Brenton O’Connor joins the Freightliner team as it evaluates the potential of the all-new Cascadia.
When first previewed by the Australian transport media, the first Freightliner Cascadia was introduced in left-hand-drive format, displayed as a static, rather than drivable prime mover. Some months later, with the development programme having swung into gear, it became possible to drive this truck, plus get behind the wheel of a second left-hand-drive unit at the AARC (Australian Automotive Research Centre) coupled to B-double trailer sets operating at 60 tonnes.
This latest drive programme was all part of Freightliner Australia’s plan for comprehensive testing of the new Cascadia range through 2018, before going on sale to the general public in 2020.
For general manager of Freightliner Australia, Stephen Downes, the Cascadia launch is set to become the largest scale test programme ever conducted for Freightliner outside of the USA. This attention to detail shows how keen the company is to put to bed any quality issues and other teasing complaints that might surface from the current range of Freightliner trucks, largely based upon the Century Class platform launched in Australia late 1999.
The early adoption of this high-level evaluation process is based upon the successful formula used by the Mercedes-Benz truck division with its two-year testing programme, conducted prior to launching the Actros. If successful, it enables Downes and his team to replicate the smooth launch process within Australia for Freightliner Australia and the new Cascadia.
With both the initial test trucks being left-hand-drive, any thoughts of driving them on Aussie roads was constrained by the permits provided by VicRoads that limited access to Freightliner Australia staff. To counter this restriction, an event was arranged at the AARC in Anglesea for the transport media to get behind the wheel for some initial impressions of the product, obviously very early on in the testing process, before final specs are nailed down for Australian trucks.
Two day cabs, in standard USA spec, were taken straight off the production line to test them in Australian conditions for durability, fuel economy and rear-axle ratio selection, together with making cooling system checks in order to ascertain how the product stands up to our local conditions.
The first truck was the Cascadia 116” BBC (bumper to back of cab), known as the short-bonnet version. Powering this model was a Detroit DD13 at 505 hp with 1850 lb-ft of torque, driving into a Detroit DT12 overdrive transmission. The DT12 is a fully automated manual transmission (AMT) based upon the Mercedes-Benz AMTs.
Instead of being sourced from Europe, the transmissions for Freightliners are produced in the USA and are branded as Detroit. The dictates of the North American market, with its variance of speed and weight from Europe and Australia, means that calibration and shift programming are completely different from those in use in Europe in order to tailor performance to suit the unique needs of the different markets. The DT12 was driving into Meritor tandem single hypoid 46-160 differentials, using Freightliner’s tried and tested 46K AirLiner suspension.
First impressions upon climbing into the Cascadia cabin were centred on the doors, which feel really solid and close the way you’d hope all doors would close. The closure action is simply light years ahead of the doors typically found on previous Freightliner cabins, and the use of triple lip seals fitted to the doors helps to keep down any potential for wind noise and dust intrusion.
Getting comfortable with a steering wheel and pedal installation being mounted on the left-hand-side of the cab can take a little time to familiarise, but once on board it’s easy to dial in a comfortable driving position. Unlike the Century Class-based cabin, armrests are fitted on both sides of the driver’s seat, made possible by it being mounted further into the cabin.
The seats were trimmed in leather, which looked smart and they were comfortable, something Freightliner seats have typically lacked when compared with the Ezy-Rider and Xtreme HD seat range fitted in the past. According to a Freightliner source, there will be the option of ISRI seats.
The slopping bonnet of the 116” Cascadia meant there was almost no bonnet visible from the driver’s seat – giving the driver the impression it was almost like sitting in a cabover vehicle through the level of vision available. The mirror brackets are underslung, which helps to reduce wind drag and also reduces blind spots, particularly relevant when traversing roundabouts. The interior dashboard was “Saddle Brown” which was quite nice and more appealing than the dreary shades of pale grey typically found in American trucks.
At this stage, only a single-DIN radio/CD unit was fitted. However, Freightliner is apparently working on a double-DIN unit with touchscreen functionality and B-double route mapping, something that should be made standard on the new range. Disappointingly, the HVAC system continues to use manual air conditioning/heating rather than automatic climate control. This low technology system requires the driver to constantly adjust the temperature to maintain the desired comfort standard throughout the day, rather than being able to set and forget their preferences.
The main instrument cluster, steering wheel, left-hand stalk that controls the window wipers, and the right-hand stalk with controls for gear selection, engine brake and manual gear upshifting and downshifting, are all sourced from Daimler’s shared parts bin. This achieves a degree of commonality with the new Mercedes-Benz range as well as the new Fuso heavy truck, not yet introduced into Australia. For fleets running both Mercedes and Freightliner, this is surely a good thing for driver familiarisation.
Prior to driving the Cascadia, I had been told to think of the truck as representing a bonneted Actros. Despite some common parts sharing, this is definitely not the case.
This truck still has a very American feel about it, and still sports the two separate plunger-style park brake and trailer brake valves. Also, at this stage, it lacks ECAS (electronically controlled rear suspension) to raise and lower the airbag suspension to the desired height.
The truck drives like a typically American conventional truck, albeit a nice one without rattles and displaying just the odd squeak here and there. The cab interior noise levels are lower than most American conventional trucks; however, they aren’t European in nature.
At the time of driving, the gearbox shift strategy had not been fine-tuned to the Australian market and was unsuited to our high gross weights, shifting differently from the Actros. It was inclined to hold the gear longer and increase revs, rather than upshifting earlier to keep revs down, as found with many of the Europeans.
Ride quality of the 116” was particularly nice, as this truck was fitted with two-leaf parabolic springs on the steer. The cabin, in day cab guise, is fixed at the front and fitted with airbags on the rear mounts. These convectional cabs have far less pitch and roll, particularly on rough roads, than compared to European cabovers, where the common complaint from drivers is a sense of ‘sea sickness’ from the cab movement.
The DD13 with its 505 hp did a remarkable job of propelling the laden B-double to highway speeds. More remarkable was the engine brake, which did a superb job of retardation down steep gradients. This component has been a standout feature of the new Actros range, and will no doubt be appealing in the Cascadia.
Moving to the bigger Cascadia with its 126” BBC, meant stepping up to the big bore DD16 producing 600 hp and 2050 lb-ft of torque.
Immediately noticeable is the much longer bonnet. By no means considered obtrusive, there is no confusion when driving the 126” that this is a conventional bonneted truck.
Loaded to the same weight as its smaller sibling, the extra power of the DD16 was immediately noticeable, particularly when accelerating from a standstill up to 100 km/h and emitting a deep throaty bark. As expected, the engine brake performance of the DD16 was even better than the 13-litre engine when fully laden and descending steep gradients.
This larger Cascadia had the transmission programmed to performance mode rather than economy mode, which meant the engine revved out further in each gear than the smaller truck. However, I don’t feel this was necessary as the engine has sufficient torque and power to upshift earlier, which will help to control fuel consumption and maintain low in-cab noise levels due to the lower engine RPM.
As an early impression, this new Cascadia range is going to be a game changer for Freightliner Australia, bolstered by the enthusiasm displayed by Stephen Downes and his team.