Truck Reviews

King of the kennels

Right now, it’s the only one of its kind in the Mack world and apparently, won’t be widely available on the Australian market until the back half of next year. Even so, those inside the corporate kennel say there are already plenty of people eager to bed down in the sprawling 70-inch sleeper showcased on a Super-Liner at this year’s Brisbane Truck Show

 

On the face of it, it’s just the story of a Super-Liner with a super-sized sleeper. But there’s more to it. Heaps more, and the simple fact is that the introduction a few years back of Mack Anthem was always destined to be a big thing for the flagship Super-Liner. Even more to the point, Super-Liner needed Anthem, big time, and here’s why.

For starters, Super-Liner is a uniquely Australian product with no US counterpart. In fact, there’s nothing even remotely like it on the other side of the pond and as Mack’s local litter likes to bark loud and proud, Super-Liner is ‘built here, for here’.

Fair enough, but in a world ruled like never before by commercial constraints and corporate rationalisation, the economic justification for expensive local developments in relatively low volume markets such as ours is invariably on shaky ground. When it comes to cabs, for instance, the viability of significantly reshaping Mack’s long-serving, all‑steel shed to make it bigger and better equipped for Australia alone would be fanciful at best.

Enter Anthem! Sure, it too is built here on the same Wacol (Qld) production line as Super-Liner and its siblings but have no doubt, it’s a truck which was first and foremost designed in North America, for North America, and specifically the American linehaul market. And that’s exactly the reason why, long before its official US launch in 2018 and subsequent Australian debut in 2021, bulldog boffins within Volvo Group Australia (VGA) were keen as hounds on the hunt to integrate Anthem assets into Super-Liner’s structure. Anthem’s advanced electrical architecture would, for example, provide access to the latest drivetrain developments, effectively allowing Mack to catch up with colleagues and competitors alike.

Likewise, the prospect of offering Super-Liner with a stand-up cab coupled to a range of fully integrated, factory-built sleeper options had Mack insiders almost drooling with anticipation, and perhaps none salivating more than Dean Bestwick, the former head of Mack Trucks Australia, and his successor, Mack vice-president Tom Chapman.

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Historically, Mack Australia has been largely free to do its own thing in the development of models for this country’s conditions. Trucks like Titan, Super-Liner, Trident and Metro-Liner are unique to Australia and thus, blatant proof of the level of local autonomy which endured for many decades. However, as a blunt Bestwick (now in a senior position with Mack in the US) asserted some years back, “The numbers, the economics, just don’t stack up anymore. The world has changed.

“We need more from America and Anthem provides the things we want. Simple as that.”

More precisely, Super-Liner and its siblings were aging fast. Simple as that.

Anthem opened the door to America like never before, drawing a new line in the sand for Mack both here and in its US homeland. Evolutionary more than revolutionary, yet sporting external styling unlike anything in the world, it was in every way a milestone model marking that point where the status quo was refashioned, reformed and roundly rejuvenated in a bold bid to dramatically broaden Mack’s horizons.

In the US, with Anthem boasting a stand-up cab and fully integrated 70-inch sleeper for the first time, plus a swathe of desperately needed developments including advanced wiring and electronics systems, greater emphasis on driver comfort and convenience, and the standard inclusion of the Bendix Wingman stability control package, Mack was effectively launching itself back into North America’s long distance highway business. Or at least, back into the brawl for a bigger bite of the bone.

Super-Liner and fully integrated 70-inch bunk at this year’s Brisbane Truck Show.

Locally though, it surprised nobody that among the long list of Anthem attributes being closely eyeballed for our market was a reconfigured version of an aging cab structure which allowed a tall driver of 1.8 metres and more (six feet-plus) to stand upright from the driver’s seat and access a large, well-equipped sleeper section.

“Anthem will give us a massive boost,” said Dean Bestwick during an impromptu interview in the spacious surrounds of a high-rise Anthem cab and 70-inch sleeper during the 2019 Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, Kentucky. For Bestwick and his bulldog brethren, the possibilities were palpable and there’s little doubt that even back then, the prospect of adapting Anthem’s stand-up cab and premier sleeper to Super-Liner was square in their sights.

Crucially, it’s worth noting that Dean Bestwick and Tom Chapman weren’t the only Australians closely eyeing Anthem and its biggest bunk. Another visitor to Mid-America in 2019 was VGA senior product manager Scott Simpson who would have a major hand in Anthem’s testing and validation for the Australian market.

Calm and thoughtful, it was nonetheless a candid Simpson who confidently remarked, “There’s a lot to like and from what I’ve seen, there are no glaring issues in durability terms. The gusseting they’ve done to strengthen the cab for the higher roofline seems really strong … we already know this is a durable cab and with Anthem there are a lot of improvements in a lot of areas.

“I’d say they’ve done a really good job with it.” High praise from a man with a natural propensity for cautious commentary.

Like a mini apartment, space and comfort are supreme in the 70 inch sleeper but it’s largely still in left-hand drive layout. No doubt, changes will be made before production starts on the Wacol (Qld) production line next year

Yet even back then it was apparent that while the stand-up cab would be appealing to many, the 70-inch sleeper would be simply too long for Anthem’s target markets in Australia, namely heavy rigid, single trailer and B-double duties.

On the other hand, the combination of a high-rise cab and fully integrated mega-bunk would almost certainly add a powerful string to Super-Liner’s bow for heavy haulage, roadtrain roles and the like. Indeed, one of the biggest attractions – literally and physically – at the Brisbane Truck Show earlier this year was the first Super-Liner with the stand-up cab and sprawling 70-inch sleeper.

So, it’ll surprise no one to learn that the offer to take the same outfit on an 1100km round-trip between Mt Isa and Hughenden with an AB-triple in tow didn’t need to be made twice. Besides, after several years since our last stint in a Super‑Liner, there was more to experience than just a night sleeping in a bigger bunk.

Bunks and brawn

Big bunks aren’t new to Mack, but nor are little bunks and in Super-Liner’s case the choice is wider than ever.

Big Bunk. Indeed!

For more length-conscious roles like B-doubles, there’s a low-line 28-inch sleeper and since Anthem’s arrival, a 36-inch high-rise bunk integrated with the stand-up cab. More traditional are homegrown 58-inch and 64-inch sleepers in mid-rise and hi-rise form built by Joe Bradley Fibreglass in the Brisbane suburb of Strathpine. However, for the past seven years or so, and with an obvious eye on bringing as much business in-house as possible, Mack has also offered a tall 60-inch berth derived from a premium Mack linehaul sleeper from the US.

In fact, in 2016 we drove the first Super-Liner fitted with the high-rise 60-inch bunk on its maiden run, overnighting at Charleville during an exercise in western Queensland which even then exposed the need for a taller cab to partner the taller sleeper. As our subsequent report stated, ‘There’s no question that even at first glance, Mack’s new 60-inch sleeper is quick to impress. Sure, you still have the issue of no standing room between the seats but with this bunk it’s only one stooped step from the driver’s pew to a place where even big blokes have the space to stand bolt upright, stretch out, get changed, lay down, hang clothes, get something cool out of the fridge, and generally unwind after hours at the wheel.

‘A word of warning though: take care when moving from the bunk to the cab. There’s a huge height difference and in the “wee” hours when Nature’s call interrupts deep sleep, it’s easy to knock the noggin on the rear edge of the cab roof; and knock it hard when you’re blurry-eyed and in a hurry.’

Bearing the bruise, the simple conclusion was, ‘The Mack cab is, in fact, starting to show its age with the complete absence of a stand-up option to complement the several tall sleepers already offered by the brand’.

Now, thanks to Anthem, the introduction of a stand-up cab gratefully makes drowsy head-butts a thing of the past while the addition of a 70-inch bunk undeniably adds a new dimension to Super-Liner status. Meantime, word from within the corporate kennel suggests the bigger sleeper will most likely replace the 60-inch model in due course.

Mack’s fully integrated 70-inch sleeper made its first appearance with the new Anthem at the 2019 Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, Kentucky

Still, the combination in this exercise remains the only one of its kind in Australia, with the sleeper fully imported from Mack’s US options list. The plan, however, is to assess the cab and sleeper combination in the heavy-duty and often rugged roles where such premium packages are generally sought, make any necessary adjustments for Australian conditions before ultimately assembling the sleeper from scratch at Wacol along with all the finishing touches in trim and fittings.

Obviously enough, it takes a big foundation to mount such a big cab and sleeper combination and the trial truck certainly wasn’t short on the physical stature of a Super-Liner set for heavy hauls in the backblocks. Built on a 6.1 metre wheelbase and with a gross combination mass rating of 131 tonnes, the truck carried fuel capacity of 2000 litres and 200 litres of AdBlue to keep the big bore MP10 engine barking at peak outputs of 685hp and 2300lb-ft of torque. According to Mack, tare weight with roughly half-full tanks was around 10.4 tonnes.

At this point, it’s worth noting that while the 16 litre engine was fuelled with regular diesel, it can – like most of its latest Volvo and UD kin – also run on hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO), said to have similar attributes to normal diesel but producing lower CO2 emissions. Right now though, HVO use is severely limited by scant availability and high cost, making the alternative fuel’s immediate future more fanciful than fruitful.

With the sleeper mounted on airbags, ride quality for two-up roles is a strong feature. Meantime, an Icepack is part of Mack’s ‘Outback Pack’ (below)

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Back on the hardware, Mack’s decision to delete manual transmissions entirely from its product range is nowadays easy to accept. Since the availability of crawler cogs in the mDrive automated transmission, along with the smoother shifts and ‘Grade Gripper’ hill-hold function provided by more modern electronics, the self-shifter has become even more appealing and accepted across the vast spectrum of transport tasks.

In this case, the Super-Liner ran through the HD 13-speed version of mDrive, with ratios ranging from a 17.54:1 crawler cog to a 0.78:1 overdrive top gear. It’s no secret, of course, there’s also an XHD 14-speed model using the same 12 ‘on road’ ratios but adding two crawler gears turning at 19.38 and a mountain climbing 32.04:1, as well as ultra-deep reverse ratios down to a snailing 37.49:1.

Predictably perhaps, given the combination’s relatively modest gross weight of around 88 tonnes, the single crawler of the 13-speed HD was more than ample for easy lift-offs on inclines. Moreover, with the MP10’s burly muscle running through a 3.7:1 final drive ratio, the Mack was untroubled holding the 90km/h roadtrain speed limit with the engine burbling calmly around 1200rpm in top gear.

To state the obvious, the 685hp MP10 is a potent performer, ideally programmed with peak power on stream from 1500 to 1900rpm and top torque on tap from 1000 to 1500rpm. Simply stated, the engine is delivering either maximum torque or maximum power all the way from 1000rpm to 1900rpm. A note of caution though: With such strong torque feeding through such a long chassis, it takes a feather foot on the throttle to avoid a hint of torque wind-up during lift-off.

Another otherwise good driving layout is marred by an awkward control panel for the mDrive transmission and a somewhat bland décor. With its 70 inch fully integrated sleeper, Super-Liner is a top-shelf truck deserving of a top-shelf image

Nonetheless, the sharply undulating country between Mt Isa and Cloncurry was little challenge to the Mack even with just a few thousand kilometres under its belt. In fact, the only stretch that might have made the dog pant even a little was the long, hard haul over the Mary Kathleen climb on the run back to Mt Isa where, with manual mode engaged, the steepest pinch near the top prompted a shift down to 6th gear where the engine barked big and bold around 1500rpm. Slick, smooth and strong.

Meantime, it’s probably worth mentioning that after 1100km and with three curtain-sided trailers being pummelled by sweeping side winds for much of the return leg, a fuel figure of 1.32km/litre – or 3.73mpg for us more mature types – didn’t seem too bad at all. Better still, it’ll probably only improve as more mileage gathers.

But it’s also needs to be pointed out that one aspect of Mack’s design remains less than likeable: Compared to the finger-tip shift control wands or levers of every other truck in this class, the mDrive transmission’s press button control panel is awkwardly sited on the top left of the dash fascia. It’s awkward because when big hills like Mary K make manual mode preferable, the driver has to lean forward and across to make a shift.

Simply, it’s an old, even archaic design. Still, it probably won’t change until an entirely new cab eventually comes into being, probably from Volvo’s US stocks and probably not for a few years yet. Whatever, it’s another story for another day. Probably!

Out where the big boys work, Super-Liner is entirely at home

Anyway, eastbound past the ’curry and on to Julia Creek, Richmond and Hughenden, the road flattens to a long run through wide open plains but that’s not to suggest it’s a carefree canter through the Queensland countryside. Not at all, and certainly not for the drivers of triples and quads sharing the Flinders Highway between Townsville and Cloncurry with the modern-day exodus of cars, caravans and motorhomes heading to or from the back o’ beyond.

Sure, everyone has a right to the road but when much of the road is a skinny, scarred strip of sunken furrows, scrappy fringes and deceptive drops on either side, with regular signs obliging truck drivers to call their unseen approach on UHF, the burden of responsibility and danger of distraction find rare focus at the helm of an outfit snaking almost half a football field into the backdrop.


RELATED ARTICLE: Flashback to 2016 – Mack Anthem with a 70-inch sleeper


Yet despite the occasional demands on mind and machine, it was on the many less likeable stretches of road that one of the true pleasures of driving this Super-Liner was revealed. Steering! To be blunt, Super-Liner simply steers better than before. More direct and firmer, maybe even bordering on ‘too firm’ for some, but with a new steering box ratio and reconfigured rods, it is unquestionably free of the looseness and somewhat ‘washy’ traits which have marred our earlier opinions of Super-Liner steering.

In a nutshell, the driver’s view over a dog’s bum has always been a benefit for lining up the side of the road but thankfully, the dog no longer wants to wander near as much.

Bedtime story

Dusk was a red rim on the western horizon as Hughenden loomed into view and later, with shower, dinner and idle chatter done, it didn’t take much encouragement to stroll into the sleeper. For starters, the ability to simply stand full length between the seats for anyone up to 1.86 metres tall cannot be overstated. When you’re spending long days and nights away from home, stand-up cabs are quite simply one of the great benefits of the modern age over the cramped boxes some longhaul drivers are still expected to endure.

Flashback to 2016. We took a Super-Liner with Mack’s 60 inch sleeper on its maiden voyage and as good as the bunk was, it highlighted the need for a stand-up cab. In time, the new 70-inch fully integrated sleeper will almost certainly replace the 60 inch shed

But of course, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that comfort and space are supreme in Mack’s mobile apartment. The king single mattress is top quality, there’s a big fridge, a stack of storage space both in the cab and under the bunk, a deep locker for hanging clothes, a handy slide-out tray and as part of Mack’s ‘Outback Pack’ for roadtrain roles, an ‘Icepack’ for keeping in-cab temperature comfortable, day or night.

There was also a microwave and TV but typifying the sleeper’s left-hand drive origin, the tele sat above the fridge behind the driver’s seat. A small detail perhaps, but drivers in our part of the world generally sleep with their head behind the driver’s seat, so the TV should ideally be on the other side where the clothes locker stands. Hopefully, Mack will reverse the layout and basically, adopt the same arrangement as the current 60-inch sleeper which has most things exactly where they should be.

Likewise, some drivers might also find the absence of a large hatch door on the side of the bunk a notable omission. Again, it’s easy to recall a hatch door on the driver’s side of the 60-inch sleeper but it remains to be seen if Mack will add it to the 70-inch model.

Whatever, in a quiet corner of Hughenden, sleep came easy on a superbly comfortable bed. The only disturbance, of course, came in the ‘wee’ hours of the morning but gratefully, this time it didn’t take a thump in the forehead to drift back to dreamtime.

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Likewise, there’s little doubt about the ride quality of the air-suspended cab and sleeper for two-up operations. A short stint on the bed when VGA’s Matt Wood drove for a while simply confirmed that snoozin’ and cruisin’ aren’t polar opposites in Mack’s biggest bunkhouse.

Yet for all its undeniable comfort and space, features and appointments, performance and road manners, the interior décor of the Super-Liner cab and its fully integrated mega-bunk borders on bland.

Sure, it’s a personal judgement but compared to one hugely popular brand in particular (no prizes for guessing which one), Mack’s grades of grey in both cab and bunk do little to inspire an image of top-shelf trucking in a flagship model which so obviously and genuinely deserves a more appealing interior finish.

Maybe a woodgrain panel or two. Whatever, as long as it adds a splash of character, class and even colour to sell the message that Mack means business. Big business, literally.

After all, drivers notice such things and make no mistake, Super-liner with a fully integrated 70-inch sleeper is every inch a driver’s truck.

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