X marks the spot

While supply lines from the US remain stubbornly slow, there’s no denying the potential of Western Star’s new X-series to reignite a return to the days when Stars shone bright across the length and breadth of the country. To put it mildly, there’s a lot to like in the three-pronged line-up but the model with arguably the most to like for our market is the versatile 48X.

lt can sometimes be difficult to understand the mindset of senior corporate executives, not least the American variety. Take, for instance, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), the huge entity responsible for Freightliner and Western Star. On the one hand they spruik an upbeat assertion that our right hand-drive neck of the woods is extremely important to the corporation’s export aspirations, and similarly insist that their latest product developments have our operational needs in sharper focus than ever before. Fair enough and on the face of it, true enough.

But then, on the other hand, while they go to great lengths to guide the development and testing of advanced new models which are indeed some of the best ever created for our conditions, they then appear to meet ensuing local demand and genuine excitement with drip-fed supply from US factories. In the process, there’s frustration and confusion all the way down the commercial food chain, from the top tiers of their local offshoots – Daimler Truck Australia in Freightliner’s case and for Western Star, the Penske organisation – down to dealers, sales people and ultimately, customers. 

Obviously, there’s always a reason: Shipping issues, component supply issues and the priorities of a barnstorming North American market which consumes almost everything home factories can produce. But of course, the Yanks aren’t alone in these issues. European brands have much the same problems but for Australia’s Freightliner and Western Star principals, the frustrations are probably more intense simply because they now have the right products to climb off the lower rungs of the heavy-duty sales ladder yet, so far, don’t have enough supply to set the rise in motion. 

None of this, however, disparages the quality and suitability of the products now rolling out of the DTNA stable. Nonetheless, and for Penske’s local leadership, the immediate hope is that Western Star’s new X-series will not endure supply shortfalls to the same extent or duration as Freightliner’s flagship Cascadia.

Time will tell, of course, but there’s little doubt that given uncorked supply lines, X-series has the ability to end Western Star’s decade in the sales doldrums. As we stated late last year after the Australian launch of this entirely new family of Stars at Brisbane’s Mt Cotton test centre, ‘the three-pronged X-series line-up of 47X, 48X and 49X models has the specification, the features and the versatility to blast Western Star into a bold new era’.

What’s more, Penske Australia executives were quick to emphasise that no Western Star has ever been subjected to more testing than X-series and equally, ‘no Western Star range has ever had the potential to cover so many applications’.

Still, after short stints behind the wheel of each model in various configurations at Mt Cotton, there’s no denying the 48X was the model which grabbed our attention more than any other. The reason is that this is the truck, as Penske insiders keenly pointed out, ‘… built purposely for the Australian market, with no US counterpart’, and the truck they believe will put Western Star firmly back on the B-double map.

The fundamentals certainly point to a specification ideally suited to B-double duties, either linehaul or local. Again, it’s worth quoting the raw details from our original report following the much anticipated launch of X-series: ‘With a set-forward front axle and trim 2883mm (113.5 inch) bumper to back-of-cab (BBC) dimension, the 48X is a 6×4 prime mover specification with the choice of the Detroit DD13 engine up to 525hp or the turbo-compound DD16 with up to 600hp and 2050lb-ft of torque, coupled to either the standard DT12-OV 12-speed overdrive automated shifter or the higher torque rating of its OVX counterpart. Or, for the traditionalists, there’s an Eaton 18-speed manual.

Wisely, the DD13 version limits gross combination mass (GCM) to 72.5 tonnes whereas the DD16 gives the 48X a GCM limit of 106 tonnes.

Meanwhile, cabs come with the choice of standard flat or trench-style rooflines while sleepers range from 36-inch models with either a low trench roofline or a stand-up mid-roof design. Importantly for B-double work, the bumper to back-of-sleeper length with the 36-inch shed is 3567mm but for those wanting a bigger sleeper, there are also 48-inch and 60-inch high-roof versions.

From the outside, designers have done a good job of styling all three X-series models with the bold, strong appearance typifying a traditional US conventional.

Yet while looks largely depend on individual tastes, there’s no denying that big beaks with gutsy stainless steel grilles and classy air intakes each side of the hood impart the message of working class toughness on which so much of Western Star’s heritage is based.

Even so, the only thing that appears to carry over from the outgoing model is the badge on the beak and it all starts with what Western Star describes as ‘pioneering high strength single channel chassis rails’ splayed at the front to enhance engine and radiator fitment. 

Importantly, all three models are said to use ‘an all-new robust routing and clipping design which keeps air lines and wiring harnesses away from the frame.’ 

Notably, the radiator is engine mounted rather than chassis mounted to resist torsional stresses, with the DD13 using a 1400 square inch radiator and 1600 square inch with the DD16. 

Still on cooling, it’s worth noting that to accommodate the DD16 and equally, enhance the discharge of hot air from under the cab, the floor of the 48X model stands 100mm higher above the chassis than its 47X and 49X siblings. This is obviously a smart move given the relatively compact dimensions of a truck with a GCM rating above 100 tonnes.

However, as we also reported late last year, it’s on the inside where DTNA’s corporate identity and component amortisation are stitched most obviously and predictably into the new Stars. The dash, the switchgear, the digital gauge and overall instrument layout, the steering wheel, are all from the same DTNA suite as Freightliner Cascadia and similarly, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz and heavy-duty Fuso brands.

Indeed, the family similarities are stark, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing, particularly when it includes the standard features of the comprehensive Detroit Assurance safety package. Like early Cascadia versions though, the first of the new Stars haven’t yet been fitted with a steering wheel airbag and right now, there’s no indication of when it might happen.

Whatever, it remains easy to suggest this new line-up is the complete transformation desperately needed to dispose of the mediocrity which over almost a decade has seen Western Star’s hard won notoriety and reputation slide to the edge of insignificance.

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No question, some may rue the loss of Star’s original character in this new line’s concession to family sharing but it’s a salient fact that in the Australian market particularly, Western Star has been going nowhere fast and modernisation had become a life-saving priority. As for the suggestion in some quarters that X-series is simply a Freightliner in different guise, here’s another blunt fact worth considering: Western Star is first and foremost, a relatively low-volume vocational product with far more flexibility in engineering terms and thus, more easily tailored to specific markets and applications than mass produced highway specialists such as Freightliner’s Cascadia.

Consequently, Western Star’s local leaders were able to work closely with their US colleagues to create a model such as the 48X specifically for Australia’s B-double market. Simply put, it is a smart spec and we’ve spent many months eager for an opportunity to put a 48X B-double combination through its paces and hopefully, verify our highly positive first impressions.

Road work

No heavy truck is at its best with less than 1000km on the clock and unless we’re badly mistaken, there are no tougher ‘day runs’ out of Brisbane than the slog up Cunningham’s Gap to Warwick. Nonetheless, these were the demands on a superbly prepared 48X B-double combination supplied by Penske Australia from its Wacol headquarters.

Occupying the passenger seat was Penske Australia product specialist Steve Gibbins but seriously, there was little to explain or emphasise. Grossing 60 tonnes and with just 860km on the clock, the truck did its job with nothing less than well mannered, workmanlike efficiency.

Much like the flash 48X model which attracted so much interest just a week earlier during X-series’ public debut at the Brisbane Truck Show, the specification of the test unit was straight out of Western Star’s latest tool chest: a 48X with a 36 inch mid-rise sleeper and aero kit, a 600hp Detroit DD16 engine coupled to the high torque version of the DT12 automated 12-speed overdrive transmission, driving into Meritor’s RT-46 drive tandem running a 3.73:1 diff ratio and riding on the corporate family’s well-proven Airliner rear suspension. It’s a drivetrain which notches 100km/h at a twitch over 1400rpm.

Additionally, standard fuel capacity is impressive at more than 1500 litres in two square aluminium tanks – 745 litres right side, 775 litres left side – with a generous 200 litre stainless steel AdBlue tank below the passenger side door.

Meanwhile, the climb into the cab is on well-placed steps and conveniently sited grab handles but it’s worth noting that because the cab sits 100mm higher than its 47X and 49X siblings, the final step into the cab is surprisingly taller than the lower rungs. 

Once inside though, it takes next to no time to find a good driving position on a high-back Isri air-suspended seat and familiarity comes quick in a digital dash and control layout which, like its Freightliner, Benz and Fuso counterparts, is easily among the most user friendly in the business. 

Overall, the cab layout is spacious, comfortable and entirely functional but even so, there were a couple of things the new Stars share with their corporate cousin Cascadia which aren’t altogether appealing. Other opinions may disagree but in this estimation, the radar unit in the top centre of the windscreen infringes marginally on forward vision while strangely, the well-appointed sleeper has heater, fan and light controls on the passenger side rather than the driver’s side where most Aussie drivers like to lay their heads. In effect, the sleeper is still in left hand-drive layout. Go figure!

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On-road, however, the 48X displayed excellent road manners. Admittedly, some might find the steering a tad touchy at first but overall, handling and ride quality were fine, partnered by a supremely smooth and intuitive drivetrain, a quiet cab but not so quiet to completely deaden the healthy hum from under the snout, and levels of performance and fuel efficiency which will only be enhanced with more mileage.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that equivalent 13 litre and 16 litre engines in Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz models have well established reputations for solid performance and thrifty fuel consumption, so there’s no reason to think the Detroit engines in X-series won’t deliver the same favourable attributes.

In our evaluation, for example, the DD16 returned a respectable 1.7km/litre (4.8mpg for us more mature types) for the 280km round trip from Wacol to Warwick via Cunningham’s Gap. Again, at 60 tonnes and with barely 1000km on the clock, fuel consumption was more than a reasonable result.

Performance, however, was exceptional and perhaps even better than expected. Despite roadworks forcing a crawl on early stages of this long and arduous climb, it was decided to leave the transmission in auto mode for all but the last few hundred metres where a notoriously sharp pinch at the top waits for the uninitiated.

Anyway, with the roadworks behind, the outfit powered up and settled comfortably into 7th gear, dropping no lower than 1450rpm or thereabouts. Switching to manual mode approaching the top, there was a moment of indecision about whether to go down one or two gears but given the obvious determination of the big bore Detroit, a single shift saw the combination crest the climb in 6th gear at 1400rpm. Top effort!

From here on it was little more than an unfussed haul to Warwick before turning around and heading back to Wacol, descending Cunningham’s Gap in the same gears: 6th in manual mode over the lip with the three-stage Jacobs engine brake on maximum then, as the grade eased, swapping up to 7th and using the different stages of the Jake to keep momentum under control. Easy! 

In fact, the most difficult part of the day’s exercise came after accepting Steve Gibbins’ shrewd invitation to reverse the B-double into a long and cluttered corner of the Penske premises. Eventually, the job was done, much to the mirth of a smiling Gibbins.

All up, Western Star’s 48X did not disappoint, verifying our initial opinion that this model is ideally designed and specified for its intended role as a functional, efficient and comfortable truck for B-double duties and indeed, workloads up to its maximum 106 tonnes rating.

On a broader perspective, Western Star’s X-series is arguably the only line-up of conventional trucks capable of seriously challenging the supremacy of Kenworth’s T410 and T610 models. Providing, of course, North America sends enough of them our way. 

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