Kevin Hackett tests out Volvo’s new generation of safer, smarter and more cost-efficient heavy vehicles.
New Volvo trucks range delivers the goods by the lorryload
Any motoring journalist who has worked his or her way up to the point where they are invited to test supercars, as well as the more plebeian hatchbacks and saloons, will remember the first time that they received a nod from the likes of Lamborghini. For me, it was an invitation to fly to Phoenix, Arizona, to test the first Gallardo Superleggera. When the email arrived, I punched the air, did a little dance and told all my friends. I felt like a giddy schoolchild. Occasionally, I do still get those feelings, such as the first couple of times that I got to drive a Bugatti Veyron or whenever I get behind the wheel of a timeless classic.
There’s good reason for this, too, because one’s formative years shape the way you feel, think and act. I grew up lusting after Ferrari Dinos, Lambos and Porsche 928s, and those cars still have a super-strong hold over me. But standing here, in the middle of a vast wasteland close to the F1 circuit in Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi, I’m overwhelmed by memories of motoring desires that easily predate any associated with Italian or German exotica.
My mind is doing somersaults because I realise now that my first love for machines, which must have grabbed my attention at the age of two, was for big trucks and lorries. And four decades later, I’m at last getting the opportunity to try them out for real, as opposed to pushing toys of them around my parents’ living room, making “brrrrrrrrrrrr” noises with spectacular amounts of dribble.
When I was a toddler, my father worked on a construction site in Scotland and he was responsible for my first experiences with motorised transport. One of my earliest memories was of him letting me loose inside a JCB digger when he thought that nobody else was around. As I fiddled with the boom controls, the cab swung around and the bucket clipped the steering wheel of a dumper truck, taking it clean off. I believe that we made a sharp exit at that point, but today I’m hoping to stick around a while longer. I think that by now I’ve mastered the art of hand-eye coordination.
I’m here as a guest of Volvo Trucks and the day promises to be absolutely epic fun. At my disposal right now is a collection of brand new FMX all-terrain lorries in various configurations (cement truck, rigid axle tippers, articulated trucks …) and an L150G wheel loader, which is seductively parked next to an enormous pile of sand that looks like it needs shifting. Once we’ve finished here, it’s off to the racetrack to drive a selection of FM and FH artics with fully loaded trailers attached. Yee-ha.
Journalists have been flown in from all over the Middle East and North Africa for this and Volvo isn’t being backwards about coming forwards. It wants to be the biggest in the business here and, with so many new projects in the pipeline for our region, the time is right to strike the market with a new-model offensive.
While you might rightly ask what all this has to do with actual motoring, consider this: if you’ve got it, a truck brought it. Think about anything at all that you possess. Apart, perhaps, from your health or your family, a lorry will have been involved somewhere in the transition from factory to your living room or kitchen. When it comes to actually building the roads and highways that we drive our cars or ride our motorcycles on, these behemoths play an absolutely vital role. In essence, we couldn’t live our lives the way that we do without them, and it will be a fascinating experiment to see just how easy, or otherwise, their operation is.
First up is the wheel loader – an enormous, bright yellow Tonka toy of a machine, with four tyres that each look as big as a house. There’s a hinged bucket on the end of it that could house an entire family and my job is to drive it up to a pile of sand, scoop up a bucketful, drive around and dump it back where I found it.
I climb the vertical ladder into the cab with a man whose job is to make sure nobody gets hurt. The start-up procedure is simple: foot on the brake, gear selector in neutral and twist the key. Once the 13L, diesel-powered engine fires up, I lift the bucket slightly off the ground, just enough to enable smooth passage. Then we’re off. This thing could turn on a dirham coin, so tight is its lock, and I’m flabbergasted at how easy it is to manoeuvre. After a couple of messy attempts at picking up my payload, I drive it around the cordoned-off area and deliver it, all with the flick of my right wrist, which operates a couple of small joysticks. No manual gears to slush around, no complex hydraulic controls, just a simple, fuss-free operation that also happens to be great fun – in the winter months, at least.
As entertaining as this has been, though, it’s the actual trucks we’re here to experience. Totally new from the ground up, they’ve been designed to be tougher, safer and more economical than ever before and the FMX construction truck variant benefits from all-wheel drive, substantial ground clearance and incredibly rugged construction methods. Its front bumpers, for instance, are formed from 3mm-thick, high-tensile steel, and are replaceable in sections rather than the entire item being scrapped after a prang. Everything, Volvo says, has been designed to minimise downtime and, in the end, save their owners money.
The course before me is a circuit of steep inclines and ruts that would have a Range Rover struggling for composure, never mind a truck weighing 20 times as much. Yet it tackles and handles everything with aplomb, keeping occupants suspended on a magic carpet ride. Anything other than a machine such as this would shake out your fillings on these hideous surfaces but there’s no roughness, no discomfort. Just simple ease of operation that’s easy for anyone to step out of a car and get to grips with. I wasn’t expecting this; rather, I thought it would be a nightmare of umpteen gears and transmissions, levers and dials that confuse and seating as comfortable as a park bench. Nothing could be further from the reality.
But the real boyhood-fantasy stuff is reserved for the FM and FH long-distance lorries. They look like they’re from the future, with LED running lamps and slashed angular designs that give real road presence. The frankly gargantuan FH16 is the new range topper and, if you’ve ever wondered what could outgun a Land Cruiser or GMC on the road in the size stakes, this is it. They’re remarkably inexpensive, too, costing roughly Dh500,000 – can you think of any other vehicle for that sort of money with such gravitas? No, me neither. And here’s the best bit: they come with beds, fridges, DVD players, you name it. I want one, but the underground car park at my apartment building might be a bit of a challenge.
What is definitely not a challenge, however, is driving them. “These are trucks for the next generation,” Peter Karlsten, the company’s vice president, told me over dinner. “Everything has been done to increase safety, comfort and hence productivity for the people who drive and operate them. We have redesigned the cab interiors, made the dashboards more logical and easier to use. We’ve increased storage space and the living quarters, so those on long-haul journeys have every creature comfort. They’re also the most prestigious trucks on the road, just look at the way they’re designed – it takes more time and effort than I can describe to get them looking this way.”
The FH is, indeed, an incredible-looking machine. Like a Transformer made real, it’s an assertive yet not aggressive look that will become familiar to millions of motorists across Europe and soon the Middle East. In the United States, where the regulations are somewhat different, the engines are up front (as opposed to underneath the cab), necessitating a long bonnet and an increased wheelbase. But Volvo has that covered, too, as it owns Mack Trucks over there.
In terms of engineering, they’re similar underneath and the technology packed into these things is phenomenal. If you think that a Volvo car being able to slam on its own brakes because the driver hasn’t reacted in time is noteworthy, you should see one of these monsters do the same – it’s beyond impressive. Name any safety advancement on a modern Volvo or Mercedes-Benz passenger car and it will be present here. These trucks go through the same, demanding preproduction tests, too, and their engines are built to do millions of kilometres, rather than tens of thousands.
Climbing aboard the FH16, my palms are sweaty. Just how am I going to fare driving this around Yas Marina with an enormous, fully loaded trailer behind? As it turns out, like everything else I’ve driven today, it’s a piece of cake. With 13 litres of displacement from six cavernous cylinders, the FH that I’m driving generates 520hp but – get this – 2,600Nm of twist. So pulling a royal palace behind you shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. The gearboxes are all I-Shift units, which are essentially quick-shift automatics (DSG is on its way soon, I’m told) and you simply select D to move and N when you’ve stopped, although you can override it if you have to and go through the 16 ratios yourself.
The only thing that I have to consider is the turning circle with a trailer attached, as the hairpin bends on Yas Marina’s south circuit can be a bit tight. Still, I manage without destroying any cones or observers and I’m enthralled by the lofty seating position, the visibility, the comfort and the sheer simplicity of each variant I try. So much so, that if the journalism thing starts to peter out then I’ll be taking my test and doing this for a living instead. What could possibly go wrong?
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