New Freightliner Cascadia: safe and sound

By: Steve Brooks


Part 1 of 2: After the most comprehensive test program ever undertaken by Freightliner for a market outside North America, it’s now ‘game time’ for the new Cascadia. Australia’s safest conventional truck, much will also depend on build quality out of the US and, while it’s early days, recent drives in two distinctly different examples suggest the fundamentals are on a firm footing. Time and toil will soon enough reveal just how firm.

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Safety is paramount, but of all the factors set to determine the future success or otherwise of Freightliner’s much anticipated Cascadia range, perhaps none will be more critical, nor more measured, than build quality. It is the single strand upon which all else pales in comparison, and on which all else must be mounted.

Without it, Cascadia will almost certainly suffer the fate of numerous forebears, squeaking and rattling its way to mediocrity and generally failing to achieve the high expectations of corporate cohorts and customers alike.

With it, Cascadia will succeed like no other Freightliner ever to call Australia ‘home’, finally building on the legacy of the original FLC112 model, which, with rock-solid reliability and enduring strength, created the potential for a great future.

Sure, it is a potential that has remained far from being fully realised, but with Cascadia, initial impressions suggest Freightliner has indeed created something solid. Something able to endure, withstanding Australia’s intense demands and, in the process, provide the foundation for the brand and its buyers to capitalise on the features that make Cascadia truly unique in the conventional truck market.

There’s no question Cascadia marks an entirely new line in the sand for conventional trucks by offering levels of standard safety equipment and technology that, until now, have been the sole preserve of European cab-overs.

In effect, and unlike its conventional competitors, Cascadia customers don’t have to tick the box and pay for the privilege of an advanced and potentially life-saving safety system. It’s already there as part of a fully integrated and fully costed factory-fitted package, labelled the ‘Detroit Assurance 5.0’ suite of safety systems.

Indeed, on any reasonable assessment, Cascadia can confidently claim the mantle of ‘the safest conventional truck in the world’. Strange thing though, neither of the trucks driven recently for this report were equipped with a driver’s side airbag. But, as Freightliner Australia boss Stephen Downes candidly explained, initial production delays in fitting an airbag to right hand-drive units have been overcome.

"Trucks going down the production line now are fitted with airbags," he asserted, further enhancing Cascadia’s safety credentials by making it the only heavy-duty conventional truck in Australia to be equipped with a driver’s side airbag. 

Meantime, Cascadia also offers the US version of an all-Daimler powertrain, which, in its Mercedes-Benz guise, continues to win considerable accolades for impressive levels of performance and fuel economy. Furthermore, Cascadia’s GHG17 US emissions rating is technically an even ‘cleaner’ standard than the Euro 6 level of its Mercedes-Benz stablemate and a number of continental competitors.

Yet, while safety, performance and efficiency are vital qualities for the success of any modern machine, they can also wane into indifference if the truck fails to stay strong.

In other words, fails to maintain over the course of many years in many applications, the reliability and structural integrity of a vast array of metal, glass and plastic components – the pressings, nuts, bolts, studs, seals, switches, latches, gauges, trims, panels, mouldings, fittings, cables, connections and countless other bits – that combine to keep a truck operational and sound.

Put simply, it’s the little things that count and the little things that in previous models have, in one form or another, been so detrimental to Freightliner’s reputation and potential in this country.

Cascadia, however, is a new start for Freightliner in Australia. So much investment has already gone into the planning and testing of this truck, both here and in the US, and so much of it based on the lessons and disappointments of previous products, that it’s difficult not to be buoyed by the optimism of the brand’s ambassadors on both sides of the Pacific. 

Consequently, after all the early insights into Cascadia’s preparation for life Down Under, and the hype of an all-star launch program in pre-Covid Sydney that attracted such corporate luminaries as Martin Daum, worldwide head of Daimler Trucks, and Roger Neilsen, numero uno at Daimler Trucks North America, it’s easy to admit to a sense of eager anticipation as a pre-production 116 model was rolled out for test drives.

Even better, another version also came into our sights. Through various contacts came news that Cleary Bros, a well-known and much respected company based at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, was about to take delivery of a 116 model, one of the earliest right hand-drive production units to roll off the Charlotte, North Carolina, line.

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While a steer of the pre-production demonstrator was certainly welcome, the Cleary unit was arguably the critical example. Direct from the same production line where its left-hook siblings come together, this was the truck that would indicate if Cascadia was starting its Australian career with a sharp focus on build quality.

What’s more, Cleary Bros boss Brett Cleary was content to hand the truck over for its maiden loaded run. It was a privilege not taken lightly, and nor did it fall on deaf ears that Cascadia’s safety standards were a prime factor in the purchase decision.

AMPLE SAMPLES

There were, of course, many similarities between the pre-production unit and the Cleary Bros truck. Both were powered by the Detroit DD13 engine rated at 505hp (377kW) and 1,850lb ft (2,508Nm) of torque, driving through the overdrive version of the DT12 12-speed automated transmission. Up front, long taper-leaf springs handled the lumps and bumps while down the back, Meritor diffs rode on Freightliner’s AirLiner airbag suspension. 

Both were day cab models and, of course, each had the standard Detroit Assurance 5.0 safety package of active brake assist, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and side guard assist.

That new truck feeling. Inside the Cleary Bros 116. It’s a neat, highly practical layout with no shortage of family resemblance to Mercedes-Benz and Fuso in control functions and design

It would take far more space than is available here to outline the operation and extent of Cascadia’s safety kit, but suffice to say, there’s nothing even remotely similar available as a factory-fitted standard among conventional competitors.

Sure, there’s the Bendix Wingman Fusion collision mitigation system optionally available on Kenworth and Mack, but from all indications, customer uptake on both brands is minimal at best.

Trucking is a commercial enterprise and, historically, buyers are hesitant to pay for expensive options with no obvious or immediate financial benefit, especially when that option adds the complexity and potential service issues of a component fitted by an ‘outside’ supplier. However, offer that component or system as a standard factory-fitted feature and, suddenly, most operators will welcome the initiative.

There is perhaps no better example of this trait than Freightliner’s corporate cousin, Mercedes-Benz and its efforts several decades ago to entice operators to pay for the optional benefit of anti-lock (ABS) braking.

Despite extensive testing and marketing that showed the obvious stability and safety advantages of ABS, few operators could be encouraged to pay Benz’s increasingly subsidised price for the feature.

Ultimately, Mercedes-Benz bit the bullet, made ABS a standard feature with the cost tucked into purchase price and, in quick time, the plaudits for ABS started to roll in. Literally!

Nowadays, of course, ABS is mandatory on all B-double prime movers and few would argue its worth.

It’s difficult to see how Cascadia’s standard inclusion of an advanced, comprehensive and factory-fitted safety package won’t be similarly received, particularly as safety continues to evolve as a vital public issue. 

Anyway, back on the two trial trucks, while there were fundamental similarities, there were also obvious differences.

For starters, the pre-production truck was a prime mover towing a tri-axle curtain-sided trailer, grossing just a few kilos shy of 41 tonnes. There were also close to 24,000km on the clock, almost entirely acquired in customer trials as either a shorthaul B-double or single trailer outfit.

On the other hand, the new Cleary Bros unit was configured as a rigid tipper towing a four-axle dog trailer.

With paperwork still pending for operation at gross weights up to 55 tonnes, the truck’s first load was limited to a gross of 42.5 tonnes and subsequently rolled off Cleary Bros’ Albion Park weighbridge at 42.26 tonnes.

Obviously enough, the test runs were entirely different. Given the opportunity to have the pre-production truck configured as either a B-double or single trailer combination, the latter was chosen for good reason.

The aim was to test the performance and fuel efficiency of the 505hp (377kW) DD13 engine over a tough course and, when it comes to tough tracks for trucks, there are few more demanding and perhaps notorious routes than Bell’s Line of Road. So demanding that full-length B-doubles aren’t allowed and many operators, especially fleets, refuse to use it altogether.

Part of Cascadia’s standard safety package is ‘side guard assist’. There are some concerns the signaller’s position is vulnerable to damage

From North Richmond at the foot of the Blue Mountains in far western Sydney, the historic Bell’s Line curls and climbs, dips and dives its way over the mountains before the severe drop into Lithgow.

From there it’s a left turn onto the Great Western Highway, then a big drop down River Lett Hill followed by the savage haul up Mt Victoria and, finally, the ambling descent back to Sydney’s ‘burbs. Again, there are few tougher runs for a truck on public roads anywhere
in Australia.

Two weeks later, the Cleary unit’s first outing was a much easier time. After loading at the company’s Albion Park quarry south of Wollongong, the truck was simply run over a few rough and twisting back roads before heading further south on the much improved Princes Highway and, after a few hours, returning to Cleary Bros’ historic home base at the seaside village of Bombo.

All up, little more than 120km, but certainly enough for an ample sample of Cascadia’s early build quality.

ROADWORKS

One of the many attributes of modern in-cab information systems is that in some installations you can watch the trip fuel average change as conditions change.

For example, travelling through the teetering traffic and mostly flat roads from Daimler Trucks’ Huntingwood dealership in Sydney’s west to the base of the mountains at North Richmond, the DD13 in the demo unit was averaging a respectable 2.2km/litre, or 6.3 mpg. 

From North Richmond though, things change dramatically. It’s a long uphill slog that only gets harder as the climb up the eastern face of the mountains steepens before hitting the fiercest pinch of all, Bellbird Hill.

There’s a short, sharp lip on Bellbird that has caught many drivers by surprise over many years and, in this case, with the regrettable decision to leave the DT12 transmission in auto mode, it seemed to catch technology out as well, jumping from sixth gear straight to fourth rather than dropping just one gear and allowing 1,850lb ft of torque to do its thing.

Inside the pre-production demo unit. The bench passenger seat and centre console were well short of impressive but hopefully, they’re not standard. Location of radar unit high on the windscreen can marginally obstruct vision in some conditions

In short, fifth gear would’ve certainly sufficed and, with a swap to manual mode soon after the lip, the rest of the ascent was covered comfortably locked in sixth gear.

However, such is the severity of the ascent that, at the top of Bellbird, average fuel consumption for the trip had dropped to 1.43km/litre, or 4 mpg.

From here onwards, on a road that is routinely rough and narrow in parts, the Cascadia displayed positive road handling and good ride manners on the run to the next steep drag, Mt Tomah.

Again, the transmission was left in auto mode and, again, it was a regrettable decision as the truck settled into fifth gear with more than enough revs up its sleeve to suggest sixth would have easily coped.

What’s more, the consistent demands of an extremely hard haul continued to hammer fuel consumption.

At the top of Mt Tomah, the average had fallen to 1.32km/litre, or 3.7 mpg, and while the road’s toughest climbs were now behind, there’s nothing easy about any part of the run over Bell’s Line. It is a testing trek of sharp drops, short pinches and unforgiving twists and turns with next to no margin for error. It is not a road to let concentration slip.

After the mandatory turn into the ridiculously sited and potentially dangerous heavy vehicle weighbridge at the small village of Bell, it’s not far to the long, steep drop down Scenic Hill into Lithgow, where sixth gear and maximum engine braking – controlled through a finger-tip wand on the steering column – comfortably handled the descent with just a couple of short stabs on the brake pedal.

It was much the same on the run down River Lett before hitting the base of the gruelling Mt Victoria climb, which peaks with a 13 per cent grade.

This time, though, the transmission was put in manual mode at the base of the hill and, with the DD13 allowed to make full use of a healthy torque band, the Cascadia romped over the steepest pinch on Mitchell’s Ridge in sixth gear at 1,450 rpm.

After the ‘auto’ runs over Bellbird and Mt Tomah, the Mt Vic climb simply reinforced the opinion that while the relationship of modern engine and transmission combinations is remarkable and entirely practical for the great majority of conditions, there are times and places where a driver can do the job with even greater efficiency.

Really, it all depends on the driver but, either way, auto or manual, the job gets done smoothly without the threat of damaging shock loads to the drivetrain.

Despite the hard haul up Mt Vic, fuel consumption had improved marginally to 1.5km/litre (4.2 mpg). It would be an injustice, however, to consider this a poor return. On the contrary, this is a brutally demanding route and after the comparatively gentle run off the mountains to the Huntingwood dealership, the fuel average had improved to a favourable 1.9km/litre, or 5.4 mpg. By any measure, a good return given the demands.

In performance terms, the 505hp Detroit handled the task with impressive tenacity. Some might argue that, compared to others in the 13-litre class where power peaks around 530 and 540hp (395kw and 403kW), the DD13’s top rating is perhaps short of the mark.

That thought was, in fact, the main reason behind using such a formidable test route for the demo unit. However, pulling power certainly wasn’t in short supply at any time and it’s reasonable to suggest the 505 rating won’t be overshadowed by its main rivals. At least, not greatly.

What’s more, the synergy between the engine and transmission appears as intuitive and smooth as any in the same class.

Again, however, this was a pre-production unit and there were a few soft squeaks in the cab on some rougher sections of the run, with one particularly annoying rattle in the overhead console, which was later found to be a rather ordinary installation of the UHF radio.

There was also a notable whine coming from somewhere outside, but too inconsistent to even guess where.

All up, driver comfort and control layout were highly positive, with similarly user-friendly logic to its Benz brethren in the application of most functions. As already stated, steering and handling were strong points from start to finish and, while in-cab noise levels were perhaps higher than anticipated, they’re certainly not annoying.

Both the demo truck and the Cleary unit were also fitted with the extra ‘wide view’ mirrors mounted on the front of the hood, which, while they might be an acquired taste for some, have definite advantages in tight spots and heavy traffic.

The extra ‘cat whisker’ mirrors on the front may be an acquired taste but they’re certainly beneficial in tight spaces and heavy traffic

Yet, there’s one feature that, in certain conditions, can detract from Cascadia’s high standard of all-round vision.

Mounted high in the centre of the windscreen on the inside is a radar camera unit, which is a critical part of Cascadia’s ‘Assurance 5.0’ safety package.

However, in some instances, particularly evident on a sharply undulating road from behind the wheel of the Cleary truck, the unit could marginally obstruct forward vision.

Hopefully, time and technology will see the unit become smaller and less obtrusive, or simply moved to somewhere less obvious.

Meantime, easily the least likeable parts of the demo unit were the passenger bench seat, which made it ridiculously awkward to move from one side of the cab to the other, and a decidedly second-rate centre console between the seats.

Fortunately, neither of these negatives were in the Cleary truck driven a fortnight later. The passenger bench was replaced by a regular single seat and the space between the seats was largely taken up with the control module for the tipper bodies.

Better still, and most evident of all in Cleary’s 116, was the complete absence of any rattles, squeaks or whines at anytime, anywhere. Indeed, as drives of some early test units here and in the US over the past year and more had already intimated, there’s a quiet (literally) strength in Cascadia’s structure that hasn’t been evident since …. well, since Australia’s first Freightliner, the FLC112.

It’s hard to nail it down to any particular piece of the truck. It’s just the way the doors and pillars give the impression of being so strong and solid, the way the dash fascia and gauges don’t shimmy or shake, and the lack of wobbles or wiggles in the hood and mirrors. To quote a line from that iconic Australian movie, The Castle: "It’s just the vibe." Hardly a technical term, but you get the idea. 

Yes, it’s early days for Cascadia. Very early, and almost certainly there will be a few teething issues as there are with any entirely new model that comes to the Australian market. As stated at the start of this article, only time and toil will demonstrate the true extent of build quality.

Still, as long as teething problems are not endemic, and as long as Freightliner dealers here are committed and quick in fixing any issues, and as long as Freightliner principals in the US attend to Australia’s requirements promptly, the truck is certainly equipped to do the rest.

There’s a lot counting on it.

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