this sounds impressive, the idea of travelling all the way to Allentown in Philadelphia was to get behind the wheel and experience it for myself. To demonstrate the low-speed and off-road abilities of the updated transmissions, Mack had arranged a driving course that involved plenty of low-speed manoeuvring. I love a challenge, and the Mack trucks I drove seemed to have the same attitude.
First up was a low-speed exercise aboard the Mack Pinnacle Axle Forward, the tough old school looking truck with a flat bed trailer on behind. Even with the big square bonnet sticking out the front, and the steering wheel on the wrong side, the job of negotiating the course was easy. The transmission worked perfectly, and predictably, at low speed, and the turning circle of the Pinnacle was surprisingly good for a long-wheelbase prime mover. The interior was familiar Mack fare, but seemed to be a bit more opulent than our standard offering. I think this was fitted with the “Grand Touring” trim package, which offers a few extra touches over the standard trim, including wood grain dash, leather steering wheel and a choice of colours of studded vinyl trim.
Next was a trip around the “highway track” aboard the Pinnacle Axle Back (branded as the Vision in Australia) with a 60” bunk, towing a loaded pantech trailer. By the time I got aboard this truck, the weather had changed and the rain was coming in sideways. Not to be put off by a bit of rain, I headed out around the course. Following on from a run around the high-speed section, it was time to put the Pinnacle to the test, and the first obstacle was a narrowing lane with traffic cones down each side. The vision from the driver’s seat was excellent, allowing me to watch both sides of the truck and resulting in me only knocking over one cone (the average was two).
From there it was on to a steep grade, where I was instructed to stop, in order to demonstrate the “Grade Gripper” hill hold function and the start ability in crawler gear. After a tiny amount of wheel spin, brought on by the torrential rain and the painted white line, the Pinnacle made its way slowly and smoothly up the hill, grabbing a couple of gears as it went. This test not only highlighted the benefits of the Grade Gripper function, but also the ease of operation of the mDRIVE AMT. Starting on a grade like this with a manual transmission could well result in a trip to the workshop to have a new clutch fitted!
It was then time to climb aboard a Granite, to see how it would handle off-road conditions. No sweat here, either, with the MP8 and mDRIVE making life easy over all surfaces, even if they were a little the worse for wear after the rain. The instructions were: “Go as fast or as slow as you like. The faster you go, the closer your head will get to the roof.” And let me tell you, my head got pretty close to the roof. This truck was fitted with two lift axles, known as pushers, which were raised for this course. I did get to drive the same truck on the freeway a little later though, with these axles down.
The on-road drive took us out of Allentown, and southwest towards Harrisburg on Interstate 78. This was a good bit of road for the purpose of a test run, as it had some decent hills, plenty of road works and a commendable amount of impatient traffic. For the outward trip, I drove the five-axle Granite I had driven on the off-road course earlier, but this time with the axles down. The set-up on the front pusher axles was interesting, in that the air pressure in the suspension could be adjusted on the move from the cab. Also interesting was the fact that both of pusher axles steered when they were lowered. In effect, it became a 10×4 with the front three axles being steer axles. This made it pretty lively, with soft hands needed to keep it in a straight line, but after a short time I got used to it. The ride was surprisingly good, given the number of axles on the short wheelbase, and, over the 45-minute journey, conversation in the cab was easy.
For the return leg, I took the controls of the Pinnacle Axle Forward. With such a long wheelbase (compared to Australian standards) the ride was silky smooth. Noise levels in the cab were low at cruising speed of 55 mph (88 km/h), with the engine working below 1300 rpm to maintain that speed. The steering on this truck was very light, perhaps a result of bad turntable placement, but aside from that it was as comfortable a truck as I’ve ever driven. The most surprising thing from the drive was that neither of my passengers jumped for the brake pedal, and I remained on the correct side of the road!
I understand a lot of people would think it’s sacrilegious to put European-inspired power beneath the bonnet of a Mack truck, but I don’t think an American powertrain could possibly be any better than the current Mack offering. What’s more, it’s not doing the manufacturing in America any harm, as these engines and gearboxes are still built in America. The days of the noisy, rattly and rough American trucks are gone, and the trucks that have taken their place have plenty of benefits. The 2017 Mack range may not have all the character of the old B-Models, and they may have two less gear levers, but the reality is that they are comfortable, efficient and reliable. Sure, there are plenty of war stories around the old-school Macks, but as my old man always says, those days are better remembered than lived!