Test driving the KW T series
Latest generation of Kenworth trucks sports smooth quiet ride with improved creature comforts

By Susanne Stempinski, field editor

As I run up and down the road, I look at trucks. We all do. From glamorous show stoppers to grimy just-came-out-of-the-dump trucks, they get my attention. An interesting grille, a set of nice pipes, a throaty growl as the engine brake engages. They've got my head on a swivel. And every time I see one head off in the distance, I wonder where they're headed, what's under the hood, what's behind those trailer doors?

Walking across the parking lot of the Kenworth plant in Chillicothe, OH, I smiled at the sight of the shiny maroon T700 waiting for me. It looks like an updated T2000 but with a few twists.

No visor, recessed LED lighting, door-mounted mirrors, those sleek and twisty-looking chassis fairings. I walked around and checked it out. The two-piece bumper and mirror covers were painted to match the truck body. It is a lot of truck designed for driver comfort and big performance. Under the hood was the Paccar MX engine with 485 lb.-ft. of torque and an Eaton 13-speed UltraShift transmission.

I climbed in and familiarized myself with the interior. Lights, gauges, an ergonomic dash with Kenworth's Driver Information Center, which offers a touch-screen that provides everything from going-down-the-road data to truck-friendly GPS, fuel economy, on-board diagnostics and more. It sports 8 feet of ceiling height, a 75-inch sleeper with a nice wide bed, lots of storage, an auxiliary Espar heater, and the new drawer-style refrigerator.

It had the roomy new seats – the GT700 series – introduced this year at MATS and exclusively available in T700 trucks. The advanced air suspension system automatically adjusts to your weight and has enough options to make you feel that you've stepped into a luxury sports car. Bun warmers and chillers, lumbar support and adjustable arm rests. I tried to move the seat forward without success. I fiddled and wiggled – no dice.

Something was stuck.

Technicians promised to get it fixed by the time I returned, and I was directed to a new T660 instead. Another aerodynamic truck with the 86-inch Studio AeroCab sleeper with a Cummins ISC15 485 hp engine and the Eaton UltraShift 13-speed transmission. Nice truck, narrower across the front end, seats closer together. Still a pretty sweet ride.

Last time I test drove one of these, I inadvertantly turned on the heated seats and thought I was having a meltdown. This time I was mindful and settled in without incident. The view through the windshield offers tremendous visibility. With a 53-foot trailer loaded with racks from the factory, I headed out to put this ride through its paces.

On a beautiful day with dry pavement and sunny skies, I quickly found myself falling into the rhythm of the road. The interior is remarkably quiet; road noise has diminished with each generation of sound-blanketing technology. My eyes scanned the gauges, I adjusted my sunglasses, and then I had nothing left to do except pay attention to the directions and the truck.

In this case, a couple of other editors and I had chosen the same route, so we played follow the leader through towns and on and off the highway. No big hills to climb, not much traffic to contend with. I let the truck drift a little bit – and as the trailer crossed the shoulder line, a loud beep snatched me back on track as the Takata lane departure warning system noted my error.

I was able to "play" with it and see just how far I could maneuver before setting it off. As a solo driver, I would absolutely welcome the reminder. If I were a team driver trying to get some sleep in the bunk on track as the Takata lane departure warning system noted my error.

I was able to "play" with it and see just how far I could maneuver before setting it off. As a solo driver, I would absolutely welcome the reminder. If I were a team driver trying to get some sleep in the bunk, I might prefer that the driver get jolted with a seat vibration as an option.

The return trip found the techs almost done with the seat of my T700, so I hopped in a T800 and took it for a ride, this time with one of the other editors in the passenger seat. Built for heavy hauls and pulling a shorter trailer, it's designed for local operations.

A 38-inch sleeper provided just enough space to grab a nap if inclement weather forces you to stay put. It was a little louder but an easy-to-maneuver combination, and we were able to carry on a conversation at normal voice levels. The one-hour tour passed quickly and once again I was back in the parking lot.

The T700 was ready to go and so was I. This time, instead of jumping behind the wheel, I volunteered for the second seat while another editor got behind the wheel. One of the important features of a truck designed for team driving is the comfort of the bunk while another driver is getting down the road.

We chatted for a while – no need to raise your voice above a whisper in the cab. There's a huge amount of space between the seats and, with the controls for the UltraShift transmission mounted by the dash, there's no stick to maneuver to travel to the sleeper.

The sleeper featured quiet, comfortable, user-friendly controls. I liked the staggered drawers on one side, including a built-in workstation, the fridge and hanging wardrobe on the other. No slot for a portable potty – it still hasn't caught on as a factory option.

It would have been easy to grab some zzzzzzzzz's but I heard that big beep again.

So I came back up front and discovered that the cruise control automatically disengages when a lane violation occurs. As part of its cruise control system, Bendix Wingman ACB (active cruise with braking) also provides active interventions, including dethrottling, engaging the engine retarder, and applying the brakes to help maintain a set following distance.

The drive passed all too quickly while we explored the new technology. Before we knew it, we were back at the plant and ready for a brief tour.

According to Plant Manager Scott Blue, one of the things he's proud of at this non-union plant is how the employees pulled together and took voluntary furlough days when production was slow, rather than face plant-wide layoffs. In the last nine months, as the demand for new trucks has increased, their workforce has doubled.

This 477,000-square-foot plant is running two shifts a day – and just-in-time delivery keeps them building trucks that go from parts list to ready to go down the road in approximately 8-10 hours. It takes roughly a trailer-load of parts to build each and every truck.

The integration of technology for engines, transmissions and drive trains is creating smart trucks. The aerodynamic Kenworth T700 equipped with the low-emission Paccar MX engine was named the 2011 Heavy Duty Commercial Truck of the Year by the American Truck Dealers.

That will turn some heads. LL