Everything Has Changed – Almost
Freightliner’s Cascadia combines the best of the old with impressive new tricks
By Paul Hartley
Amid the flash of a pyrotechnic display and rhythmic thump of some bass-heavy, amped-up rock ‘n’ roll, Freightliner introduced its Cascadia on-highway truck last May to an audience inside a darkened, cavernous sports arena in Charlotte, N.C. The event’s theme: “Everything…Has Changed.”
The claim of that grammatically dubious tag line was almost accurate. The vehicle, intended to replace the Century Class and Columbia models by late 2009, is 87.33 percent brand new. The only major component it shares with Freightliner’s existing product line is its chassis. It does, however, feature a number of smaller items found on other vehicles within the empire formerly known as DaimlerChrysler: dash switches and steering wheel from Mercedes-Benz Actros, door handles from Dodge Ram pickup trucks and “soft-touch” dash panel material from Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
At first glance, the Cascadia looks like a Century Class in need of a diet program. It’s wider and rounder with bulging fenders and doors, a vast grille and aerodynamically tuned mirrors on both the cab and hood. Beyond the visual differences, though, this model seems to be a much better truck than its predecessors. It features a multitude of design changes that boost driver comfort, improve operating efficiency and ease or reduce service intervals.
I was able to drive a pre-production Cascadia a few months ago, immediately after a dealer event in Las Vegas. My truck and several others like it were being returned to Freightliner headquarters in Portland, where they were to finish their illustrious but abbreviated careers as crash-test dummies.
The first thing most people notice about Cascadia is its super-sized interior. It is not only wider — a whoppin’ eight inches at the A pillars, compared with the Century Class — but it also sports larger seats to accommodate a broader (literally) group of drivers. The channel between those seats measures 24 inches, easing passage on trips to and from the sleeper. The cab doors are bigger too — almost 30 percent, according to the company.
Surrounded by such spatial abundance, I departed Sin City on a bright, warm morning and headed north on I-15, then picked up US 93 (the “Great Basin Highway”) and pointed the truck toward Idaho. This route was wonderful for scenery, minimal traffic and high-speed truckin’. It was not, however, the best stretch of asphalt for judging the Cascadia’s ride, said to be superior to that of other Freightliners. Several hundred miles passed before I saw a pothole and, unfortunately for purposes of journalistic reportage, I missed it.
Nevertheless, I did take note of the cab’s library-like sound level at highway speed. It is — you’ll pardon the phrase here — “Volvoesque” in quality. A number of factors contribute to the quietude. Dash panels are made with a soft-touch, stiff foam. Cavities and voids in doors and other body panels are filled with insulating material. Sleeper sidewalls are reinforced to eliminate “drumming” vibrations. New cabinet door hardware is designed with spring-like tension to prevent rattles en route. Freightliner engineers even worked with their counterparts at Eaton to reduce gear whine transmitted through the shift stick.
Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about aerodynamics. Cascadia’s rounder, smoother shape reduces wind turbulence and its accompanying noise. This is great news for anyone who appreciates the high register of a Vivaldi concerto. Of course, it also suggests that the truck is running more efficiently, saving its owner gobs of money otherwise spent on extra fuel burned in a less streamlined craft.
I wish I could provide an authoritative review of the interior lighting — reportedly much better than that of earlier models — and the new sleeper’s various comforts, but our little convoy finished the first day of travel just before dusk, stopping in Mountain Home, Idaho, and seeking refuge at a Best Western motel. The lighting there was just fine.
Our westward journey continued early the next morning, and after just a few miles we were knee-deep in suspension-testing territory. At about the 60-mile marker on I-84, the previously unwrinkled roadway quickly changed to a moonscape-like surface of ruts and cracks and holes. The Cascadia’s ride across this stretch of concrete rubble was impressive: smooth without being mushy, firm but not jarring. What’s more, there were no rattles or squeaks in the cabin. This is the standard now by which all other Class 8 trucks will be judged.
Freightliner executives say the company spent about $400 million developing Cascadia during the past four years, and they seemed confident that the investment was worthwhile, given the improvements to efficiency and productivity, comfort and quality.
It’s difficult to predict whether customers will share this enthusiasm once they see the truck’s pricing, which is notably higher than that of previous models.
Still, officials don’t seem too worried about those nettlesome details. As one manager boldly put it during the press event last May, “We wouldn’t ask for more money if we weren’t providing a much greater value in return.”
That’s probably a fair proposition. And besides, after late 2009 buyers really won’t have any alternatives within the Freightliner on-highway family.