Volvo FH 16 review

By: Gary Worrall


Despite offering operators a Euro 5 engine option for more than 12 months, Volvo gave its FH ‘halo’ truck a birthday in preparation for the introduction of compulsory ADR 80/03 emission regulations, and then let Gary Worrall take it for a drive…

 

A few decades back, in the good old days of motorcycle racing , when Barry Sheene and Gregg Hansford were kings, Kawasaki factory bikes were known as 'The Green Meanies' for a combination of their colouring and aggressive nature.

Now Volvo has proudly appropriated the name for its new FH 16 range. This isn't empty marketing, the name fits well due to the range's environmental credentials and stunning power - up to 700 reliable horsepower (that's 522 kilowatts).

Mind you, it probably didn't hurt that our truck for the initial drive program was a froggish metallic green…

By and large the FH has undergone only minor changes in the course of its life: where it's headlights had incandescent bulbs they now sport LED lamps, and where the 16-litre engine used to be merely more than adequate, it is now a genteel juggernaut.

Volvo was also an early adopter of Euro 5 emission technology, taking advantage of the availability of suitable engines from Europe, and offering customers a horsepower boost as an incentive to use the cleaner engines.

Without a doubt, the FH16 throws a long shadow, even more so when it is at the head of a 26-metre B-Double combination, where it towers over virtually every other vehicle on the road.

Using the rig as a showcase of Volvo's technologies, the FH also wears a new bull-bar designed specifically to work with the sensors for the driver's airbag and seatbelt pre-tensioners, as well as the numerous other accident-avoidance technology built into the big Swede.

Although it provides plenty of accident protection for the cab and engine compartments, the bull-bar takes up little space and does not push the length outside of its permitted 26 metres, as well as maintaining the FUPS approval.

Importantly, it also allows the 16-litre six to breathe deeply and drawing cool air across the radiators and intercoolers, vital for dealing with the extra heat generated by the efficient combustion process required under Euro 5 rules.

In keeping with its fuel-efficiency goals, the FH has plenty of aerodynamic sculpting around the front end, all aimed at smoothing the airflow around what is otherwise a fairly blunt object that is designed to punch a huge hole in the atmosphere at up to 100km/h.

To help this, there are very few genuinely straight edges on FH. Instead it is a series of gentle curves that blend into each other, from the bottom of the FUPS bumper to the top of the airfoil mounted on the high-roofed cabin.

Flush fitting glass also helps in this cause, as well as reducing wind noise while running at speed. Even the door handles are shaped to cut through the air, while all but the bottom step is faired in for reduced wind drag.

The headlight assemblies are also designed to wrap around the curve at the bottom of the A-pillar, not only improving the light throw but diverting air around the corners of the truck.

By directing the air away and preventing the low pressure zones that can form at the base of the windscreen and door mirrors the body sculpting also helps keep the side windows and mirrors free of dirt, grime and rain while driving.

That all the ancillaries are tucked in behind or under the cab is another clue as to how serious Volvo is about on-road performance and economy. Nothing protrudes into the slip stream to add drag without at least some aerodynamic tweaking.

Unlike Kermit, the FH finds it quite easy to be green − in this case the commitment is certainly more than skin deep, with the FH boasting one of the cleanest and most efficient heavy-duty engines on sale in Australia.

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Engine

The monster 16-litre six boasts 24 valves - two in and two out for each pot. This combined with overhead camshafts means it breathes deeper than a synchronised swimmer.

Being able to suck in more air allows the engine management computer to fire in precise amounts of diesel through the high-pressure common rail fuel injection system. The better-controlled burn inside the combustion chamber results in maximum power with minimum pollution.

Volvo is a firm believer in selective catalyst reduction (SCR). On the FH16 sensors detect how much bad stuff is present and injects just the right amount of AdBlue to neutralise the pollutants.

With 600hp (447kW) on tap in the test truck, and with 660 and 700hp versions around, it is pretty clear the Swedes take the power game seriously.

More important than brawn, Volvo have ensured the power delivery is smooth, almost linear in the way it comes on under acceleration, with no feeling of a light switch being turned on or off, depending on revs.

Transmission

The other big plus is the inimitable I-Shift transmission, which handles the massive power without even blinking. Even under full acceleration it shifts smoothly.

Equally, downshifts are handled with aplomb, making novice drivers and journalists alike look (and sound) like seasoned professionals, with not even a hint of clutch panic or clashing of constant-mesh teeth.

The FH uses a 14-speed I-Shift complete with range change and splitter functions controlled electronically, along with a computer-controlled clutch, as well as adaptive cruise control and Volvo's VEB+ engine brake.

With each of these functions entwined with the engine management system and sensors for stability control and traction control, the driver could be excused for feeling superfluous.

The reality is the opposite, with the driver now freed more than ever to concentrate wholly and solely on the driving task. As anyone who has driven a B-double knows, it is a very responsible position to have.

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Cab and Controls

Saying the cab is spacious almost approaches understatement, such is the room inside.

The test truck had the Globetrotter XXL cab. It is provides plenty of space, not just across but also up. I'm 186cm and could stand upright.

Of course, this means avoiding low bridges where possible, with the roof only just short of the trailer's 4.3m height.

As well as the seemingly unlimited headroom, there is plenty of shoulder and hip room, while the adjustable steering flips up and out of the way for easy entries and exits. The sleeping area is huge.

Not surprisingly, Volvo designers ensured the driver is always safely in contact with the cab during entry and exit, with big, non-slip handrails and wide, stable steps combining with a 90-degree door opening for maximum safety.

The test truck came fully detailed, however, a quick inspection of the cab shows plenty of high-grade vinyl for ease of cleaning. The moulded floor also gives the impression of being easy to maintain. A driver would easily be able to get in with a brush to sweep out mud and dirt that finds its way into the cab.

The FH cab does have one drawback; the rearward slide for the seat is stopped by the edge of the bunk, rather closer to the wheel than today's 'big boned' driver might prefer. Although not really an issue thanks to the stepless adjustability of the steering wheel, it does take a few minutes to get the seat into the perfect position. A line-haul driver whose next stop is five hours away might not find it so much of a problem.

This is an important point when assessing a prime mover like the FH. It is intended as a premium line-haul rig, rather than a 'round towner', and as such a single day behind the wheel does not constitute a 'proper' test, although it certainly gives indications of the good and bad points.

The seating position is actually over the front axle, which means the driver gets a superb view out the front window. Another advantage is the view out of the large side windows. With the driver sitting back near the B pillar, it is possible to see a lot of what is going on out to the left of the truck.

Volvo assists in this area by fitting the traditional European mirror cluster on the passenger door; including a rear mirror, a spotter mirror and also a downward facing mirror for placing the front wheel.

As with most European trucks this causes a blind spot, particularly on right turns at T intersections. The Volvo is not any worse than its competitors in this respect.

The FH's wraparound dash creates a cockpit-like feel: the driver climbs into the driving position and becomes an integral part of the truck.

This is reinforced by using the drop-down armrest, allowing the left hand to drop off the wheel and onto the required button or lever.

Longer-armed drivers could find the gear shift too low and too far back.

The good news is the large-diameter steering wheel is thickly padded and, with four stubby spokes to the side and bottom, offers lots of support for the driver's hands.

The wheel also has controls for the audio and telephone, making it easy to accept and reject calls as well as adjust the volume.

The dash is clear and easy-to-read, with simple dials that offer only the information required to keep the truck headed in the right direction, including tacho and speedo, engine temperature gauge and oil pressure, air pressure and AdBlue level.

There is plenty more information on offer through the electronic dash. It can be programmed to show different displays, as well as warning instantly of any measurement going outside normal readings.

The default setting shows gear position, the settings for the engine brake, cruise control information, and also displays the status of the radar and if it is detecting any vehicles.

There are plenty out there who will say the computers leave nothing up to the driver and can, in fact, cause accidents due to boredom induced fatigue. Many cite cruise control as a culprit in fatigue-related accidents.

Volvo's response is Lane Keeping Support and the Driver Alert System (DAS). Lane Keep Support alerts the driver to any unintended drifting across lane dividers, as distinct from planned moves signalled by the indicators, while DAS measures numerous inputs for signs of drowsiness.

The steering in the FH is well-weighted, with good road feel, so the driver has a good understanding of where the wheels are pointing and what is going on underneath them.

Despite this road feel, there is minimal kick-back through the wheel. The inevitable dead spot at the straight ahead position is reduced to a slight slurring of the steering message.

The FH is extremely sure-footed, even on the rutted and potholed roads that are used for B-double operations in regional Australia.

Adding to the stability is the four point cab suspension which damps the worst of those holes and corrugations.

In common with most modern trucks, the FH offers a level of noise suppression experienced drivers would have thought impossible 20 years ago.

While there is a slight rumble accompanied by a low-frequency vibration when the D16 comes to life, if the doors are shut there is not much to indicate that 2,800Nm is sitting patiently, waiting to haul 61-tonnes up the road.

This leads to another complaint from veteran drivers that they can no longer 'shift by ear', listening for the change in engine note that tells them it is time to swap cogs.

Volvo driver trainer Per Hansen says the best driving technique is to put the I-Shift into automatic and sit back and enjoy the ride.

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Performance

The first leg of the journey heads west from Wacol on the outskirts of Brisbane through what seems like endless roadworks before joining the Cunningham Highway for the run out to Warwick, including the climb through the infamous Cunningham's Gap, one of the best tests of a truck's pulling power.

Hansen uses the first 20 kilometres as a teaching session, explaining the different systems in the FH before we swap seats and it is my turn.

With electric or pneumatic adjustment of seats, mirrors and steering wheel, getting settled is a matter of a few moments, although there is plenty of room for finetuning the seat as the kilometres roll by.

For an airbraked heavy truck, the brake pedal in the FH is remarkably compliant, unlike the solid 'dead' pedal that can be a legacy of air-operated systems, in this case the driver gets a feel of how much pressure is being applied at the wheels.

With so many sensors and systems monitoring not just the truck and its environs but also the driver, driving the truck is something of a misnomer, it is more akin to conning a large boat, with the driver/skipper making minor adjustments to negotiate obstacles.

And there are plenty of obstacles to navigating a 26-metre combination in Australia, so that being able to focus the majority of the driver's attention on the road is not a bad thing.

Even better, with so much time to react to potential problems the ride is smoothed out even further as the driver is not left making constant last-second corrections.

There are numerous benefits to the complex on-board systems in the FH, but the significant drawback, particularly for the part-time driver. There are so many settings and systems that trying to master them all in a short time is impossible. Hansen will spend up to a week with a fleet when new trucks are delivered, ensuring drivers are comfortable with the trucks.

With Hansen's experience guiding me from co-pilot's chair my hands were a blur as they danced over the buttons switches and stalks, configuring the truck for the trip.

Volvo ,-FH-16,-review ,-truck ,-ATN4While this can take a minute or two at the start of a leg, the pay-off is once the truck is mobile, there is nothing left to chance in the pursuit of economical driving, with the transmission upshifting as soon as the revs reach the right number to maintain forward momentum.

Interestingly, Hansen suggests leaving the I-Shift in auto as we begin the twisting and turning climb to Cunningham's Gap, rather than going for the power button as soon as the road heads skywards.

This seemingly odd decision soon turns out to be an impressive display of useful torque as the FH loses only a small amount of momentum before dropping back a gear and resuming its headlong rush up the hill.

The huge reserve of torque fully reveals itself when entering the steeper sections of the climb, when suddenly the FH leaps forward like a greyhound loose of the leash, gobbling up the road as if determined to set a new record for the run up the hill.

Cresting the climb, the FH returns to cruise mode, the 600hp has us loping on to Warwick and a welcome cup of coffee before pointing the nose north and toward the treacherous descent of the ToowoombaRange.

Cruising the Darling Downs confirms earlier notions of how well suited to line-haul operations the FH is: with cruise engaged you just keep watch, set the speed limits and steer.

A final reminder of the complexity of the truck comes as we near the top of the ToowoombaRange and it is time to lock in our descent speed.

Making full use of the Volvo's combined brake and transmission control, it is possible to set a speed at the top of the hill, which is then maintained by the computers, with the driver providing the eyes and steering input needed to navigate the torturous twists and turns in safety.

Unfortunately, this required a degree of mastery of the buttons that I had not yet attained, with the end result that instead of requesting a descent speed of 35km/h, a safe speed for a heavily laden B-Double, I had only managed to organise a 40km/h speed limit. Hansen confirms that greater familiarity with the controls is needed to make best use of the available technology.

So it became necessary to make the run in manual mode, although this proved that even in the hands of a part timer the FH is very forgiving as we played tag with a couple of other B-Doubles on the way down, with the I-Shift happily holding the gears almost to the redline, before making a 'preservation' shift to protect itself from overspeeding the engine.

To avoid this situation, a couple of heavy brake applications was enough to wash off plenty of speed as the big all-wheel discs took a big bite out of the road speed and kept the engine revs down.

While the test loop was hardly truly representative of the FH's capabilities, a quick check of the Volvo DynaFleet report afterwards revealed a total trip of 304.02km, with a total fuel burn of 197.13 litres, giving an average of 1.54 kilometres per litre. Hansen says that is more than acceptable given how much of the trip was climbing or descending hills.

Also interesting, given the taxing nature of the roads, was the AdBlue consumption of 12.3 litres, or 6.2 percent of the diesel burn, with Volvo quoting average consumption of around 5 percent on line haul operations.

Verdict

So, the FH is definitely something of a Green Meanie: it has environmental credentials and power to burn.

There are possibly more imposing trucks, but not many, and there are certainly very few with more power. For the combination of both, it is hard to beat the FH.

The technical complexities that take it to the top of the ladder are the very same ones that can bamboozle an under-trained new driver.

With proper driver training it is possible to reap the rewards of reduced fuel consumption and improved fleet safety in a truck that has few peers.

 

Specifications

Make/Model: Volvo FH 16 600

Configuration: 6x4 prime mover rigged for B-double operations

Engine: Volvo D16 G six-cylinder diesel, variable geometry turbocharger, four valves per cylinder, high pressure direct injection

Emission: Euro 5; Selective Catalytic Reduction with AdBlue

Rating: 447 kilowatts @ 1500 to 1800rpm; 2800Nm @ 1000 to 1450rpm

Transmission: I-Shift 14-speed automated-manual transmission with range change and splitter, computer-controlled clutch

GVM: 23.7 tonnes

GCM: Dependent on application

 

 

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