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Freight­liner Cas­ca­dia put through its paces

The most in­ten­sive and ex­pen­sive test pro­gram ever un­der­taken by Freight­liner out­side North Amer­ica has now kicked off with two left hand-drive Cascadias spear­head­ing a dra­matic charge aimed at leav­ing noth­ing to chance in the pur­suit of a bold new fu­ture. The first ‘out­sider’ to climb be­hind the wheel,

Steve Brooks finds a truck with the fun­da­men­tals to en­tirely re­shape Freight­liner’s im­age in this coun­try

IT’S EARLY DAYS and for that rea­son alone, Cas­ca­dia makes me ner­vous. Ner­vous about say­ing how re­mark­ably sur­prised and im­pressed I was af­ter just a cou­ple of hours be­hind the wheel. Ner­vous about sug­gest­ing this truck has the in­her­ent in­tegrity to not just dis­solve past dis­ap­point­ments, but ac­tu­ally cre­ate a fu­ture where re­al­ity at least equals po­ten­tial. And per­haps above all else, ner­vous about accepting that Freight­liner’s US mas­ters are fi­nally, truly singing from the same song sheet, work­ing from the same blueprint, aim­ing for the same goals and reach­ing for the same dura­bil­ity and qual­ity stan­dards as their Aus­tralian coun­ter­parts.

Again, it’s early days, very early, and a few hours driv­ing two Cas­ca­dia left-hook­ers on tracks around the Aus­tralian Au­to­mo­tive Re­search Cen­tre’s An­gle­sea (Vic) prov­ing ground are lightyears from the harsh, un­com­pro­mis­ing daily re­al­i­ties of Aus­tralian road trans­port.

But that said, there was some­thing dif­fer­ent and largely un­ex­pected about these two trucks that went

far beyond the eye-catch­ing cam­ou­flage and Cas­ca­dia’s un­mis­tak­able looks and lines. To put it sim­ply, there was an un­de­ni­able, un­der­ly­ing solid­ness in the struc­ture which, in my es­ti­ma­tion, prob­a­bly hasn’t been ev­i­dent since the for­ma­tive days of the orig­i­nal and de­cid­edly durable FLC112 model.

The cab, for in­stance. There’s a ‘Benz-ness’ about it. That’s not to sug­gest there’s any ex­ter­nal de­sign in­flu­ence shared be­tween Cas­ca­dia and its Ger­man coun­ter­part. There is, none­the­less, the over-rid­ing im­pres­sion that the engi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples of cor­po­rate mas­ter Daim­ler have flowed deep into this lat­est gen­er­a­tion Cas­ca­dia. It’s in the way the doors close, the al­most over-sized A-pil­lars, the sheer stur­di­ness of the whole struc­ture. All the lit­tle things that add up to the no­tion that here is a truck of more ro­bust char­ac­ter than per­haps any in Freight­liner’s mod­ern his­tory in this coun­try.

Sure, on the in­side there are a few parts of the trim that will def­i­nitely need at­ten­tion be­fore Cas­ca­dia calls Aus­tralia ‘home’. Yet for two trucks built for a North Amer­i­can mar­ket where, let’s face it, build qual­ity isn’t close to the same stan­dard as ours, these first test units were sur­pris­ingly sound. Con­se­quently, there’s the sense that this time ’round, Freight­liner is start­ing with a fun­da­men­tally strong foun­da­tion that can only grow as test­ing both here and in the US con­tin­ues.

More to the point, though, and a fact which may as­tound some, this ex­ten­sive Cas­ca­dia eval­u­a­tion and val­i­da­tion pro­gram is the first time Freight­liner has ever en­gaged in such a lengthy, com­pre­hen­sive test regime for any Aus­tralian model. There’s lit­tle to be gained by try­ing to count the cost of Freight­liner’s fail­ure to ex­ten­sively test trucks un­der lo­cal con­di­tions in the past, but you only have to look at the most re­cent sales fig­ures where the brand has dipped to barely three per cent of the heavy-duty sec­tor to re­alise that the cost has been huge. Mas­sive!

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to the ex­cited ex­cla­ma­tions of ex­ec­u­tive heavy­weights on both sides of the Pa­cific, the lessons and mem­o­ries of past mis­takes are play­ing a valu­able part in the cre­ation of an en­tirely era. An era based on a Cas­ca­dia range, which is not only North Amer­ica’s top-sell­ing heavy­duty truck, but more im­por­tantly for our neck of the woods, is now cen­tre­piece of a US$100 mil­lion right hand-drive de­vel­op­ment ex­er­cise that will con­tinue to run for years af­ter the model’s lo­cal in­tro­duc­tion early in 2020.

Square one

In time, all cur­rent Freight­liner con­ven­tion­als on the Aus­tralian mar­ket will be re­placed by Cas­ca­dia or de­riv­a­tives thereof.

For the ini­tial as­sault, how­ever, ex­ist­ing Cen­tury Class mod­els are al­most cer­tain to be first to go. And fair enough. Af­ter all, Cen­tury Class is now a tired de­sign that hasn’t been avail­able in the US for many years, and with lit­tle spent on its on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment, it hasn’t had a par­tic­u­larly happy his­tory with Aus­tralian op­er­a­tors.

In its place will be the de­scen­dants of a test pro­gram, which in its first phase sees the two Cas­ca­dia left hand-drive B-dou­ble com­bi­na­tions cours­ing al­most non-stop over set routes through re­gional Vic­to­ria and when nec­es­sary, around the An­gle­sea test track.

Yet by the time this re­port ap­pears, the first right hand­drive sleeper units will be close to join­ing the test pro­gram. Still, the ques­tion lingers: Why start with two ‘plain Jane’ non­sleeper left hand-drive mod­els?

“We wanted to kick off the test pro­gram as soon as pos­si­ble,” an­swers an em­phatic Stephen Downes, direc­tor of Freight­liner Aus­tralia. “We could’ve waited for the first right hand-drive units to be built, but that would’ve cost us a few months in test­ing. Our goal is to ac­cu­mu­late well over a mil­lion kilo­me­tres in Aus­tralian road tests across a range of Cas­ca­dia mod­els be­fore they’re launched here, and that’s on top of all the shaker and sim­u­la­tion tests that have now started in the US and will con­tinue to run for a very long time yet.”

He also con­firms that while ap­proval from Vic­to­rian au­thor­i­ties to run left hand-drive test units on pub­lic roads wasn’t par­tic­u­larly straight­for­ward, re­quir­ing the in­stal­la­tion of var­i­ous ex­ter­nal cam­eras feed­ing vi­sion into the cab, the ef­fort was a small price for the op­por­tu­nity to run early eval­u­a­tion units in real world con­di­tions.

“As far as we know, this is the first time any­one has tested left hand-drive B-dou­bles on Aus­tralian roads,” Downes com­ments. “But we cer­tainly didn’t do it to be first. We just

“This is the first time any­one has tested left hand-drive B-dou­bles on Aus­tralian roads.”

wanted to get the val­i­da­tion and test­ing pro­gram up and run­ning as soon as pos­si­ble.”

Right hand-drive units will, of course, be free to run across the length and breadth of the coun­try with­out the need for ex­tra ap­proval. Fur­ther­more, says Downes, the test pro­gram will be quickly ex­panded to cover a wide gam­bit of ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing op­er­a­tions with fleets in ap­pli­ca­tions as di­verse as short haul and re­gional sin­gle trailer work to line-haul B-dou­bles and road train triples roles.

A de­ter­mined Downes adds that sum­mer test­ing will be a vi­tal el­e­ment in the val­i­da­tion process. “It’s es­sen­tial the trucks run hot and heavy in sum­mer months,” he re­marks.

Asked if the Cas­ca­dia test pro­gram is essen­tially a mir­ror of the ex­ten­sive pre-re­lease tri­als of the lat­est MercedesBenz range, which since its launch just two years ago has ef­fec­tively buried the poor rep­u­ta­tion of the pre­vi­ous Ac­tros fam­ily, Downes ap­pears to choose his words care­fully. “No ques­tion, my col­leagues at Mercedes-Benz did a good job of test­ing and eval­u­at­ing their new mod­els in the lead-up to their launch here.

“It has cer­tainly paid off and while we as­pire to at least equal that level of suc­cess, to go beyond that would, of course, be bet­ter.”

Quiet for a few mo­ments, he con­fi­dently in­sists the elec­tri­cal and engi­neer­ing ar­chi­tec­ture of Cas­ca­dia is way beyond any­thing in Aus­tralia’s cur­rent con­ven­tional mar­ket, greatly en­hanc­ing anal­y­sis of ev­ery facet of per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency. Ac­cord­ing to an in-house sum­mary of the val­i­da­tion process: “All the test fleet are equipped with data log­ging equip­ment which is col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on en­gine per­for­mance, fuel ef­fi­ciency, cool­ing sys­tem per­for­mance and over­all in­te­grated pow­er­train per­for­mance [with] data sent back to the engi­neer­ing HQ in Port­land, Ore­gon, live via an in-house telem­at­ics sys­tem.

“It’s all about col­lect­ing data to gauge ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing with the trucks,” ex­plains Downes, “and all the trucks in the test pro­gram will be feed­ing data au­to­mat­i­cally and in most cases in­stantly back to the US al­most from the mo­ment they turn a wheel here.”

Sweet spots

With the ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tion of their left hand-drive lay­out, the first two test trucks are in­dica­tive of Freight­liner’s ini­tial push with Cas­ca­dia. Pre­viewed in Mel­bourne sev­eral months ago, the first unit in the coun­try was the day-cab model with a 116-inch (2950mm) bumper to back-of-cab (BBC) di­men­sion, pow­ered by a DD13 en­gine rated at 505hp and 1850ft-lb of torque. It has now been joined by a 126-inch (3200mm) BBC model with a set-back front axle, punched by a DD16 en­gine dis­pens­ing 600hp and 2050ft-lb of torque.

While gross com­bi­na­tion mass (GCM) rat­ings for each of the mod­els are still be­ing de­ter­mined, the 126 is ex­pected to carry a max­i­mum GCM of at least 140 tonnes with the 13 litre 116 likely to be be­tween 70 and 90 tonnes.

On the prospect of a model with an even shorter BBC for short­haul work such as the con­crete ag­i­ta­tor busi­ness where the cur­rent Co­lum­bia com­petes, Downes says sim­ply: “That’s a longer term propo­si­tion, but we’re cer­tainly aware of the need, even­tu­ally.”

Mean­time, each of the two left-hook test units drives through Daim­ler’s pro­pri­etary DT12 au­to­mated 12-speed over­drive trans­mis­sion into a 3.4:1 fi­nal drive ra­tio mounted on Freight­liner’s Air­liner rear sus­pen­sion. As Downes was quick to ex­plain, how­ever, eval­u­a­tion units will be tri­alled with a wide range of en­gine, trans­mis­sion, and rear axle set­tings to gauge the best fuel and per­for­mance pack­ages for var­i­ous ap­pli­ca­tions. Or as he puts it, “to find the sweet spots.”

While the all-Daim­ler en­gine and driv­e­train will be the stan­dard spec­i­fi­ca­tion, Downes con­firms that an Ea­ton 18-speed man­ual shifter will also fig­ure in the over­all test pro­gram. “We will leave noth­ing to chance,” he as­serts.

Vi­tally, each of the first two test trucks are hooked to cur­tain-sided B-dou­ble sets loaded close to 62 tonnes and for the re­main­der of this year, test­ing will fo­cus largely on mileage ac­cu­mu­la­tion, de­ter­mi­na­tion of ser­vice and main­te­nance sched­ules de­pen­dent on var­i­ous types of oils, ini­tial fuel and AdBlue con­sump­tion rates, and hot-seat­ing more than 20 driv­ers into the cab to mea­sure the ef­fects of dif­fer­ent driv­ing styles.

Next year will dig deeper into the nitty gritty, not least in val­i­dat­ing Cas­ca­dia’s ex­ten­sive suite of safety sys­tems for Aus­tralian con­di­tions. Ac­cord­ing to Freight­liner in­sid­ers, no other con­ven­tional on the Aus­tralian mar­ket will be able to com­pete with the stan­dard safety fea­tures of Cas­ca­dia, a claim that again points to Daim­ler’s steady in­flu­ence on the core de­sign agenda of its gi­ant Amer­i­can arm.

Mean­time, 2019 will also see ex­ten­sive pow­er­train and driv­e­line com­bi­na­tions go un­der the mi­cro­scope in an ob­vi­ous move to stream­line per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency lev­els of en­gine, trans­mis­sion and driv­e­train pack­ages. And while all this is go­ing on, dura­bil­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity of the en­tire ve­hi­cle will be con­tin­u­ally as­sessed and where nec­es­sary, mod­i­fied in an un­spo­ken but undis­guised bid to bury the prob­lems and per­cep­tions of the past. In ef­fect, to do what Benz did, and then some!

So, by the time 2020 ar­rives and Cas­ca­dia’s spear­head mod­els hit the mar­ket, Freight­liner’s lead­ing lights say they will be vastly bet­ter pre­pared with a vastly more ap­peal­ing

“It’s es­sen­tial the trucks run hot and heavy in sum­mer months.”

model range than any time in the brand’s Aus­tralian his­tory. Even so, the test pro­gram won’t end there. Not by a long shot, ac­cord­ing to an adamant Downes, em­pha­sis­ing that apart from on­go­ing dura­bil­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity val­i­da­tion pro­grams on ini­tial and up­com­ing mod­els, the re­in­force­ment of ser­vice, sup­port, and parts sys­tems will be cru­cial to build­ing a new fu­ture for the Freight­liner brand in this coun­try.

It’s no se­cret that over the bet­ter part of two decades, Freight­liner sales and ser­vice de­part­ments haven’t had a par­tic­u­larly easy time. A pro­gres­sion of prod­uct prob­lems has plagued the brand and in the process put mount­ing pres­sure on ser­vice and parts di­vi­sions – not to men­tion sales fig­ures – caus­ing cus­tomers to not only de­cry var­i­ous mod­els at var­i­ous times, but also crit­i­cise em­bat­tled ser­vice and sup­port out­lets.

How­ever, if all goes as Freight­liner in­sid­ers plan and pre­dict, Cas­ca­dia will break the cy­cle and re­lieve the pres­sure on ser­vice struc­tures. Still, it’s a prag­matic Downes who con­cedes that re­build­ing mar­ket con­fi­dence in the Freight­liner dealer group and its parts and ser­vice ca­pa­bil­i­ties is a crit­i­cal part of the pro­gram. Suc­cess depends on it.

“Ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal,” he says abruptly, con­firm­ing that “sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments” will be made in dealer fa­cil­i­ties and the train­ing, tool­ing, parts, and peo­ple on Cas­ca­dia’s front line. “All this will con­tinue to be de­vel­oped and ex­panded long af­ter the launch of the trucks.”

Track work

It was early morn­ing and by the time we’d signed in at the An­gle­sea prov­ing ground, the two Cascadias were al­ready punch­ing around the fa­cil­ity’s cir­cuits in a con­stant pur­suit of test mileage at the hands of Freight­liner prod­uct plan­ners and ser­vice man­agers.

In less than six weeks, for ex­am­ple, the 116 model had notched al­most 20,000km on ded­i­cated routes through­out

re­gional Vic­to­ria and the An­gle­sea tracks. On the other hand, the 126 was on its maiden voy­age the day I stepped in.

Climb­ing first into the 16 litre model, fa­mil­iar­ity came quick, due in no small part to most switchgear and con­trol func­tions be­ing al­most iden­ti­cal to those used in the lat­est Mercedes-Benz mod­els. It’s a wise move to adopt the Benz switchgear lay­out, which in­cludes gear se­lec­tion and re­tarder op­er­a­tion on the same wand of the steer­ing col­umn, as well as one of the eas­i­est and most in­tu­itive ve­hi­cle in­for­ma­tion sys­tems on the mar­ket.

In fact, in a world where trucks are nowa­days full of highly ad­vanced tech­ni­cal treats, the prac­ti­cal­ity and rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity of con­trol func­tions is a huge as­set from a driver’s stand­point.

It also makes eco­nomic sense. As Downes re­marks: “We are part of a global cor­po­ra­tion, the world’s largest truck builder, so of course there will be util­i­sa­tion of com­po­nents and re­sources where it’s ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Still on the in­side, gauges are laid out for easy scan­ning from what ap­pears a rea­son­able qual­ity driver’s chair, and while the two ‘left­ies’ sported stock-stan­dard trim pack­ages, the abid­ing first im­pres­sion is that the qual­ity of the mould­ings used in the dash fas­cia and fit­tings are of a far higher stan­dard than any­thing seen be­fore in Freight­liner. Time and toil will, of course, be the ul­ti­mate de­cider, but other than a cou­ple of loose points in the roof lin­ing and back wall, over­all fit and fin­ish weren’t bad for trucks still in the first stage of an in­tense test pro­gram.

Mean­while, for­ward vi­sion is gen­er­ally good, though the for­ward edge of the doors and A-pil­lars form a sur­pris­ingly wide struc­ture with the abil­ity to im­pede vi­sion across the front quar­ters. Even so, in the 116 model, you could eas­ily think you’re sit­ting in a cab-over, such is the hood’s lack of im­ped­i­ment to the view ahead. Pre­dictably, the longer beak of the 126 isn’t quite so un­ob­tru­sive, and Freight­liner de­sign­ers could per­haps give some thought to an em­blem on the front cen­tre of the hood to en­hance the driver’s line of sight to the road edge.

Still on vi­sion, the elec­tri­cally-op­er­ated side mir­rors are an ex­cel­lent de­sign. Ex­tremely well

mounted on a sin­gle arm, they’re also fixed low enough to avoid block­ing the driver’s view at round­abouts and the like.

De­vel­op­men­tal ac­cess

As for the en­gines, it’s worth point­ing out that while the DD13 and DD16 de­rive from Daim­ler’s well re­garded HDEP (heavy-duty en­gine plat­form) fam­ily, and sub­se­quently share sim­i­larly strong traits to the same-sized en­gines in the cur­rent Mercedes-Benz range, those in Cas­ca­dia are con­fig­ured for the lat­est US emis­sions stan­dards whereas their Benz coun­ter­parts com­ply with the Euro 6 level.

Ac­cord­ing to Daim­ler Trucks Aus­tralia chief Daniel White­head, the de­ci­sion to stick with the US sys­tem for Cas­ca­dia was a ‘no-brainer’ be­cause it pro­vides Aus­tralian mod­els im­me­di­ate ac­cess to US de­vel­op­ments as they come on stream, ef­fec­tively negat­ing the prob­lems and de­lays of the past where Aus­tralian re­quire­ments were ba­si­cally a ‘spe­cial project’.

In per­for­mance terms, the DD16’s 600hp and 2050ft-lb of torque cer­tainly made easy work of 62 tonnes on An­gle­sea’s di­verse cir­cuits. It was, how­ever, hard to be im­pressed with the pow­er­train’s ‘Per­for­mance’ cal­i­bra­tion, fu­elling high en­gine speeds in­stead of dig­ging deep into a for­mi­da­ble torque band, and caus­ing the DT12 trans­mis­sion to make shifts that, in many in­stances, were to­tally un­nec­es­sary. In the drops and climbs of An­gle­sea’s back tracks, it was sim­pler and smoother to switch to man­ual mode. Au­to­mated or man­ual though, shifts were at least ex­tremely quick and slick.

Yet as Downes ex­plains from the other side of the cab, a wide range of shift pro­grams with dif­fer­ent en­gine rat­ings will be as­sessed be­fore set­tling on fi­nal spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

“If it’s not right for our mar­ket, it won’t get a start,” he says se­ri­ously.

On the other hand, throt­tle re­sponse of the 500-plus DD13 was re­mark­ably brisk, matched by a dis­tinct will­ing­ness to haul back into peak torque be­fore even the hint of a down­shift. Im­pres­sive, even at this early stage of the ex­er­cise.

The shorter BBC of the 13 litre model also de­liv­ered a less re­ac­tive steer­ing ef­fort on An­gle­sea’s high­way cir­cuit, but that’s not to sug­gest the 16 litre 126 model was in any way way­ward. Not at all. It’s just that steer­ing and over­all han­dling of the 116 were ex­cep­tion­ally good.

While all this was go­ing on, noise lev­els in­side the cab were com­fort­ably sub­dued, with just enough of a healthy rum­ble seep­ing in to let you know there’s plenty of punch un­der the snout.

For now, that’s prob­a­bly as much as a few hours on a test track in left hand-drive ver­sions of Cas­ca­dia can re­veal. There is, of course, much more to come as right hand-drive mod­els soon join the test pro­gram. Have no doubt, fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties to drive any of the test units on pub­lic roads are al­ready on the wish list.

There’s no doubt Freight­liner will learn much as tests here and in the US con­tinue both be­fore and af­ter the lo­cal launch of Cas­ca­dia in early 2020. But per­haps the great­est les­son for Freight­liner has al­ready been learned; the les­son that the Aus­tralian mar­ket is a unique beast on the truck­ing land­scape, able to un­earth frail­ties and flaws like nowhere else in the western world.

Sim­ply accepting an­other coun­try’s as­sur­ances that all will be well with a fully im­ported prod­uct be­cause it has been ex­ten­sively tested in its home­land has been shown to be flawed think­ing on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions by nu­mer­ous brands, but per­haps none more so than Freight­liner.

As Downes puts it: “With Cas­ca­dia, it’s no longer a case of accepting what we’re given or what we’re told. To do that would be to al­low the same mis­takes to hap­pen again. And be­lieve me, that’s the last thing any­one in Aus­tralia or Amer­ica wants. We have a real op­por­tu­nity here. Bet­ter than ever!”


“With Cas­ca­dia, it’s no longer a case of accepting what we’re given.”

Above: Freight­liner Aus­tralia direc­tor Stephen Downes. “We have a real op­por­tu­nity here. Bet­ter than ever!”Be­low: Hill climb. Re­sponse and tenac­ity of the DD13 en­gine in the Cas­ca­dia 116 model was for­mi­da­ble

Above & be­low: On the in­side it’s easy to pick the Mercedes-Benz in­flu­ence in switchgear and con­trols, and that’s a good thing. The first two test units are ‘Plain Jane’ left-hook­ers from the US. Early right­hand-drive test units are close to join­ing the pro­gram

Above: Keen for feed­back, Stephen Downes says this time ’round, Freight­liner is leav­ing noth­ing to chance. Cas­ca­dia is key to the brand’s fu­ture here

Above: Tests at the Aus­tralian Au­to­mo­tive Re­search Cen­tre’s An­gle­sea prov­ing ground cover a lot of con­di­tions but it’s just one el­e­ment of the most in­tense test pro­gram ever un­der­taken by Freight­liner out­side the USA

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