Mercedes Magic: 2663 SoloStar is packed with wizardry

By: Steve Brooks


While Covid-19 has shackled new product plans for some truck suppliers and excused others to cut staff and chop budgets to the bone, Daimler Trucks Australia appears determined to maintain the momentum of a vastly upgraded product portfolio. Among several offerings in recent times was a Mercedes-Benz 2663 SoloStar demonstrator housing a heap of hi-tech wizardry and a bunk with a big difference, in more ways than one.

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Let’s flick back to the good ol’ days. Like, last year’s Brisbane Truck Show.

It already seems a lifetime ago but back in May 2019 when people stood shoulder-to-shoulder as the truck industry presented its latest and greatest hardware in all its glittering glory, it’s doubtful anyone had heard the term ‘social distancing’. If they had, it was probably in reference to inmates and introverts rather than the general population. Likewise, in most minds ‘Corona’ was just another beer and ‘virus’ was an annoying bug that seemed to affect computers more than people.  

But as we now all know only too well, there’s nothing flippant or frivolous about a pandemic. The changes in society and industry over a very short time have been breathtaking. Literally!

Yet without downplaying the seriousness of current conditions, there’s no escaping the fact that change is a constant theme in every aspect of modern life and that includes the technological changes seeping into every brand of truck, everywhere in the world. Ultimately, Covid-19 will be nothing more than a speed hump in the path of inexorable progress.

Meanwhile, back in Brisbane last year, there was arguably no greater example of emerging trends in truck technology than a sparkling blue Mercedes-Benz 2663 model sporting a few features never before seen in Australia.   

Sure, many of the features in the Benz show truck remain specific to Daimler family brands – Freightliner, Fuso, Mercedes-Benz – but equally, there’s no question most leading makes around the world are well advanced with their own unique versions of similar themes. What’s more, as technology continues to evolve, the feasibility and acceptance of the many varied systems that may today appear futuristic and even impractical will only escalate as global corporations continue to push the technological envelope in their endless pursuit of commercial ascendancy. 

Right now though, and despite the difficulties of current circumstances, Mercedes-Benz – or rather, Daimler Truck & Bus Australia – is proving beyond any doubt that its upmarket presentations in Brisbane were the real deal and far more than simply ‘show specials’. They are, in fact, the platform for a progressive update of models within the family portfolio.

As the PR blurb on the flagship 2663 show truck in Brisbane stated, ‘Mercedes-Benz has announced it will launch an advanced new truck in Australia next year (and) confirmed it has begun a comprehensive Australian validation program for the truck, which features a range of driver-focussed improvements including MirrorCam; a system that uses aerodynamic cameras connected to two large screens in the cabin that dramatically boost driver vision.’

But is it actually a new truck as the press release purported, or simply a collection of new features and options within an existing truck? Definitely the latter!

Whatever, the truck ‘… also features a new multimedia interface system with two high-resolution tablet-style screens that can be customised for driver preference, much like displays in prestige Mercedes-Benz cars.’

Additionally, ‘The new truck also features GPS-assisted Predictive Powertrain Control for increased fuel efficiency, enhanced connectivity and the latest generation of advanced safety technology that delivers further improvements.’

And then there’s ‘… the SoloStar Concept which introduces a vast fold down bed with an 850mm wide symmetrical inner-spring mattress and lounge-style seat that takes advantage of generous legroom and a fully-flat walk-through floor.’

So now, keen to keep the ball rolling and with the confidence of a year-long validation and customer trial program of around 20 trucks under its belt, Mercedes-Benz presented all these features in a superbly prepared and suitably sanitised 2663 test truck hooked to a B-double combination at Daimler Trucks’ Huntingwood dealership in Sydney’s south-west recently.

Obviously, we didn’t need to be asked twice if we’d like to take the big Benz for a stroll and equally, it didn’t take a lot of brainwork to figure a simple plan that would at least provide some real world perspective of the truck’s latest features: Drive 260 km down the Hume to Yass, camp for the night to get a feel for the SoloStar bunk arrangement, then head back up the Hume to Huntingwood. Easy!

The ‘Multimedia Cockpit’. It’s now standard issue across the entire range, from rigids to top-shelf linehaulers, controlling a vast array of functions and information. Familiarity comes surprisingly fast.

MANNERS, MUSCLE AND MIRROR-CAM

The 2663 is, of course, the big boy of the modern Mercedes-Benz line-up with a pugnacious 625 hp (460 kW) and 3000 Nm (2213 lb ft) of torque feeding out of the 15.6 litre OM473 Euro 6 engine. And like its DD16 counterpart in the new Freightliner fold, the straight six is the heavy hitter in Daimler’s HDEP (heavy-duty engine platform) global engine family, married to the exceptional smoothness and remarkable intuition of the PowerShift 12-speed overdrive automated transmission. It’s worth noting that with a standard gross combination mass (GCM) rating of 106 tonnes, the ’63 comes in Powershift’s heavy-duty G330 form.

Benz’s big banger is, however, just one of many in the new range and after numerous stints in different models since the introduction of the all-new line-up just three years ago, there’s no hesitation in asserting that the line-up runs second to none in the delivery of efficient performance and superb road manners. Across the board, it is an entirely impressive line-up but it’s in the premium cab-over class with the 2.5 metre wide, flat floor cab that the flagship 2663 and its similarly stoic 2658 sibling epitomise at the highest level the reasons for the brand’s formidable resurgence.

Make no mistake, Mercedes-Benz and specifically the Actros name were going backwards at a great rate of knots in this country before the arrival of the current crop and the turnaround since late 2017 has been nothing short of stunning. And no doubt, the new features and options revealed in Brisbane last year are all part of a plan to at least maintain and hopefully accelerate the momentum.

True, the B-double combination in this exercise was disappointingly light at a gross weight of just 47 tonnes but that said, from behind the wheel there can be no denying that the superb steering, ride quality and overall comfort of the high-set StreamSpace cab are critical fundamentals on which so much of the Benz business is today built. Road manners are simply first-class.

Moreover, the Benz brigade is forging an enviable reputation for fuel efficiency and while the big bore test truck was lighter than ideal, fuel economy was at least indicative of the model’s inherent efficiency. On the gradual ascent of the southbound run to Yass, for instance, with the overdrive (0.77:1) transmission and 3.583:1 diff ratio producing 100 km/h at less than 1450 rpm, the ’63 returned 1.8 km/litre, or near enough to 5.1 mpg for us more mature types. On the steady descent from Yass back to Huntingwood, the figure was 2.2 km/litre (6.2 mpg) for an estimated trip average of 2.0 km/litre, or 5.65 mpg.

Given that the truck had barely 4000 km on the clock, plus the impediment of multitude stops and starts for photographic and video purposes, the fuel figures certainly weren’t uncomplimentary.

There was a time when it seemed the only similarity between Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks was the three-pointed star. Technology transfer is changing all that, fast!

But with these fundamentals firmly in place, are the various new features and options showcased in Brisbane last year capable of taking the brand to greater success in a premium cab-over category jammed with classy contenders?

It’s a difficult question but with advances such as MirrorCam, Mercedes-Benz obviously isn’t shy about bringing the future into current focus and in the process, giving customers plenty to consider. What’s more, no one should be surprised that the advanced digital imaging system which uses tablet-style screens mounted on the A-pillars inside the cab instead of the bulky standard mirror housings, is now a real option rather than just another piece of prospective wizardry to excite technocrats.  

However, the first thing that needs to be emphasised is that MirrorCam is an optional feature and like most options, it comes at an added cost. Mercedes-Benz insiders including the brand’s Australian boss Andrew Assimo are reluctant to publicly put a cost on MirrorCam over the standard glass package but it didn’t take a lot of digging to unearth a figure ‘more than four grand but well under five.’

Yet even before its appearance in Brisbane last year, the revolutionary mirror system was fitted to an earlier demo truck towing a single trailer and fortunately, we were among several groups invited to experience the system and supply feedback to Mercedes-Benz’s local leaders.

Then, as now, it was easy to appreciate the positives. First, and arguably the most important benefit of all, the system provides a spectacular improvement in side vision and subsequent safety over Benz’s bulky external glass mirror housings.

Second, unobtrusive and mounted high on the cab, just above the top of the doors, the cameras are largely out of harm’s way and with their sleek styling, deliver an unquestionable improvement in aerodynamic efficiency and accordingly, fuel economy.

The camera housing is also designed to swing in when struck hard but if damage is sufficient to require a replacement, Mercedes-Benz contends ‘… the cost of replacing the camera assembly will be in line with, or less than, replacing a traditional mirror assembly.’  

And third, the system’s ability to pan out as the combination makes a sharp turn at T-sections and the like keeps the rear of the trailer in view, thus minimising the risk of running trailer axles over kerbs or even a parked car.

Importantly, the digital system also provides better night vision than glass mirrors, especially reversing into dark areas.

But now, as then, there remain question marks surrounding the system’s broad acceptance on the Australian market, and perhaps the greatest drawback is the convex image of MirrorCam’s main screen. Convex mirrors are the norm in the UK and Europe but they’re certainly not the norm here and brief attempts decades ago by one or two continental brands to introduce convex glass were met with derisive dismissal. Consequently, it’s easy to suggest that MirrorCam’s chances of widespread driver and customer acceptance will remain negligible until the main screen provides a flat image.

It’s an issue accentuated with the extra length of a B-double, notably when reversing. According to several sources, some early adopters of the system have reverted back to external glass mirrors due in large part to drivers struggling to judge the distance from the rear of the trailer when backing into a dock or the like.

What’s more, when moving back into the traffic flow after a roadside stop on a freeway, it is difficult to judge the distance of vehicles approaching fast from behind. If you’re not sure what I mean, think of that classic scene in Jurassic Park when T-rex was chasing a Ford Territory as the driver looked into the wide angle side mirror stencilled with the words ‘Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear’. You’ll get the idea!

And finally, when swapping from single trailer to B-double configuration and vice versa, it’s imperative for drivers to be shown how to change the parameters which, through lines on the screen, indicate a safe margin for changing lanes or merging. Failure to make the change, particularly from a single trailer to a B-double, could easily lead to an embarrassing and even messy event.

All things considered though, MirrorCam has too many benefits to ignore its potential as the mirror system of the future. Increased safety through unobstructed side vision and the economic benefits of significantly enhanced aerodynamics and fuel efficiency will almost certainly be the main drivers but in the interim, evolution will need to continue. For our neck of the woods, that’ll require Daimler’s technical gurus in Europe to give more consideration to Australian customers, combinations and critically, drivers.

Winged wonder. MirrorCam may not be for everyone just yet but from a truck design viewpoint, the benefits are too great to ignore.

BEYOND THE NORM

While MirrorCam is for looking back, Predictive Powertrain Control (PPC) is all about looking ahead.

Simply stated, it’s an option costing ‘one or two grand’ with the stated aim of providing a more efficient, safer truck – specifically, a safer and more efficient linehaul truck – by connecting GPS data into existing cruise control, retarder and advanced safety functions to ‘memorise’ a route for the most effective provision of performance and fuel efficiency.

Sound confusing? Well, from behind the wheel, it’s not. In fact, it’s as simple as setting cruise control and letting the system do its thing. PPC does, however, certainly have the ability to surprise and newcomers to its nuances need to be ready for some interesting traits.  

As Australia’s busiest highway, for example, the Hume was already logged in the PPC system’s data bank and the southbound run down the Mittagong dipper was the first indication of how remarkably intuitive the technology is. With cruise set at 99 km/h, power and speed came off surprisingly early as the descent approached, briefly bringing ‘eco-roll’ into play and allowing the truck’s mass to build momentum before re-engaging the transmission and soon after, activating Benz’s highly effective retarder. The result was an entirely smooth and slick run down the grade, all while adaptive cruise control continued to maintain a pre-set distance from vehicles in front.

On the climb up the other side, it was simply a case of sitting back and allowing the 2663’s ample grunt go to work. Easy, safe and stunningly smooth, uphill and down.

Indeed, as the trip continued, it was easy to be amazed and occasionally surprised by PPC’s exceptional ‘forward thinking’. The biggest surprise, however, came on the long, demanding southbound drag up Manton’s Ridge.

With the ’63 digging deep into its formidable torque reserves as the truck was about to pull over the crest, a momentarily disturbing drop in power and road speed occurred.

But then, just as the outfit rolled over the top, the transmission went to neutral and the combination’s mass took speed close to its cruise setting before gears were again engaged and the retarder kept a lid on progress.

Again, a remarkable indication of just how intuitive the system can be with the driver doing nothing more than keeping the truck pointed in the right direction.

Justifiably, especially if there’s another big banger on your tail, some drivers may be genuinely concerned at the prospect of power suddenly coming off just before the top of a climb.

Fair enough, too, but the simple solution in these instances is to simply put the right foot down and keep power on the boil until over the top, then let the system go back to work.  

Of course, Mercedes-Benz isn’t the only maker with systems similar to PPC but no matter whose technology it is, the goal is the same: To deliver a pin-point balance between performance and efficiency. However, at this point it needs to be pointed out that with the transmission in ‘economy’ mode, the test truck was limited to a European top speed setting of 85 km/h and consequently, the ‘economy’ setting was not used at any time during this exercise.

What’s more, the PPC system in the test truck had been retrofitted and while it performed faultlessly on day one, it failed to work at all on the return run. Moreover, as the fuel figures revealed, notably more fuel was used on the run to Yass with PPC operating than on the trip back the next day when the system wasn’t working.

Sure, much of the difference in fuel economy can be credited to the ascending grade of the southbound leg compared to the less demanding northbound run, but exactly how much is open to debate. Perhaps PPC’s fuel-saving potential is wafer-thin on such short trips, thus requiring far more time and toil to show its true value and determine if the added cost and complexity are worthwhile.

For their part, and with ample European experience and extensive local trial results to back their claims, Benz insiders are in no doubt that Predictive Powertrain Control is a significant step in further strengthening the brand’s fuel economy status.

Whatever, PPC defines a thread of technology which will only mature and multiply as fuel efficiency becomes even further entwined in the connectivity that now rules so many safety and operational aspects of a modern truck.

Yet whereas MirrorCam and Predictive Powertrain Control are options – and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future – the vastly new and decidedly different digital dash layout, or ‘Multimedia Cockpit’ as Benz calls it, is now standard issue across the entire range, from rigids to top-shelf linehaulers.  

It is, of course, no coincidence that the new arrangement is entirely similar to high-end Mercedes-Benz cars and as such, presents a major departure from the general perception of a truck dash. Equally, however, it is a major indication that in the Daimler world, technology transfer is today greater than ever before. No longer is the three-pointed star the only obvious similarity between Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks.

Another indicator of shared componentry is the stylish park brake controller, copied straight from the console of any late model Benz car.

Typically, it takes time to adjust to the new layout and with such a multitude of functions and information available through the two ‘tablet style’ screens, and the various ways those functions and information can be gleaned and operated, driver education appears a prerequisite.

Then again, younger generations familiar with all manner of electronic ‘devices’ will probably have no trouble adapting to the new system and for fleet applications, word from within Mercedes-Benz is that the amount of available information can be tailored to suit a particular operation.

Nonetheless, after two days in the truck, even this Luddite became mildly adept and even appreciative of the new system’s attributes.

Yet while there are far too many aspects of the system to detail in this report, there’s no denying it is a classy layout designed with a high regard for logic.

The primary screen in front of the driver is controlled by a finger-swipe button on the right arm of the steering wheel and along with cruise control functions, provides the driver with several options for a preferred instrumentation cluster.

Similarly, a button on the left arm of the steering wheel controls functions displayed in the smaller screen on the left, such as heating and air conditioning, interior lighting, radio and importantly, changing the mirror parameters for different trailer lengths.

Many of the functions through the smaller screen can be also sourced through a touch-pad immediately below the screen or by simply swiping a finger across the screen.

Meanwhile, windscreen wipers, retarder and transmission continue to be operated by wands at fingertip reach on the steering column.

Again, it’s worth emphasising there’s far more to the multimedia cockpit than the bare details mentioned here but suffice to say, it is immensely comprehensive and for the most part, logical and user friendly after initial instruction and a day or two of hands-on operation.

New features also include a keyless start/stop button. There’s still a key, of course, but it only has to be in the cab or even in the driver’s pocket to allow the truck to start. Wisely, the key also has a ‘check light’ function which automatically checks the status of all external lights.

SoloStar cab concept provides a wider mattress but the inconvenience of raising and lowering the bunk is significant. The mesh cover is to keep bedding in place when the bunk is raised.

DREAMTIME

No question, some people will like the optional SoloStar cab configuration. And for good reason, whether it’s the 850 mm wide symmetrical mattress, the unique passenger seat which makes greater use of available space, a nifty fold-out table built into the dash in front of the passenger seat, the extra overhead lockers which house a micro-wave, the twin 35 litre fridges in the space between the seats, or simply all these features combined.

Whatever it is, Benz insiders say they’ve had plenty of positive feedback from customer trials of the SoloStar option despite an extra cost said by one source to be ‘something approaching 10 grand.’

There will, however, also be those who won’t like SoloStar. I’m one of them and for one reason alone: the prospect of rearranging driver and passenger seats, fiddling with clips and latches to lower the bunk, and refashioning bedding before laying down to grab even an hour or two of sleep, and then going through the reverse process before hitting the road again, is a pain in the proverbial.

It could be argued, of course, that the new ‘relaxation seat’ on the passenger side might be right for an hour or two dozing, but nothing beats laying down full stretch to ward off fatigue. What’s more, the reinvented passenger seat is not adjustable, except to fold the seat back forward so the bunk can be lowered, and unless you’re equipped with telescopic arms, using the folding table from the passenger chair isn’t entirely practical.

The simple fact is that SoloStar was conceived for European operations where drivers aren’t nearly as time-constrained as their Australian linehaul counterparts, so the prospect of stretching your legs and sitting back in the new passenger chair to read for a while isn’t normally part of the trucking life. At least, not in this country.

Furthermore, it may be a disputable suggestion in some minds but in a flagship model such as the 2663, the SoloStar arrangement actually diminishes the overall appeal of a cab which is otherwise extremely functional and comfortable.

Sure, at 850 mm wide, the SoloStar bunk is 100 mm wider than the standard bed but then again, I’ve slept in the standard Benz bunk enough to suggest that other than Volvo’s enlarged XXL cab, it is the pick of the premium continental sleepers. Still, it’s worth pointing out that both SoloStar and the standard bunk are equipped with symmetrical inner-spring mattresses vital for a comfortable night’s sleep.

Meantime, SoloStar features such as the extra overhead lockers, the microwave and twin fridges can be optionally specified in the standard cab anyway.

Mercedes-Benz Australia chief Andrew Assimo firmly refutes any suggestion of SoloStar being an imported gimmick. He does, however, acknowledge it is certainly different to anything currently on the market and given the reported feedback to date, at least provides another string to the Benz bow.

Time will tell but from the outside looking in, Mercedes-Benz’s local leaders have been extremely wise to not only extensively trial advances such as MirrorCam, Predictive Powertrain Control and even the SoloStar concept, but offer them as options rather than standard appointments. For now, the standard inclusion of an entirely new and decidedly different multimedia dash layout is perhaps enough high-tech change for the market to contend with.

After all, given the grief of the original Actros with a swathe of troublesome technology applied in one huge hit, Mercedes-Benz’s Australian operatives know better than anyone the dangers of delivering too much technology too soon.

Besides, as technology and markets evolve, it seems certain that features like MirrorCam and PPC will become intrinsic parts of future models anyway. In the interim, Mercedes-Benz is in exceptionally good shape to build on the established performance, fuel efficiency and road manners of a model range which has made the brand a star performer on the Australian heavy-duty truck market.

European thinking. With the SoloStar bunk locked upright, drivers can relax in the new passenger seat. The seat, however, can’t be adjusted except to lay the back rest down to lower the bunk.

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