Test Drive: Western Star 4900SB

If you’ve been to Michigan you’ve seen multi-axle “trains” trundling up and down the highways. With gross weights of up to 76 tons, they’re lessons in productivity that many other states could learn from. I’ve always wanted to drive one and now I have, thanks to Western Star Trucks, which stations a 4900 heavy-haul tractor at Eaton’s proving grounds near Marshall.  Also domiciled there are two dump trucks: a 4800 twin-steer and a 4700 10-wheeler, which I also drove. Having them at the sprawling facility is useful because some prospective customers are not experienced drivers, but they can safely sample the vehicles’ capabilities without venturing onto public roads, explained Peter Schimunek, Western Star’s marketing manager.  And I do mean safely. During my stints with the trucks, the paved oval track and off-road courses were cleared of all other test vehicles, and we radioed our entry into each area to absolutely preclude any collisions.  Prospective customers needn’t be double-clutchers, either, because each truck had an Eaton UltraShift Plus automated mechanical transmission. They usually shift themselves accurately and smoothly. At very low speeds with the big twin-steer truck and the hefty tractor, shifts were sometimes (but not always) clunky, and while starting on upgrades, the controls had to occasionally think about the situation before choosing a ratio other than the usual 2nd gear, then getting on with the exercise. The lighter 4700’s tranny shifted smoothly in every gear, so maybe the UltraShift controls in the heavier vehicles needed some fine-tuning. Clutch engagement, though, was always very smooth with very little slipping — far better than I could’ve done with a manual transmission and clutch.

Schimunek was my main host, and several Eaton people also assisted. We assembled on a brisk but sunny mid-January morning, with freshly fallen snow blanketing the entire place — what we Northerners bravely call “a beautiful winter day” — and the three bright-white ’Stars would’ve been camouflaged except for blazing headlamps and splashy graphics on their flanks. Did I say brisk? It was 8 degrees above zero Fahrenheit as we climbed into the burly tractor.  

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