Test Drive: Volvo VNR 640

By Jim Park

When Volvo Trucks North America introduced the VNR lineup in Montreal last April, it said the regional and short-haul sectors are set to explode. VTNA president, Goran Nyberg said the shift away from long-haul routes will be driven by a combination of shortening supply chains and strong push from drivers for shorter hauls and more home time. “Many drivers are leaving the industry because they aren’t happy being away for weeks at a time,” he said. “Relays and hub-and-spoke will get drivers home regularly and more often, and many fleets are already tailoring their operations that way to attract the best drivers.” And with the VNR model, Volvo now has just the truck it believes will help fleets attract top-notch talent to the burgeoning number of regional jobs, and keep them there, safe and happy on their shorter runs. The VNR was clearly designed with driver comfort, convenience and safety very near the top of the priority list, while improved aerodynamics, reduced maintenance and some clever damage mitigation innovations will help keep down the overall cost of ownership.

HDTJul17-VNR 1-parkThe truck is offered in three base configurations; the day-cab VNR 300, a flat-roof sleeper model called the VNR 420 that comes with a 42-inch sleeper compartment for overnight trips, and the VNR 640, which features a 61-inch mid-roof sleeper intended for week-long excursions. It has enough room for a 42-inch mattress, a vertical closet, a fridge and microwave as well as a flat-screen TV. The VNR 640 will be right at home on runs from Toronto to the U.S. eastern seaboard, the U.S. Midwest and of course the Windsor to Quebec City corridor.

Powertrain options for the VNR include the Volvo D11 with 325-425 horsepower and 1,250-1,550 pound-feet, or the beefier Volvo D13 offering 375-500 horsepower and 1,450-1,850 pound-feet. The D11 is nearly 350 pounds lighter than its big brother, making it a pretty compelling choice for weight-sensitive applications where gobs of power aren’t absolutely necessary. The engine can be mated to any of the currently available I-Shift configurations as well as popular Eaton-Fuller manual boxes or Allison’s 5- or 6-speed automatics.

Volvo made few changes to the chassis, but did redesign the cooling package to squeeze it under the smaller hood. The hood alone is 70 pounds lighter than the hood on the previous model, the VNM, so when coupled with the light-weight D11 and a few other weight-saving options, the dry weight of the 6×2 640 I drove — equipped with the Adaptive Loading package — tipped the scales at just 16,200 pounds dry weight.

At this point in time, Ontario does not allow the use of Volvo’s Adaptive Loading concept because the weigh differential between the two axle can exceed 1,000 kilos in some situations. Ontario is re-examining its thinking on the use of 6×2 drive configurations and will likely allow them sometime in the near future. The VNR is also available with standard 6×4 tandem drive axles.

And speaking of the hood, it’s the most striking change Volvo made to its regional fleet. It’s narrower and about 9 inches shorter than the previous model. It’s also steeply raked for better aerodynamics and driver visibility. The styling of the fenders and the new headlights are obviously lifted from the Volvo SuperTruck, albeit slightly modified. The new LED headlight modules are mounted inboard of the fender to reduce the potential for damage in a minor scrape.
Below the hood is a stamped-steel bumper. It’s designed to take a bit of abuse without breaking. The side pieces are reinforced molded polyurethane, so that if they are damaged, they can be easily removed and replaced. The end pieces are also slightly swept back to reduce the wall-to-wall turning radius. The 133-inch BBC measurement coupled with a 50-degree wheel cut makes the VNR very nimble.

Designed By Drivers
Volvo says they conducted more than 2,000 driver interviews and focus group sessions to garner feedback on what drivers want in a cab and where they want it. With all due credit to the VNR design team, what they did best was listen and implement.
Most noticeably, the cab interior is pleasingly refreshed, looking much more contemporary. The basic dash layout hasn’t changed much but the A-panel has been rearranged. The driver information display screen still sits familiarly between the speedo and the tach, but it’s now full-color and 5 inches wide. It’s much easier to read and navigate than the old monochromatic orange display.

The large toggle control switches for lighting, air suspension drop, etc. have been grouped together by function and they remain easy to reach and manipulate. Many of the most commonly used controls, such as cruise set/resume, radio, traction controls, hands free calling, headlight and trailer light dimmers, etc. are now mounted on the steering wheel within easy reach. There are 19 separate buttons on the right and left side of the steering, again, grouped according to function. Their locations would become intuitive over time, but I had to look to find them — an awkward task when the wheel isn’t in the normal straight-ahead position.

Neither of the trucks I drove had the “infotainment” display installed, but that would be over on the right side of the dash B-panel. In its place was a little storage area suitable for a phone, a notepad or something fairly small. The bottom of the compartment has a soft rubber mat that prevents objects stored there from sliding around.

The look and feel of the new cab design is spot on, I think. It’s all very modern and automotive but it’s still big-trucky. A couple of features stand out, like the floor mats. They are thick and soft and do a remarkable job of isolating road and drivetrain noise from the cab, and they are easily removed for cleaning. They are in sections, too, making that task much more convenient.

The seats are a work of art. Several subtle changes have been incorporated here, such as longer fore and aft travel and a lower hip point. The latter enhancement makes it feel like you sitting in the truck, not on it — a small but welcome improvement.
Volvo has brought a new three-way steering wheel adjustment feature to the VNR called Position Perfect. It offers nearly 5 inches of telescoping range as well as the usual fore and aft tilt, but the wheel itself also tilts relative to the steering column. It can be flipped up into a close to horizontal position, or down so that’s it’s close to a typical automotive steering wheel position. This offers drivers a nearly unlimited range of adjustments, which is very useful in a slip-seat operation or just to relieve the stress of being stuck in the same body position all day.

The VNR is available in three trim options; Fleet, Express and Premiere. Fleet is decidedly un-fleety, and the Premiere edition gets close to a high-end automotive feel. The VNR 640 had the Premiere, but I also drove a VNR 300 with the Fleet interior option and I was perfectly happy and comfortable in either truck.

The VNR is such a departure from previous VN trucks I’ve driven it’s hard to decide where to start. I have always like the big VN cab and sleeper, but it feels, well, big. While the VNR cab is no smaller, the whole thing just felt much tighter and nimbler and very easy to drive. The short hood helps in this regard, but the suspension felt stiffer without being rough and steering was really responsive.

I found out after the drive that the 640 was equipped with an optional stabilizer bar on the front leaf-spring suspension. It’s designed to support the cab and chassis during extreme maneuvers and tight turns, it improves stability in windy conditions and enhances the on-center feel of the steering.

Not knowing about the stabilizer bar while I was driving it, I was astonished by how well the truck held the road and its positive steering. I’ll give the bar some of the credit here, but I think the truck is just that well designed.

The visibility in turns was amazing. There was never a point where I was guessing where I was on the road. The windows are big, the mirrors are in just the right place and the short hood is so steeply raked it might as well have not been there at all. I truly could barely see it from the driver’s seat.

The other remarkable feature of the VNR is the absence of road and drivetrain noise in the cab. I checked it with my iPhone sound meter app and got an astonishingly low reading of 56 dB at cruise speed. The noise level in my Ford Taurus at highway speed is 68 dB.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned here that contributes to the overall performance of the VNR, such as the 11-liter engine, the recent improvements to the I-Shift transmission and to some extent the aerodynamic refinements (very low wind noise), but if you need to know more, Volvo has laid it all out in their marketing material.

The VNR, I think, is a turning point for Volvo. It sets the bar for future improvements pretty high. I think we can expect more of the same when the company introduces its re-imagined VNL model later this year. I can’t wait.

Leave a Reply