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As I get older I’ve noticed I’m also becoming quite a bit crankier. If this keeps up I’m well on the way to becoming the kind of crusty old bloke who writes increasingly strident letters of complaint to the local council about the shape of his neighbour’s shrubbery.

I’ve also found myself tut-tutting at the news and muttering about “the youth of today” or even asking the rhetorical question, “doesn’t anyone actually take responsibility for their actions anymore?”

It’s a real worry. I’ve been told the only real way to combat this is to buy quite a few cats and regularly wander up and down my street wearing a dressing gown and slippers and scaring local children with my facial hair. But hopefully I’ve got quite a few more years up my sleeve yet before I have to resort to such drastic measures.

“THE EXTENDED CAB IS AN OBVIOUS CONTENDER FOR LINE-HAUL SHUTTLE DUTIES.”

FINALLY HERE

In a world that seems to be increasingly complex, and that I seem to be finding more annoying by the day, the newly launched Cat CT630S from Navistar Auspac (formerly NC2) has a kind of simplicity and an honesty in its execution, that I find quite appealing.

The S is the long awaited 26m B-double offering from Australia’s youngest heavy-duty truck brand. The Cat family boasts a slippery shape and, as a consequence, controversial looks that tend to polarise opinions everywhere they go. It is also quite light with the extended cab taring off at 8,170kg dry.

The range uses a Euro 5-compliant C15 engine that doesn’t need exhaust gas regeneration (EGR) or selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to reduce its smog output. In other words it doesn’t have an exhaust afterburner or need AdBlue. It’s a no-nonsense approach to tackling some of the myriad challenges that Australian transport operators face in this day and age.

I’ll be the first to admit to having trouble with the face of the Cat family. In a market packed with square-jawed competitors, it looks a bit soft. In isolation it can look okay but when you park it at a truckstop among its competitors, it tends to stand out like a freshfaced newbie at a bikie club house brawl.

Then again, if looks were everything, I’d be a very lonely man and the one shared characteristic across the Cat range is that from behind the wheel they all perform very well indeed.

“THE AIR-SUSPENDED GRAMAG DRIVER’S SEAT DID A GOOD JOB OF IRONING OUT JOLTS.”

OLD SCHOOL

The current baby 13-litre CT610 and the 15-litre CT630 are based on the Navistar ProStar and they are both an engaging and rewarding drive as long as you’re prepared to accept the old school American engineering mindset.

The B-double S has been in the pipeline for quite some time and in a heavy-duty market dominated by east coast B-double vehicles it’s been an obvious hole in the Cat line-up.

Much of the design and engineering work during the development of the S was done here in Australia with the back-up of the Navistar design team back in the United States.

The result is actually a uniquely Australian truck with Navistar ProStar underpinnings but with a short bumper to back of cab (BBC) that lends itself quite nicely to B-double duties.

As you’d expect, the engine is a 15-litre C15 power plant that cranks out 550 healthy Caterpillar ponies (404.5kW) and a torque figure of 1,850ft-lb (2,508Nm).

Clinging to the rear of the 15-litre is an Eaton 18-speed available in either manual or UltraShift Plus automatic manual transmission guise.

The rear axles are suspended exclusively by Hendrickson Primaax and final drive ratios from 3.9 to 4.1 and 4.33 are also available.

A SECOND LOOK

I should say at this point that I’ve already driven the S, or an earlier incarnation of it. Late last year I took one of the engineering development trucks that were in service to a line-haul fleet for a trip from Melbourne to Brisbane and back again for a sneak peek.

Being an engineering truck it was a bit rough around the edges, which is only to be expected. However, I did walk away with some concerns around the S models’ ride and handling as it seemed to be a bit all over the shop on the rough, rutted Newell Highway.

But this truck was equipped with an earlier two-leaf spring front end that didn’t help matters much, plus it was riding on a 4,600mm wheelbase with only 100mm of lead in on the trailer pin. All this in conjunction with what turned out to be a pretty dry turntable made it a bit of a handful on some sections of the road.

More than six months later I find myself standing before a production version of the B-double shuffler. This time I’m towing a set of counterweighted trailers grossing a shade over 60 tonnes and, yet again, I’m Brisbane bound.

This version is equipped with the standard three-leaf spring front end and is riding on a 4,800mm wheelbase, and just to ice the cake it was also running a 200mm lead in on the trailer pin. Within minutes of leaving Cat HQ in Tullamarine it was very apparent this was a very different beast on the road altogether.

HAVING A GO

Last time I’d had to load and unload both ends and, heaven forbid, even work up a sweat. This time I only had to kick back and drive, but just to make the drive that little bit more challenging I invited my boss along for the ride.

Owner//Driver Managing Editor Greg Bush is no stranger to trucking mags but he recently revealed he’d never travelled the Newell in the cab of a truck. While it may seem complete madness to volunteer to spend two days trapped in a truck cab with my boss, that’s exactly what I did.

At this point in time the CT630S is available in day cab and extended cab form. The extended cab is an obvious contender for line-haul shuttle duties and regional work, but I’ve now spent more nights than I’d care to admit sleeping in that narrow 26-inch (66cm) bunk with no head room.

Luckily a high rise walk-in sleeper version of the S called the SC is due to land in the country very soon and finally Cat will have a true line-haul contender for the Aussie market.

CURVY CAB

As with the rest of the range the curvy cab provides excellent visibility, and in the S it’s almost possible to forget there’s a bonnet out front at all.

Being a bonneted truck, climbing aboard the S is an easy task involving a couple of easy steps.

A gearstick that goes straight into the top of the tranny makes for a very sweet shifting box, especially considering the lazy revving nature of the yellow motor out front. This also makes for a very easy drive that doesn’t have you watching the tacho.

Anything over 1,550rpm is really just burning fuel and the 3.9 rear end of this truck meant it was ticking over at about 1,490rpm at the legal limit. Any rise in the road just meant a quick drop out of overdrive to get the jump on a grade.

Sure the interior styling is an acquired taste, but it does have to be said most things are easily reached. The only grievance in the switch department is the headlight switch, which is obscured by the steering wheel, but a regular driver would settle in just fine.

A constant niggle with these trucks for me is the lack of storage near the driver, something I hope will be addressed in the new SC model. In all the models in the Cat range, bar the LS, you always seem to end up with something rolling around on the cab floor. Another whinge would be the single power outlet. In this day and age most drivers would need at least two for charging phones, tablets, laptops etc. There is some under bunk storage under the cot but no exterior locker doors, which is another gripe.

ONCE BITTEN

Unfortunately the bed floor and locker lid feels a bit cheap and flimsy with quite a few sharp edges — I’ve been bitten by it on more than one occasion. This sets off a chain reaction of me jamming my finger on the catch of the storage locker lid, then swearing, then whacking my head on the low roof of the truck, then swearing, then tripping over the gear stick, then swearing … I’m sure you get the idea. Thankfully this is another area that is reportedly being addressed with the SC model.

The first day of the trip involved a lot of fog until the sun emerged between Jerilderie and Narrandera. By then I’d settled in easily and was watching the countryside roll by. The 15-litre is a very present, yet pleasant soundtrack but not intrusively so and the tune played by the twin choofers out back is unmistakably a Caterpillar song.

Hitting the Jake brake to pull back some speed brings out a note that would bring a smile to the face of anyone with a fondness for big yank engines.

As darkness fell between Forbes and Dubbo, I flicked on the LED headlights. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about these in the past, so I won’t crap on too much. Suffice to say, they’re good and I’m a convert.

NABBED BY THE LAW

There was some debate in the cab as to the exact location of Wyalong as opposed to West Wyalong. Apparently we were heading north-east into West Wyalong before heading east and then north and then north-east out of West Wyalong. But just northeast of West Wyalong we ran afoul of the law and operation Austrans.

As I handed over my logbook to the Highway Patrol I tried the old “Don’t you people know who I am?” only to be greeted with a blank and slightly hostile stare.

Some wiring for a data logger under the dash also attracted attention from the Roads and Maritime Services as I attempted to explain what it was and what it did. Finally, they got sick of me parroting their patronising tone and waved me away.

After an overnight camp in Dubbo we prepared to head north. Our truck had only just clicked over 8,000km and the engine felt that new on the drag through the hills south of Coonabarabran. The tight new engine didn’t lug down like it should have, but I’ve no doubt another 50,000km under its belt would tell a different story.

LINE-HAUL SPRAWL

As the highway deteriorated, the ride and handling of the Cat came to the fore. There are plenty of plush riding, prime movers on the market but get onto an inland highway in Australia and I’ll be putting my hand up for a bonneted prime mover.

The steep camber, soft rutted road surface and broken edges of our inland roads can make for a long and tiring trip when wrestling with a soggy riding truck that keeps the steering wheel in constant motion. Leaning into the camber of the road with one elbow on the door is the traditional ‘line-haul sprawl’ driving position of inland Australia and only a handful of heavy-duty trucks really nail a comfortable driving position on crap roads for hours on end.

Most of these trucks have bonnets and if my drive in the S is anything to go by the new Cat platform is one of them.

The three-point cab suspension also takes out some of the lateral kick from the road and the air-suspended Gramag driver’s seat did a good job of ironing out jolts from the road surface.

However, with the Newell’s bumps and ruts, Bushy thought he’d spent two days in a jumping castle, although the Gramag’s passenger seat gave him a soft landing each time.

Foot well room is fine for someone of my stature but others may find the lack of room for their left foot a bit of an issue.

With the sun sinking below the horizon we rolled down Cunninghams Gap with the Jake brake thundering. On the descent, and not for the first time during the trip, it really hit me just how easy and uncomplicated this truck is to drive.

It’s astonishing really that Cat has been able to come up with a truck that seems so at home on Aussie roads in such a short period of time, the brand itself is not yet five years old. Maybe I’m turning into a crazy old cat dude quicker than I thought.

TUNES IN THE CAB OR HIGHWAY TO HELL?

The premium touchscreen stereo unit in the cab was actually pretty easy to use while on the move. Bluetooth connectivity didn’t have me scratching my head too much either.

With Bushy riding shotgun, he felt it was time to educate me on a few things musical; he even got some old Jethro Tull cranking. The speaker system seemed to handle the punishment without any buzzing or rattles. But with both of us in the truck we just had to have a crack at a duet.

We rolled through the streets of Narrandera with ‘Highway to Hell’ blasting and Bushy helping out on both air guitar and air drums. As I was getting over a cold, I mainly just coughed and sniffled through the whole affair.

It was ugly on a number of levels. I also liked the way that a sexy female voice announces incoming calls when your phone is connected to the unit via Bluetooth. It made me want to keep calling Bushy’s phone with mine so stereo lady would keep saying my name over and over again as we were driving, but maybe that would have been getting a bit weird.

Story By Matt Wood
OWD June 2014

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