On the road … again!

By: Steve Brooks


The rebirth of the International brand with the long-awaited ProStar certainly hasn’t taken the trucking world – or at least, our small slice of it – by storm. Even so, after a B-double run from Melbourne to Sydney, Steve Brooks believes ProStar has the fundamentals to carve far more than just a token presence in a crowded market

 

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The day was almost done. After a few wrangles parking the B-double in the crowded confines of Sydney Iveco at Eastern Creek, the only things left to do were finish off the log book and jot down a few final trip figures.

But it’s funny how the mind works sometimes and suddenly, spearing out of the cerebral swamp, came this odd thought: Maybe, just maybe, ProStar’s passage into the trucking mainstream might evolve along much the same lines as the day just done.

Bear with me!

It all started early that morning, dark and damp and crowded, with trucks and trailers parked wall-to-wall at the big BP opposite Melbourne Market.

It wasn’t much better as we headed up the Hume to Sydney, a miserable, murky morning of gloomy grey clouds dribbling that daggy, annoying drizzle that Melbourne likes to make.

Farther up, the sop stopped, only to give way to a fog that sat like a soggy sheet, barely lifting for a hundred kays or more.

But then, an hour or so over the border, the grey gradually gave way to shafts of sun and somewhere between Gundagai and Jugiong, the sunglasses went on. And they stayed there until the big orange blob dropped over the edge, replaced by a star-speckled sky as the B-double poked its way through the evening peak before finally getting to where it needed to be. Job done, and for the most part, done well.

Like I said, funny how the mind works sometimes. But seriously, if things go to plan, or at least the way Iveco and International hope they’ll go, perhaps this strange analogy isn’t too far beyond the realms of possibility?

After all, like that dark start in Melbourne, ProStar currently finds itself struggling for space in a tough and busy market with, so far, more grey than glimmer. Time and persistence may see it ultimately push through the competitive haze before finally, with the hard yards slowly dwindling in the distance as more options create greater appeal, the light breaks through to a warmer, more welcoming world.

As always, time will tell.

Whatever, it’s early days for Iveco and its International partner, and for now and probably quite some time to come as product development crawls at snail’s pace, each will have to be content with ProStar’s place near the bottom of the heavy-duty heap.

To the end of May, for instance, a pitiful 22 Internationals had been delivered to the heavy-duty market. Incidentally, and somewhat deservedly, the only nameplate below International was Cat with just 12 units entering the market as the last remnants of the failed Cat Truck exercise finally find a home.

On the positive side though, the Cat truck was based on ProStar and over the course of its troubled tenure, the yellow version at least demonstrated the overall engineering soundness of the International cab and chassis structures.

Right now, however, the biggest issue for the International brand is rebuilding the bridges burned with customers and dealers almost a decade ago when parent company Navistar opted for the questionable Cat venture over a continuation of its successful association with Iveco.

No doubt, it’ll be a slow road back for International and apart from regenerating respect for the brand, a huge amount of hope hangs on the appeal of a strong yet limited specification in this first ProStar model.

That’s not to say ProStar won’t evolve to become more things to more people as corporate commitment and engineering investment broaden the options to cover a wider range of roles, but it does propose that reasonable early sales will be the economic motivation for more options to broaden ProStar’s potential. In effect, a classic chicken and egg scenario.

Either way, much depends on the patience and perseverance of International and Iveco, and their desire to forge a new Australian future for the brand with such a proud heritage in this country. A strong statement, even a press conference, to that effect certainly wouldn’t go astray, especially now that it looks increasingly likely Iveco is canning its Powerstar model and priming ProStar as its conventional spearhead.

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Specifications

As things stand at the moment, there’s one ProStar with three cab options. First a day cab with a bumper to back-of-cab (BBC) length of 2850mm (112 inch), an extended cab with a BBC of 3510mm (138 inch), and a full sleeper version on a BBC of 3585mm, or 141 inches.

The day cab will, of course, be a contender for truck and dog roles and if you’re keen to know how it performs in this role, read the report on John Treloar’s ProStar elsewhere in this issue. An unashamed International ‘tragic’, John was first to place an order for ProStar and to date, there are absolutely no regrets.

Roundly speaking, the extended cab with its modest sleeper ‘shelf’ is probably best suited to regional work.

However, if you want to know how a sleeper version performed as a linehaul B-double at full weight from Melbourne to Sydney, keep reading.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that ProStar has for many years been one of America’s most successful linehaul trucks, due in no small way to an entrenched reputation for aerodynamic efficiency and subsequently, high standards of fuel economy. What influence the drooping snout will have on Australian buyers is hard to determine but there’s enough feedback from US operators to accept that aerodynamically, ProStar is one of the best in the business.

Much easier to determine, however, is the market’s acceptance of a Cummins X15 engine with outputs up to 600hp and 2050ft-lb, driving through an Eaton 18-speed overdrive transmission in either manual or automated UltraShift-Plus form.

Significantly, the automated Eaton comes with a number of added features, not least the distinct benefit of a ‘hill hold’ function. There’s also the inclusion of Cummins’ ADEPT software which in its current Australian form provides a ‘SmartCoast’ function, designed to enhance fuel economy by taking the engine to idle on slight downhill grades when in cruise control mode. Likewise, there’s ‘SmartTorque’, said by Cummins to ‘… help eliminate unnecessary downshifts and keep the engine operating in the most fuel efficient sweet spot.’

Putting performance to the pavement is Meritor’s RT46-160GP drive tandem riding on Hendrickson’s heavy-duty Primaax-EX air suspension.

Up front, Meritor also supplies the wide-track front axle, mounted on three-leaf parabolic spring packs.

Still on the outside, cab-mounted twin vertical exhaust stacks with stainless steel shields are standard issue. However, at 720 litres, standard fuel capacity is unlikely to woo too many linehaul runners but according to the spec sheet, additional fuel tank capacities are available on request. AdBlue capacity is 90 litres.

On the inside, ProStar won’t excite lovers of glitz and glamour, bling or baubles. It is, in every sense, a workhorse environment where practicality and purpose rule. That said though, don’t for a moment think the surroundings are meagre or miserable. They’re definitely not!

It is, in fact, a comfortable, well-appointed and entirely functional cab and sure, a few strips of woodgrain and a touch of tailored trim would certainly enhance driver appeal, but the over-riding impression is one of simple function and easy operation.

There’s a comprehensive package of neat, dash-mounted gauges, while most instruments and switchgear are well marked and sited for easy operation. Similarly, there are door-mounted electric controls for mirrors which don’t overly intrude on forward vision at roundabouts and the like.

The test truck was equipped with the Ultrashift-Plus automated transmission, controlled by a pad mounted on a movable arm which can be swung aside when moving from the driver’s seat. Smart!

It’s also quick and easy to find a good driving position thanks to a tilting and telescopic steering column, and what I consider are extremely good suspension seats for both driver and passenger. To my mind, you only know you’re on comfortable seats when, at the end of a long day, you realise you’re not sore in the bum or suffering a bent back.

Yet for linehaul B-double work in particular, it’s the stand-up cab and 40 inch integrated sleeper which hold a great deal of appeal. Not only is the Australian-designed and made sleeper configured to enhance B-double carrying capacity, it offers a wide bunk with a good inner-spring mattress, generous and easily accessible storage space underneath, and good-sized lockers on each side. Truly, a likeable mix of comfort and practicality.

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Up the Road

Punching out 600hp and 2050ft-lb, it was no surprise the X15 coped comfortably with a gross weight of 62 tonnes on the Melbourne to Sydney run, even with little more than 2500km under its belt.

On the run up Wagga Hill, for instance, with the transmission in ‘manual’ mode, the outfit made easy work of the long climb, dropping no lower than 11th gear at 40km/h.

Later on, when a colleague riding shotgun for most of the trip asked my expectations about fuel consumption, I reckoned a figure around 1.8km/litre would be a reasonable result given that the truck drove through a 4.11:1 diff ratio and notched 100 km/h at a flick over 1500rpm.

And so it was that after 810km, the on-board trip computer showed exactly that – 1.8km/litre, or just a tad shy of 5.1 miles per gallon to us older folk. Given the low kilometres, the relatively high gross weight, the potent performance, and the plentiful pulls on the Hume’s northbound leg, it’d be a tough call to see it as anything less than a highly respectable return.

As for the rest of it, again there weren’t too many surprises. In the early days of ProStar’s righthand-drive development, I’d managed to spend about 3000km behind the wheel of an evaluation unit, so to find this demo truck with much the same good manners wasn’t at all unexpected.

For instance, forward vision is second to none in the conventional class, interior noise levels are perhaps marginally higher than some competitors but certainly not invasive, overall road manners and ride quality are generally top-shelf, though steering quality of this unit wasn’t quite as impressive as earlier examples, and all controls and switchgear are sited for easy access. From a practical perspective, there’s plenty to like.

But then, there were a few foibles as well, specifically related to cruise control and ADEPT software.

For starters, and for whatever reason, engine fan actuation was far more pronounced in cruise control mode. On a day when ambient temperature struggled to rise above 20 degrees, it was regularly surprising and somewhat troubling when even mild undulations were able to cause a sharp spike in engine temperature and consequently, engage the engine fan. Out of cruise control though, fan engagement was only occasional and most times, for short bursts on long drags.

As for ADEPT, it’s not only a poorly contrived acronym (Advanced Dynamic Efficient Powertrain Technology) but in this application did little more than build the belief that Cummins and Eaton still have quite a way to go before powertrain integration reaches the operational finesse of the vertically integrated Europeans.

‘SmartCoast’, for instance, was more a hindrance than a help, regularly pulling the engine into idle for just a few seconds before re-engaging the transmission as downhill speed increased above the set cruise control limit. When you consider that many experts cite each gearshift as a cost on fuel efficiency, constant swapping in and out of idle mode surely does little to endorse ADEPT’s fuel-saving credentials.

Meantime, given that Aeroplane and Wagga Hill are similar grades on the northbound Hume, the plan was to tackle Aeroplane in cruise control and climb Wagga in manual mode, just to judge the difference.

That plan went through the floor when cruise control suddenly dropped out near the top of Aeroplane with the Cummins at full noise and generally, doing the job extremely well.

As it turned out, and for whatever reason, cruise control had been programmed to automatically drop out at 40.5km/h. Unaware of this calibration, it certainly came as a shock to the system – the truck’s and mine – and a quick move to manual mode and a heavy right foot at least allowed the ProStar to amble over without coming to an ugly stop on the sharpest pinch.

Since then, I’m told, cruise control calibration has been changed to an automatic ‘drop out’ point of 20.5km/h; a fact worth keeping in the back of the brain.

Anyway, as much as automated boxes are increasingly prevalent and preferred in numerous applications, and for good reason, it showed yet again that there are times and places where a well-managed manual box is hard to beat.

Meanwhile, back on the positives, the close ratio spread of the 18-speed transmission at least maintains engine speed in a relatively tight, fuel efficient band while in general operation, the speed and smoothness of Eaton’s automated shifts are as slick as any.

In time, Cummins and Eaton will get the finer details of their powertrain package right. After all, Cummins didn’t spend US$600 million buying into Eaton’s technological future without the prospect of a significant return somewhere down the track. It could, however, be a long track given that the Europeans have now marched so far ahead.

Still, there’s no question ProStar in its first Australian form is a truck with undeniable potential.

It is a practical, comfortable and willing workhorse, pure and simple, with a specification able to cover a lot of bases and entirely appropriate for gross combination weights of 90 tonnes and beyond. In most respects, it’s the ideal specification to kick off International’s return to the market.

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Back on the map

For now, the brand’s future depends on a number of critical factors. Top of the heap is a determined effort by Iveco and all its sales and service people to put ProStar on the map, supported by International’s ongoing commitment to the brand’s Australian future.

Close behind is recognition of where ProStar sits in the market. It is not a premium player, at least not yet, and to ask a price that targets the likes of Kenworth or even Western Star would be foolishly reminiscent of Cat’s initial naivety. Arrogance even!

Finally, as sales momentum gradually builds, it will be vital to add more options to the ProStar package. The first to come to mind would be a lighter fleet spec with, say, a Cummins X12 under the snout. Light and lively, the X12 is yet to find a home in the Australian market and it certainly wouldn’t hurt ProStar’s chances to be first with an engine which continues to attract the attention of Cummins customers far and wide.

It certainly took a long time for International and Iveco to put ProStar into play. The big question now, I guess, is how hard they’re prepared to play.

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