Volvo FH16 700 drive

If there ever was a case for harnessing 700 horses in a top weight truck, it would have to be for hauling a roadtrain quad in outback Australia. And that’s exactly what PAUL MATTHEI did for this exclusive first drive, taking the reins of Volvo’s groundbreaking FH16 700 flagship towing a quad combination through western Queensland for Simon National Carriers.

Big Boy Bjorn

Where will it end? Who knows, but it seems a fair question in relation to the relentless ‘horsepower race’ which has seen the power ratings of big bore truck engines double over the last three decades. That’s right, double!

For instance, in the early ‘80s, having a 350 hp NT855 ‘Big Cam’ Cummins or a similarly rated 3406A Cat under the hood meant you were most definitely at the top of the stack in six-pot horsepower terms.

Then in the mid ‘80s peak power cracked the magical 400 hp mark, creeping up to 470 in the latter years of that decade and passing the 500 hp barrier by the early ‘90s. Furthermore, 550 hp was achieved by the mid to late ‘90s while the first few years of the new millennium ushered in 600 hp ratings – numbers that were unimaginable for an in-line six just 15 years earlier – with Volvo throwing its hat into the ring with a 16 litre 610 hp unit designated the D16C.

However, even this lofty rating was surpassed by a considerable margin when Volvo Australia launched a barnstorming 660 hp D16E powerplant in late ’07, just prior to the introduction of ADR 80/02 (Euro 4) emissions laws. And now in 2011 the Swedish powerhouse has upped the ante once again with the introduction of a thumping 700 hp variant designated D16G, fittingly released in conjunction with the recently mandated ADR 80/03 (Euro 5) regulations.

Interestingly, some might even say surprisingly given the organisation’s well documented environmental bent, Volvo has been among the frontrunners of high horsepower sixes in this country for more than 20 years. It was, after all, Australia’s bicentennial year of 1988 when the company locally launched the very first version of its big bore D16 engine in the F16 model, back then boasting a jaw-dropping 465 hp. By any estimation this was a quantum leap over the company’s previous flagship, the 350 hp F12.   

But getting back to the latest 700 hp D16G with its accompanying 3150 Nm (2323 lb ft) of torque, it could be suggested that this mammoth amount of muscle represents overkill for even the most arduous of on-highway applications. Yet it could be equally argued that of all truck operating environments on planet Earth, those to which Australian roadtrains are subjected would likely provide the most significant justification for such mountain mauling outputs.    

Personally, after recently piloting an evaluation unit hauling four trailers with a combined gross mass of 120 tonnes between Winton and Mt Isa, I have to say the extra ‘neddies’ certainly didn’t go astray. But before we delve into the details of the drive, let’s look at some background of Volvo’s ‘big banger’ development from the early ‘70s onwards. But before that, our special thanks to Volvo Trucks’ employees Gary Richards, Lennart Langervik, John Comer and Ed Saxman for their contributions to the compilation of this detailed history.

Six, not eight!

The story, of course, starts in Sweden where the first studies regarding the need for a bigger engine were undertaken in the early 1970s. Initial studies were confined to the concept of an engine family with unit cylinders and the plan was to develop a range of V-engines – including, amongst others, a 16 litre V8 – to meet the highest power demands. A specific power requirement of 10 hp per tonne was deemed necessary, in the expectation that the 44 tonne semi-trailer would become a European standard.

As it transpired, the V-engine concept was abandoned at a relatively early stage and development work commenced on a 16.3 litre in-line six with a timing gear drive at each end. However, the first design proposals produced at the beginning of 1977  indicated that investment costs were far too high and the cylinder block would have to be adapted for the assembly process used with the existing TD100 (9.6 litre) and TD120 (12 litre) engines.

Therefore, it was necessary to redesign the engine almost entirely and at the same time displacement was reduced to16.1litres, largely in response to the 1973 global fuel crisis which continued up to 1976. Another reason was the very promising results derived from charge air cooling studies done on the smaller TD120 six cylinder unit.

Having survived the threat of cancellation due to the economic downturn of 1983, the TD162F in-line six cylinder engine with 465 hp and 2015 Nm (1486 lb ft) of torque – said to have been the highest power and torque ratings in the market at the time – was finally introduced in 1987 with charge air cooling as a critical part of the package. In addition, its four valves per cylinder and high-mount camshaft design enabled significantly higher engine braking performance, a crucial advantage for intended heavy-duty applications in hilly terrain.

Fittingly, the platform for the TD162F was the new F16, a prime mover developed fundamentally for demanding duties in countries where high train weights of between 52 and 115 tonnes were the norm, such as timber trucks in Scandinavia and roadtrains inAustralia. Starting at 465 hp in 1987, the engine’s output was increased to 485 hp in 1989 and topped the 500 hp mark in 1991 thanks to the addition of electronic diesel control (EDC) introduced with the upgraded TD163ES engine.

Two years later the TD163ES was superseded by the D16A engine with a top rating of 520 hp, coinciding with the launch of the all-new FH16 model. While still utilising the tried and tested in-line fuel pump, the D16A was also equipped with electronic fuel injection. Yet despite the advancements, this was to prove a problematic period in the life of Volvo’s 16 litre six, particularly due to an inadequate cooling system.

So problematic, in fact, that Volvo was forced to withdraw the D16A from the market and temporarily offer Cummins’ ISX and Signature engines in its place. It was a bitter pill for Volvo to swallow, and just as sour for its customers.

Cleaning up

With the need to sort out the reliability issues as well as cater for the forthcoming introduction of Euro 3 emissions regulations, the decision was made to remodel the 16 litre engine to meet these new regulations as well as provide more value and peace of mind for FH16 operators. Several proposals for updating the existing engine were developed, in addition to an alternative proposal for a completely new unit based on the same design concept as the D12.

As the latter option was only marginally more expensive than modifying the existing engine, and since the newer concept offered the potential for better fuel economy and a considerably better platform for future emission standards, it was decided to develop the all new unit. High on the agenda were turbo-compounding and a new engine braking system known as VEB (Volvo Engine Brake) featuring a retarding capacity of no less than 460 hp (343 kW).

Lennart Langervik, chief project manager of the reborn 16 litre engine, outlined the challenges faced by the engineering team during the development phase.

“The original intention was to enlarge the D12 into a 16 litre unit,” Langervik recalled. “However, given the size, weight, production cost and noise reduction targets defined in the project, as well as the problem of cooling the unit at the desired output, it quickly became clear that a completely new approach was required.

“Critically, the auxiliary gear drive needed to be at the rear end of the engine if all targets were to be met. This had the added advantage of eliminating the need for two gear trains, one in front and one at the rear for the turbo-compound unit. In some respects, we based our ideas on a 1980s engine project known as VQE (Volvo Quiet Engine), which was a genuinely quiet unit.”

In addition to removing some weight and making it quieter, locating the timing gear train at the rear also made the engine considerably slimmer at the front. This, in turn, meant that the existing cooling system could be utilised more effectively due to greatly enhanced air flow through the radiator and along each side of the engine.

“However, it was not quite clear how this was to be achieved in terms of geometry,” Lennart continued. “There were certain restrictions on relocating the gear train in that, among other things, we were not allowed to make modifications to the frame. Neither could we modify other chassis components or any of the cabs in the range.

“Another problem was to convince the many sceptics that neither serviceability nor service time would be adversely affected by the new drive location. At this stage it was also decided to defer the use of turbo-compounding, making the engine installation even tidier and with better accessibility for servicing.”

Langervik proceeded to describe the enormous benefits derived from modern computer aided design technology which was brought into play with the new 16 litre project.

“We adopted the powerful Pro/Engineer CAD (computer-aided design) system early on,” he reminisced. “Without that, we could not have completed the project in the manner that we did. To locate the gear train at the rear, we carried out a considerable number of trials on different ratios and positions of the gears and auxiliaries, including the turbo-compound unit.

“We turned the engine back and forth, experimenting with angles from one to eight degrees slant to the left in order to find enough space for everything without interference. The final angle was set at six degrees.

“Thanks to the CAD system, we were able to successfully ‘jiggle’ a big 16 litre six complete with rear-mounted timing gear train into an existing chassis not specifically designed for it.”

The resultant Euro 3 compliant D16C, based on the same design concepts as its smaller siblings, shared only bore and stroke dimensions and main bearing cap bolts with its D16A forebear. Equipped with double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, unit injectors and a full-length cylinder head, the new unit was available with power ratings of 550 and 610 hp.

Based on this foundation, the evolution of the ‘born again’ D16 continued to the D16E, released to coincide with the introduction of Euro 4 emissions regulations. This tough new standard was met using a process known as SCR (selective catalytic reduction) which involves the injection of liquid urea into the exhaust stream, with the resultant mixture subsequently passing through a catalytic converter which turns harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOx) into harmless nitrogen gas and water vapour.

The update also delivered another impressive leap in performance – up to 660 hp and 3100 Nm (2286 lb ft) of torque – which earned Volvo the mantle ofAustralia’s most powerful series production on-highway truck.

And so Volvo’s D16 evolvement proceeded to the latest incarnation, the Euro 5 compliant D16G introduced with the new FH16. With 700 hp (515 kW) and 3150 Nm (2323 lb ft) of torque representing gains of 40 hp and 50 Nm respectively over its predecessor, the D16G is also claimed to produce 40 percent lower NOx exhaust emissions due to a recalibrated SCR system.

Despite the higher power and torque ratings that span a wider rev range, Volvo says fuel consumption levels remain on par with the previous engine generation. Through a number of measures including redesigned pistons with electronically regulated cooling jets and a thermostatically controlled oil flow through the cooler to ensure consistent oil temperature, Volvo’s engineers have further optimised the combustion process and met demands for high performance combined with efficient fuel utilisation, low emissions and long engine life.

According to Volvo, another amelioration is lower engine noise at idle. With the help of pre-injection, where a quieter combustion process is achieved by a small amount of fuel sprayed into each cylinder immediately prior to the main injection, a noise reduction of two decibels at idle is said to have been achieved.

Another important change that’s detailed further in the accompanying ‘Corporate Co-operation’ panel is a uniquely Australian developed high capacity exhaust after-treatment system. Since the system can handle a larger flow of exhaust gases, exhaust cleaning capacity is enhanced while a reduction in back pressure means power losses are minimised.

The Volvo D16G is equipped with a new, electronically-controlled exhaust brake called EPG with a retarding capacity of 230 kW. This is supplemented by the Volvo Engine Brake (VEB+) with 425 kW maximum braking effect, allowing the unit to deliver supremely powerful and quiet auxiliary braking.

Armed with all this information about the latest top toiler from Volvo, it was time to see what all the fuss is about. Thus, arrangements were made to meet up with an evaluation unit hauling a BAB quad combination operated by Simon National Carriers en-route from Brisbane to Darwin. Bill Manton, Simon’s driver training manager, occupied the passenger chair during my first stint behind the wheel.

Bill Manton, Simon National Carriers' driver training manager

Simon style

It seemed entirely appropriate that Simon National Carriers was first to trial the latest ‘big banger’ from Volvo. After all, the Simon fleet has been largely comprised of the Swedish brand for the best part of two decades. What’s more, the company runs a number of roadtrain combinations – staple diet of the FH16 – in northern parts of Australia.   

“We’ve had a pretty good run with the Volvo product,” Bill Manton remarked casually as we settled into the 470 km drive between Winton and Mt Isa. “I’m fairly sure it was ’87 when we started our association with the company. From about ’93 onwards, though, our heavy-duty buying has been all Volvo.

“We had a bit of grief with Kenworth’s back-up service in the early ‘90s,” he continued, explaining Simon’s move from Kenworth to Volvo. “For instance, if there was a problem with a Horton fan and they (Kenworth) were too busy they’d send us toDetroitor Cummins; or if you had a clutch issue you’d have to go to Eaton.

“But with Volvo, if you’ve got a problem with a headlight or a tail light or anything in between, it’s fixed in the one shed.”

Interestingly, Bill also went on to describe the company’s preference for UD trucks, now also a member of the Volvo Group conglomerate, for the lighter trucks in the fleet.

“We have a good relationship with UD for our body truck requirements. Although we’ve tried a few other brands over the years, the UD product seems to be ideally suited to the constant stop/ start environment you get with city work.”

Thoughtful for a second, Manton added, “And they’re not a bad truck to drive too, particularly now there are a few different transmission options across the range.”

Having had an early start from Winton, after about an hour’s drive the sun was close to peeking over the horizon as the ‘train’ was wheeled to a halt on the highway. The purpose for this was a rendezvous with a camera crew eager to capture the big black Volvo in all its sunrise splendour. Part of the procedure involved Bill removing and replacing the magnetic ‘long vehicle’ sign from the front access panel, and in the process forgetting he’d put his wallet on the bar.

Incidentally, you may be scratching your head thinking ‘Isn’t that front panel fibreglass?’ Well, it certainly was on earlier FH models; but in the interests of superior durability and paint adhesion, Volvo has returned to a tried and tested steel panel.

After the snappers had done their thing it was time to get the wheels turning once again, this time with Volvo’s Per Hansen as my offsider. It was this process of moving 120 tonnes of mass from rest to 90 km/h in a seamless and effortless manner that once again endorsed the supreme value of Volvo’s I-shift automated transmission in high weight, high horsepower applications. What made it even more impressive was that having been a heavy vehicle mechanic in earlier years, I’ve seen first hand the driveline damage that can be easily inflicted by an inexperienced or careless operator using a conventional manual transmission.

Yet I-shift by its very nature virtually eliminates the possibility of damage induced by shock loads, feeding stringently modulated engine torque to the drive wheels with the finesse of a fine violinist. Put simply, regardless of whether the accelerator pedal is feathered or floored, torque is delivered in an exponential manner that sees the combination move off at a leisurely pace with progressive shifts keeping engine speed in the torque ‘sweet spot’ between 1000 and 1500 rpm. In this way it smoothly, gradually, and fuel efficiently builds momentum until it reaches the 90 km/h limit.

Being relatively flat country, the run through to Cloncurry was a breeze with the big Swede barely raising a sweat. But at the same time the traditional Volvo virtues of armchair comfort and amazingly low interior noise levels served to reinforce the eminent suitability of this gentle giant for linehaul roadtrain duties where minimising driver fatigue is an absolute imperative.

Over the years there has been a lot of talk about the ride quality of Volvo trucks. Generally, the comments have been highly positive but nothing demonstrated it better than Bill Manton’s wallet. A full 280 km after realising he’d left it on the bullbar, it was still there.

After leaving Cloncurry the topography changes markedly as rocky outcrops sparsely interspersed with mulga scrub dominate the more undulating terrain. The climb past the old Mary Kathleen mine site is well known as the toughest on this stretch and it seemed wise to put the transmission into ‘power’ mode and simply let the FH 700 hook in. However, this tended to keep engine speed between 1500 and 2000 rpm, thus it was deemed better to leave the transmission in economy mode and shift manually where the engine was able to operate more fuel efficiently at lower rpm in the peak torque band.      

Interestingly, it was during this undulating stretch that I learned how to make the most of the I-roll function which automatically disengages the clutch and allows the vehicle to freewheel or coast when neither engine power nor engine braking is required. It was fascinating to watch the rev counter drop to idle speed when the accelerator pedal was released and subsequently jump back to 1500 rpm when power was resumed in order to maintain cruising velocity. It was also quite a surprise to discover how far the combination would coast at 90 km/h on a slight downgrade due to the momentum of 120 tonnes, with periods of 15 to 20 seconds not uncommon during this trip. All up, it was easy to see how in the hands of a fuel conscious driver I-roll would be a handy contributor to optimum fuel efficiency.

Further on when the downgrades became more drastic, the collaboration of 230 kW of exhaust braking and 425 kW of engine braking proved amply capable of holding the combination to a set speed with minimal service brake applications.  

At the end of the trip three features of Volvo’s flagship FH16 700 stood out in my mind; quietness, capacity and comfort. On the first two, it’s pretty impressive to be able to hold a relaxed conversation inside the cab while hauling 120 tonnes over a sharp climb at 40 km/h with the viscous fan fully engaged. And the third, as epitomised by Bill’s wallet failing to budge from its spot on the bullbar over 280 km, is the outstandingly smooth ride achieved on less than ideal road surfaces.

To me, this demonstrates the high levels of skill and commitment by Volvo’s local design team in tailoring trucks from the other side of the world to the specific demands of roadtrain operators running through Australia’s back blocks.

But then, Volvo has plenty of experience at doing just that.


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