Freightliner Argosy's Generation X

By: Steve Brooks


The Argosy remains a front-runner in the Freightliner fold, a fact unlikely to change anytime soon as a streamlined Cummins and Eaton combination add to Argosy’s attributes.

Freightliner Argosy's Generation X
The Argosy's evolution has seen several versions, some better than others, but the current model is easily the best yet.

 

Things have improved dramatically in the 20 years or so since Argosy’s first appearance on the Australian market and the model today is, in every sense, a far cry from its predecessors. Engineering evolution may have moved at glacial pace but it has, in most instances, made the truck immeasurably stronger, reliable and more resilient, to the point where the current model launched back in 2011 has slowly clawed its way to at least some semblance of the respectability and acceptance always promised but so often denied.

What’s more, Argosy’s influence and importance within the Freightliner fold in this country are arguably greater today than ever. Admittedly, the brand’s overall sales volumes over the past few years are lacklustre to say the least, yet Argosy’s contribution is nonetheless critical with the model currently accounting for a tad more than 30 percent of all Freightliner sales.

It’s worth noting that K200 also accounts for around 30 percent of all Kenworth sales and while overall volumes between the market leader and its Freightliner foe are poles apart, the similar percentages at least reflect each model’s contribution to the premium cab-over class where B-doubles dominate.

Freightliner Argosy and Kenworth K200 stare off at the Brisbane Truck Show.

Yet over the past few years, the playing field has changed. The borders of the heavy-duty market that were once sharply defined between US and continental contenders are now porous and constantly moving.

In fact, European brands led by an aggressive Volvo armed with a strong and highly advanced FH range continue to take a significant slice of the B-double sector, carving ever deeper into operations which not so long ago were largely the domain of K-series and Argosy.

More recently, a rejuvenated Mercedes-Benz has hit the ground running with an exceptionally talented troupe of all-new models. The thing is though, Argosy operators appear to be among the main targets for the new Benz which, from the outside looking in, suggests a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Freightliner and Benz are, after all, disciples of the same Daimler empire. Go figure!

Anyway, bolstering the European effort is the fact that engines with SCR (AdBlue) emissions systems are the foundation of the continental brands. On the other hand, K200 and Argosy were until relatively recently locked into exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) systems from Cummins and in Argosy’s case, Cummins and Detroit.

It’s no secret the Cummins EGR system was particularly problematic and the ‘about-face’ to SCR technology with its ISXe5 and now X15 engines is at least restoring confidence in the brand. Kenworth, of course, is especially pleased with the shift to SCR after taking a major hit on resale values of models powered by a Cummins EGR engine.

For now, Detroit’s DD15 continues to use EGR for current emissions compliance but gratefully, has not had the issues of its Cummins rival. Still, there’s little doubt the idea of forcing hot exhaust gas into the combustion chamber of a modern heavy-duty diesel engine has become increasingly distasteful to the majority of truck operators.

Even so, as Freightliner principals eagerly point out, Argosy is the only premium cab-over to at least offer the choice of two engine brands – Cummins and Detroit’s DD15.

Meantime, automated transmissions continue to win favour across a broad section of the trucking community, right up to the heaviest jobs in the business.

And it was, of course, the Europeans who broke the ice in our market’s acceptance of automated shifters, due in large part to the remarkably intuitive, extremely smooth and driver friendly performance of transmissions which are nowadays fitted as standard equipment in the majority of Euro models. Likewise, Mack is today a big user of automated boxes with its M-drive derivative of Volvo’s slick I-shift.

That’s not to say, of course, that manual shifters are dead. In both Freightliner and Kenworth, Eaton manual transmissions still dominate to a large extent but as sources at both brands have acknowledged, Eaton’s automated Ultrashift-Plus option is slowly inching to greater uptake.

There are, however, two major differences between the automated offerings of European and US brands in this country. One, Eaton’s automated box is a sizeable extra-cost option whereas an automated shifter is standard among European makes. And two, European automated boxes are generally smoother and more intuitive because the engine and transmission package is developed as a single integrated unit whereas Eaton’s development has by necessity been bound by the individual traits of several engine brands.

But again, times are changing and when it comes to the integration of engine and automated transmission technology in US equipment, Cummins and Eaton have joined forces in a bold bid to close the operational and technological gap.

The extent of that bid was made blatantly clear just a few months ago with an announcement from Cummins in the US that it would spend US$600 million to take a 50 percent stake in a newly formed joint venture called Eaton Cummins Automated Transmission Technologies.

As Cummins stated, ‘The global joint venture will provide customers with industry-leading transmission technologies and solutions that deliver best-in-class fuel efficiency, performance and uptime while leveraging both Cummins’ and Eaton’s global service and support networks.

‘The joint venture will design, assemble, sell and support all future medium-duty and heavy-duty automated transmissions for the commercial vehicle market.’

While it’ll probably be some time yet before the Australian market sees anything substantial from the joint venture, the X15 engine has already laid the operational platform for a smarter, smoother relationship between Cummins and Eaton.

Described as an evolutionary development of the 15 litre ISXe5 engine, the X15 contains a suite of advanced electronic features collectively marketed as ADEPT (Advanced Dynamic Efficient Powertrain Technology) designed to deliver greater efficiency through improved powertrain integration.

As Cummins explains it, ADEPT utilises load, speed and grade-sensing technology to initiate adjustments to engine power, torque and transmission gear selection to take advantage of vehicle momentum for better fuel economy.

Here’s the pinch though; ADEPT is only applicable when the engine stirs through an Ultrashift-Plus transmission.

With a manual box, nothing much changes and with either a manual or automated shifter the 15 litre engine’s outputs still range from 485hp to 600hp and up to 2050ft-lb of torque.

For its part, Freightliner reacted quickly to the engine’s availability in Argosy, issuing a press statement announcing, ‘The new Cummins X15 engine is now available with the Freightliner Argosy in addition to the Detroit DD15.’

Yet even before that announcement, at least one loyal Argosy fleet was putting the X15 and Ultrashift-Plus combination through its paces, with early signs pointing to notable improvement in both performance and fuel returns.

The thing about this installation though was that the engine actually started life as an ISXe5 and morphed into X15 guise following the relatively simple installation of ADEPT software. The point is that if your current ISXe5 engine stirs through an Ultrashift-Plus transmission, then upgrading to X15 status is apparently as straightforward as a software change.

Argosy is the Wadley’s Interstate Transport fleet favourite but so, too, are Cummins SCR engine and Eaton automated shifters.

WADLEY WORK

Brian Wadley’s preference for Cummins-powered Argosy is both long and strong, but it is by no means blind.

Surviving the uncompromising competitiveness of linehaul general freight since 1976, Wadley’s Interstate Transport has not endured for so long through commercial naivety or a blinkered passion for one brand or another. In Brian’s world, service is what keeps the business strong and service is what keeps one brand ahead of another. Simple!

Today there are 42 trucks in the Sydney-based fleet, the majority are B-double combinations and 32 are hauled by Argosy. Cummins powers the bulk of them and other than three manuals in earlier models, Eaton’s automated transmission has over the past decade become the norm for the simple reason that it makes life far less stressful for driver and driveline alike, according to Brian Wadley.

The fleet, he explains, has evolved that way since around 2003 when the first Argosy arrived following the demise of the Sterling brand and before that, Ford. Over the years there have been Kenworth cab-overs in the operation but he declines to comment on past events other than reflect on the differing estimations of buyers and sellers.

Still, he admits to keeping an open mind and open lines of communication with all other brands but has so far found little reason to take his business elsewhere.

First Ford, then Sterling and now Argosy, the conduit in all cases is service through the Stillwell’s dealership at Milperra in Sydney’s south-west and an adamant Brian Wadley insists it would take something extreme to force a change.

Besides, he says drivers generally like the space, convenience and sleeping quarters of the Argosy cab while older drivers are especially receptive to the easy access provided by the swing-out staircase. Fortunately, the reliability issues which once made Argosy’s radical step design more an embarrassment than an asset have largely become a thing of the past.

Brian doesn’t deny that after almost 15 years he has certainly experienced the good, bad and indifferent of Argosy but again cites the service factor from both Stillwell’s and Freightliner nationally as the deciding factor in maintaining the relationship. Moreover, with reliability now high on the list of likes, it’s a definite Brian Wadley who labels the current Argosy easily the best in the model’s history.

Cummins, too, has had its issues at times, not least with EGR engines but he emphasises the Cummins experiences were nothing in comparison to the dramas suffered with Detroit’s Series 60 EGR engines. Fortunately, a handful of DD15 engines have been largely problem-free but it’s a definite Wadley who says Cummins’ move to SCR with the ISXe5 and a subsequent improvement in fuel efficiency have reinforced the red engine’s standing as the preferred power choice.

And on fuel efficiency, Wadley general manager Ed Slade is increasingly optimistic the X15 and Ultrashift-Plus combination will further enhance fuel returns.

The reason for the confidence is an Argosy demonstrator which for several months hauled B-doubles on the east coast, punched by an X15 rated at 600hp feeding into Eaton’s automated overdrive box and Meritor diffs running a 4.3:1 rear axle ratio.

Arriving at Wadley’s with around 180,000km under its belt, the engine actually started life as an ISXe5 rated at 550hp but with ADEPT software becoming available after more than a year of Australian testing, the e5 was upgraded to X15 status and rebooted to 600hp. Since then, the truck had notched a further 20,000km.

Compared to the 1.84km/litre (including AdBlue) average of the company’s latest Argosy running an ISXe5 at 550 hp into 4.1 diffs, the demonstrator is returning 1.92km/litre, again including AdBlue consumption. However, Ed Slade predicts fuel consumption will improve even further with the X15 rated back to the company standard of 550hp.

"We’re up on our weights most of the time but it has been noticeably better on fuel right from the start," Ed says of the X15 before quickly adding, "and the driver tells us the shifts are a lot smoother and gear selection is much smarter.

"The new software just makes it better on fuel and a smarter system all-round, especially in cruise control," he comments.

ADEPT software streamlines performance between Cummins X15 and Eaton’s Ultrashift-Plus automated transmission.

SHORT 'N' SWEET

Along with advanced diagnostic and engine programming functions, key elements of the X15’s ADEPT software are what Cummins calls ‘SmartCoast’ and ‘SmartTorque’.

‘SmartCoast’ is essentially a roll mode. As Cummins explains, ‘SmartCoast  operates when the vehicle is on a moderate downhill grade by disengaging the front box of the transmission and returning the engine to idle to reduce drag, maintain momentum, and ultimately improve fuel economy.’  

Meantime, ‘SmartTorque’ is explained as ‘torque management intelligence to help eliminate unnecessary downshifts and keep the engine operating in the most fuel efficient ‘sweet spot’. Torque is varied across all gears depending on torque requirement.’

A few hours behind the wheel for a 200km return run from Wadley’s yard to the NSW Southern Highlands wasn’t enough for a definitive appraisal but with the B-double grossing around 50 tonnes, the run along the Hume at least provided an insight into the traits of this latest development between Cummins and Eaton.

For starters, shifts are remarkably smooth and with seemingly more patience to let the Cummins dig deep into its torque reserves, it’s a system noticeably less inclined to make short-lived hops between gears, especially in teetering traffic flows.

It was much the same on the southbound Scenic climb near Mittagong where the system’s apparent ability to ‘sense’ the grade and allow the engine to dig deep and subsequently maintain a gear rather than opt for a split-shift was entirely impressive. Definitely smarter! 

Still southbound on the drop down the Mittagong dipper, ADEPT’s capacity to enforce a downshift and work in conjunction with the engine brake to maintain a set descent speed of 90km/h was yet another thumbs up for the system.

Then on the return run with cruise control set just a tick below 100km/h, ‘SmartCoast’ made its presence felt many times on the long gentle descent of Scenic Hill, disengaging the transmission and allowing mass to maintain momentum while the engine sipped along at idle. It can initially be a disconcerting sensation if you’re unaccustomed to roll mode but as Wadley’s Ed Slade remarked, it surely plays a part in minimising fuel consumption.

However, one quirky aspect on the run down Scenic was the constant application of the engine brake for just a second or two as momentum pushed the combination fractionally beyond set speed. A few seconds on until speed dropped back to the set limit, then a few seconds off, then back on again as speed rolled up, and so on and so forth. Like I said, quirky! And just a tad annoying.

Other than that though, there’s no question the X15 and Ultrashift-Plus combination take US automated performance to levels of technical cohesion and operational capability which to date have been the preserve of European brands. 

In effect, the case for automated shifters in US trucks has gone up a notch. A big notch, and it will surely go even higher if the cost of the automated option is made more competitive.

But this article started with Argosy and so shall it end there.

The demo truck had more than 200,000km on the clock at the end of the run and while there were a few minor squeaks and squawks from parts of the cab at various times, the overall quality of the current model is simply lightyears ahead of past examples.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for ongoing improvement. Production quality can still be tweaked to a higher standard but overall, the comfort, convenience and style of the original design which made Argosy such a bold advance in cab-overs of the time were no less evident in the 101 inch mid-roof model doing demo duties in the Wadley operation.

On-road manners were extremely good with ride and handling leaving nothing to be desired. Back on the inside, the column-mounted paddle shift transmission control wand remains easily the best in the business.

As for rumour and innuendo that Argosy is heading for extinction as conventionals continue to rule the North American heavy-duty market, Freightliner’s local leaders insist it’s nothing more than competitive scuttlebutt. As they’re quick to emphasise, the US has been favouring conventionals for the best part of two decades yet Freightliner Inc. continues to produce and progressively improve its right hand-drive cab-over, albeit occasionally at the speed of a somnolent snail.

In short, and despite all its issues over the years, Argosy has from the outset been a dominant factor in Freightliner’s fortunes and with the current model doing much to diminish experiences of the past, it’s a factor unlikely to change anytime soon.

Bluntly, Argosy ain’t what it used to be and no matter how you look at it, that’s an entirely good thing.

Read the full story in Owner//Driver's August 2017 edition, on sale August 7.

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