The Striking Viking

It was a glitzy, big budget event with all the trappings – a sexy singer, amazing magician, a fearless high-wire act, even an unscripted cameo performance by Australia’s own trucking tycoon, Lindsay Fox. And as STEVE BROOKS reports from Sweden, it was all to herald the much anticipated arrival of Volvo’s stunning new FH flagship.

Alright, we all knew it was coming and true, some knew more than others. The reality is though that until the moment famous Swedish illusionist Joe Labero made a truck magically appear to the ooohs and aaahs of a thousand-strong international audience in a suitably frocked-up sporting stadium in Volvo’s hometown of Gothenburg, very few had any real clue of what the new flagship would even look like, let alone contain.

It is, of course, stating the obvious to assert that Volvo is highly accomplished at keeping its future product programs away from prying eyes. Yet even by its own formidable standards of sleuth and secrecy, the big Swede had done an outstandingly good job of keeping details of its biggest project in almost 20 years away from marauding media and corporate competitors. In fact, it wasn’t until the seemingly insignificant appearance some months back of a couple of scale models in a UK truck modeller’s magazine – published in the July/August edition of DIESEL magazine – that any hint of the new Volvo’s final form actually came to the surface.

Still, the model trucks caught everyone on the hop, not least Volvo of course, causing some to conjecture that such was the accuracy of their detail that Volvo actually fast-tracked the launch of the new FH. And it’s a conjecture with some strength given the new truck won’t be widely available to continental operators until next year’s European spring. In Sweden, however, corporate heavyweights firmly denied any fast-track approach due to the emergence of the model trucks. Whatever the case though, the veil of secrecy has been now completely lifted following the long-awaited launch of a range that unquestionably rates as Volvo’s latest and greatest.

Well, almost completely lifted: No matter whom we asked, from Volvo Truck Corporation president Claes Nilsson down, no one was prepared to offer even a ballpark figure on the amount of money spent on taking the truck from initial concept to production reality. There was, however, never any doubt about the importance of this truck to Volvo’s future, with Claes Nilsson stating, “The new FH represents the start of a fresh chapter … an immensely important product in which we have invested heavily. The FH is our backbone.”

It was also revealed that more than six years have passed since the first concept drawings were produced which, if nothing else, indicates an intensely detailed design program which analysed and evaluated every element before settling on the new truck’s final form.

Thus, the new FH is most certainly the biggest thing both literally and physically to emerge from the Volvo camp in almost two decades … in effect, since the European launch of the original FH in 1993, in which time more than 650,000 FH trucks have been sold, accounting for more than 60 percent of Volvo Trucks’ total sales.

Volvo’s Ricard Fritz.

Yet confidence already appears high that the new truck will be even more successful than its popular predecessor. Indeed, a couple of senior Volvo executives were eager to emphasise that just as the first FH was a massive leap in function and form over its F-series predecessor, so too is this new model a leap of similar extent with every facet and feature undergoing renewal. One of those executives was Ricard Fritz, senior vice-president for Volvo Trucks Global Brand and the former head of product planning who went as far to say, “There’s more technological achievement in this range than anything before it.”

“Everything is new, but there’s no doubt we’re looking at a Volvo,” added Asok George who, with director of design Rikard Orell, was responsible for the bold exterior design of the new truck. Rikard Orell, however, was quick to refute suggestions that the design is aggressive, preferring to cite marginally improved aerodynamics despite the new model’s higher stance over its predecessor.

Still, opinion is in the eye of the beholder and the way we see it, the new truck is a powerfully aggressive design with the vast, yawning mesh grille representing a major departure from the soft, largely conservative styling of its forebears.

Aggressive or not though, the cavernous frontal area coupled with a floor that’s nine centimetres (almost four inches) higher than the current FH obviously provides a vast flow of air to a cooling system designed to cope with outputs up to a staggering 750 hp and mountain crunching 3550 Nm (2618 lb ft) of torque; outputs that in our estimation are almost certain to arrive in Australia when the new FH debuts here within the next year. In Sweden, for instance, several Volvo engineers actually conceded the 16 litre 750 hp rating has been under test “in hot and very heavy” Australian conditions for some time.

Meanwhile, Volvo’s local operatives are for the moment saying little about timing of an Australian launch but for our money, a ‘teaser’ appearance at next year’s Brisbane Truck Show is probably on the cards, with the ‘official’ launch coming a few months later.

Back on ‘that’ grille, there’s a good reason why some trucks are fitted with a dark grille and others with a lighter, silver mesh: The darker version signifies an FH powered by Volvo’s 13 litre engine while the lighter derivative highlights an FH16 model.

Yet before venturing too deep into the detail of the new model, it needs to be emphasised that the European launch was exactly that … a European launch, simultaneously webcast from Gothenburg to invited audiences in Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, Madrid and Birmingham. Consequently, the emphasis was largely on Euro-centric features such as the upcoming introduction of the Euro 6 emissions standard, service programs and telematics initiatives primarily suited to trans-Europe operations, and the continental quest to conserve every centilitre of fuel through innovations known as I-See and I-Torque which together claim to offer fuel savings up to 10 percent.

As Volvo describes it, I-See is a software package for the automated I-shift transmission which stores information about hills and next time the truck uses the same route, takes control of accelerator, gears and brakes to maximise fuel efficiency. Basically, auto pilot!

On the other hand, I-Torque is a powertrain development which will be launched in Europe in about a year’s time, designed to keep engine speed in a tightly controlled band to enhance both performance and fuel economy. According to Volvo, the I-Torque system eventuated from the development two key components – the new D13 (460 hp) Euro 6 engine and a new dual-clutch version of the automated I-Shift transmission. Logically enough, the upgraded shifter is called I-Shift 2 and makes Volvo the first manufacturer to install a dual-clutch automated transmission in a heavy-duty truck, although for the foreseeable future it’ll be limited to the I-Torque system.

Independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering. World firsts but for now, optional on left-hand drive models only.

But the innovations certainly don’t end there with arguably the most exciting single achievement being the development of an individual (independent) front suspension system partnered by rack and pinion steering. For the immediate future, the new suspension and steering system will be only available as an option on left-hand-drive trucks but Volvo certainly isn’t shy about claiming the deployment of IFS and rack and pinion steering as more world-firsts for its new FH.

‘Together these two features give the new Volvo FH unique ride and handling characteristics,’ Volvo states. ‘Their biggest benefit will be for drivers who often cover long distances, primarily on twisting or narrow roads, where the new system comes into its own.’

Pushing the praise even further, “This truck sets the benchmark as regards directional stability as well as ride and roadholding in curves,” said product manager Martin Palmer. “It’s quite simply an amazing sensation to drive a fully laden rig with such exactness and security.”

Yet according to Volvo, IFS and rack and pinion steering are simply the optional icing on the cake of a development program that looked long and hard at all aspects of ride, handling and road manners.

Optimisation of geometry, improved front and rear suspension design, a new chassis, enhanced cab anti-roll properties and well-balanced damping for cab and chassis alike: These are the factors behind the 50 percent improvement in roll stability compared with the previous FH series according to Stefan Axelsson, manager of handling and ride at Volvo Trucks.

Inside. A full makeover. ‘Everything is new,’ says Volvo. And it shows.

Looking locally

Sure, these are all exciting developments but from an Australian perspective they also highlight that some elements of the new FH specification – notably those associated with I-Torque and the new IFS and rack and pinion steering systems – may not be applicable to operations in our part of the world for some considerable time to come.

That said though, Australia is firmly in focus as both a critical, ongoing test bed and important market for the new truck, with Rikard Orell willingly conceding that right-hook, tandem drive models are high on the agenda, even down to bullbar development which is already under way despite the quintessential Aussie bar’s undeniably negative impact on aerodynamics and fuel economy. “We are well aware of the needs of the Australian market,” he confirmed, “and working closely with our Australian colleagues to meet those needs.”

What’s more, the new truck’s fundamentals are the same for every market. Like, as Claes Nilsson put it, “… we’ve worked hard to develop a truck that puts the driver firmly in focus.” It’s claimed 3000 drivers including some from the Australian test program provided vital input and feedback during the truck’s long development phase.

Mirror, mirror! Gone is the typical housing, delivering gains in aerodynamics and vision.

According to a Volvo statement, ‘The driver’s workplace is a good example of this focus. From the improved driver’s seat (which now offers a huge 240 mm of adjustment travel), the driver has a better view of the road, not least owing to the increase in the cab’s usable window area and the innovative rear-view mirror design. Stalks and controls are arranged in priority so that the most important ones are closest to the driver.’

And on those mirrors: “We’ve removed the mirror housings to improve visibility. Now all you see is the slimline mirror arms with their adjustable mirrors,” said Rikard Orell.

‘The driving position is better and offers greater flexibility,’ Volvo’s press statement continues. ‘For instance, the steering wheel now has a neck tilt function, a world-first in the truck world.’

And while safety has always been a powerful priority within Volvo, the new truck is said to be the safest Volvo ever made. ‘An all-new cab structure makes the new Volvo FH an even safer truck,’ the company states. ‘Never before has a Volvo truck passed the comprehensive collision tests as well as the new FH cab. The improved visibility, not least thanks to the slimmer rear-view mirrors, also contributes to the safer work environment.’

Critically, the cab is said to have undergone literally thousands of simulated collision tests and as many as 100 real crash tests including severe rollovers and head-on impacts.

Additionally, with the new cab’s use of a fully bonded windscreen and research showing that half of all truck accidents end with the vehicle rolling over, a large roof skylight measuring 50 x 70 cm doubles as an escape hatch and is now an integral feature of the new cab. 

Skylight or escape hatch? It’s actually both, and a standard fixture of a truck said to be the safest Volvo ever.

Meantime, the cab has also grown dimensionally with Volvo explaining, ‘More upright A-pillars (and windscreen) have given the cab an additional one cubic metre of interior space. This means an extra 300 litres of storage capacity.’

A quick flick through the spec sheets of European FH and FH16 models shows three sleeper cab models are offered: a standard low-roof version with up to 171 cm of interior height, a raised roof Globetrotter with internal height up to 203 cm, and the high-roof Globetrotter XL cab with up to 222 cm. All cabs are designed around an external width of 2495 mm and bumper to back-of-cab depth of 2225 mm.

Herein, however, lays a potential problem for Volvo’s local ambitions with no sign of the Australian-designed Globetrotter XXL cab appearing in initial specifications. Locally, the XXL cab has been extremely popular with its extra 200 mm depth providing Australian drivers with the space and convenience deemed necessary for long-haul operations, especially in two-up driving roles.

Yet while there’s every likelihood Volvo’s Australian team pushed hard for continuation of an XXL cab, an adamant Ricard Fritz confirmed that adaptations for specific markets are becoming increasingly difficult to justify in the economic rationalisation of global manufacturing.

“Product development for global markets is difficult and yes, Australia is a very special market but we don’t do compromises,” he bluntly explained. So to be just as blunt, the XXL cab is unlikely to eventuate. Volvo, however, is confident the extra cubic metre of space in the new FH design will compensate for deletion of the XXL shed. As with most things, time will tell!

For now though, Australia’s critical involvement in Volvo’s global test programs is sure to continue at full steam. From here on though, there’s little doubt there’ll be a decidedly local influence as the new truck is prepared for arguably its toughest assignment of all: Australia!

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