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Volvo Over-the-road VNL Conventional gets bigger and better

Volvo Trucks North America introduced the long-awaited replacement for the long-nose VNL in 2017, the first overhaul since the VN launched onto the American trucking scene in 1996. The VN range was updated in 2002 to accommodate reconfigured engines mandated by the Clean Air Act, though this was the first time the venerable cab underwent a total architectural revision.

But the old and the new almost have to be viewed side by side because the overall look and feel of the 2020 model are still very much those of the previous long conventional.

The VNL day cab has the same long nose as the sleeper models. (Photos: Sturgess Associates)

One of the reasons for this is that the distinctive driver and passenger doors carry over from the earlier model. However, new styling for the hood and cab sheet metal enhance the appearance of the latest model, giving it a dynamic, speeding look even when it’s standing still. A style line starts at the new three-piece bumper’s back-swept corners, continues through the hood, picks up the sloping waistband of the door glass and continues as a rising feature line through the sleeper. A new grill, wider at the top, continues the styling cue that started with the vocational heavy-duty (VHD) when it launched in 2000.

As well as the styling changes and the sleeper’s added width, aerodynamic enhancements made the new cab/chassis 1% more fuel efficient than the model it replaced. Many of these features have been created by drawing on the experience gained from participating in the Department of Energy’s SuperTruck programs over the past few years.

Enhancements to the powertrain, either through a wider adoption of a more powerful and 350-pound (159 kg) lighter 11-liter or through new engine enhancements that include a patented “wave” piston design and the recently upgraded turbocompounding of the 13-liter bring greater fuel efficiencies as well. And when combined with the available predictive cruise control, it can result in fuel savings of up to 10% for the new VNL, which started production in the fourth quarter of 2017.

The dinette with table and facing seats is available in the new VNL. An upper-bunk access ladder telescopes and clips below the bunk.

Inside, the trucks have been redesigned with the driver as the focus, with new materials, all-new dash and switchgear, a concentration of as many as 21 switches directly on the steering wheel — which comes, incidentally, from the groundbreaking Volvo FH introduced in Europe five years ago. The new VNL also now sports the Globetrotter designation for the top-of-the-range models, a first for Volvo North America.

The mattress is hinged to create a lounging chaise. A pullout table can accommodate a laptop.

Flagships of the over-the-highway trucks are the new VNL 760 and 860 that feature 70-inch and 80-inch (1.78-meter and 2.03-meter) high-roof sleepers.

The subtle changes to the cab structure provide more room for the driver or team in the cab, with an additional 6 inches (15 centimeters) in the width of the sleeper as the walls sweep out behind the cab B-pillar.

As with the previous VNL, storage gets a lot of attention overhead in the cab and in the innovative center console, which can have a variety of cupholder and accessory storage that snaps into a rail retainer. The cupholders accommodate every type of drink container, except for the especially oversized big gulps, which Volvo says should be on the floor anyway.

Access to the sleeper between the seats is easy. The seat belts are orange for police to spot.

A number of sleeper configurations are available, including the dinette that made the VN such a hit with husband-and-wife team drivers. There’s a new mattress that folds at the seated driver’s hip to provide a very comfortable chaise — a feature also brought over from the FH.

No fewer than seven different seats are available with the top two cab comfort levels featuring seats with three levels of heating and three levels of cooling, making the leather seat option far more comfortable in hot weather. In the Globetrotter, the restful grays and black of the new materials are highlighted by orange accents on the dash centerstack and matching orange stitching on the seats and new leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The two-bunk configuration features a “library ladder” that can be moved laterally and tucked behind the wardrobe.

For day cab (non-sleeper) users, a fixed passenger-seat option has a drawer-type refrigerator under the seat, arranged to slide toward the seated driver.

The wider sleeper has generous storage that sweeps wider toward the rear to provide easy access to the bunks, which can be a single with overhead storage, double upper and lower bunks with a really creative ladder system to allow easy, safe access to the upper bunk. And then there’s the dinette, which converts to a double bed with an optional single bunk above. There’s also an innovative tabletop/work surface that can be used while a passenger is seated at the folding backrest chaise, and there’s room for a good-sized flat-screen TV. The Globetrotter is wired for TV and a microwave and has available inverters for 110-volt domestic outlets in the cab.

The cab has different levels of LED lighting, with available soft white for reading, red for mood lighting and blue for accents. During daylight hours, there is light from four windows in the sleeper, all hinged for cross-cab ventilation and equipped with bug screens and proper airplane-style shades instead of fussy snap-on vinyl ones. An optional roof light panel in the cab also brings in a lot of light during the day.

The VNL760 has a 70-inch sleeper and a high roof to sweep the air up and over the trailer.

The trucks can be distinguished by the new grill, which features the largest-ever Volvo Iron Mark emblem and a new high-efficiency design. Additionally, air inlets to direct induction and cooling air into the engine compartment are large, far forward and integrated into the overall design. This hood slopes down more steeply than the old, sits tighter to the cooling package for good straight-ahead and to-the-ground visibility, with the front corners reprofiled to give a better view down on the front corners. Stylish hood-mounted mirrors complement the rearview door mirrors for excellent all-round visibility.

Under this new hood, the usual rear latches have been eliminated in favor of firewall-mounted hood locks released, as before, from inside the driving compartment. The new hood also features integrated forward engine splash shields. Now when the hood is tilted, the splash shields move with the hood and no longer obscure the engine, making service easier. On the hot side of the engine, particularly on the turbocompound 13 liter, this makes access far simpler.


  • Truck model: Volvo VNL 860
  • Wheelbase: 229 inches
  • Engine: Volvo D13 TC
  • Rating: 455 hp, 1,550/1,850 pound-feet
  • Transmission: Volvo iShift, 12-speed 0.78 overdrive
  • Axle: Meritor 2.47:1 ratio
  • Bumper-to-front axle: 53.7 inches
  • Axle to back of cab: 144.1 inches
  • Sleeper: 77 inches long, 83.5 inches wide, 102-inch maximum height
  • Weight: 19,284 pounds

Also aiding access, the inside doghouse over the rear of the engine and over the gearbox can be far more easily and quickly removed on the new model, with a new carpeting/floor mat system and a one-piece doghouse. This gives quick access to the rear of the engine and the iShift automated transmission that is standard on every on-highway VNL.

The iShift and an available 2.47 rear-end ratio work with the overdrive iShift top gear ratio of 0.78-to-1 to drop the engine rpms down to the optimum sweet spot at 1070 rpms at 60 mph cruise — right in the middle of the brake-specific fuel consumption chart. For hill-climbing ease, the turbocompound 13 liter makes maximum torque down to 900 rpms, only a couple of hundred rpms above idle speed. Recent improvements deliver an additional 3% fuel savings and a top power rating of 500 hp.

The orange stitching is minimal but provides a nice accent to the interior, designed for driver comfort.

Updates to the chassis came with the introduction of the 2017 Green House Gas engines. In the interim, further enhancements have been made to the innovative Adaptive Loading 6×2 drive system that features an automatically lifting pusher axle (lead tandem axle) for enhanced economy in one-way-loaded operations.

Also new and enhancing the potential uptime gains was an announcement that going forward, the Volvo’s remote diagnostics and ASIST telematics will include over-the-air updating for powertrain enhancements and for changing of parameters. According to Volvo, the average time across all brands of heavy trucks for a truck to sit in a dealership for just software updates is in excess of two days, representing a major lost opportunity cost through downtime. In fact, a back-of-the-envelope calculation for a small 25-truck fleet shows that the equivalent cost of a new truck every year would be lost through downtime using conventional dealer-installed updates, since updates are released two to four times a year for each truck. It’s hardly surprising that Volvo estimates as many as 75% of trucks do not get current updates to maximize fuel and operational efficiency as owners don’t want to impact the uptime. Over-the-air updates are completed in as little as a 30-minute period as the truck is parked with the engine off but the key on and the brakes set.

The VNL launch was staged at Volvo’s newly completed customer center at the Dublin, Virginia, truck plant. There were a half-dozen new VNLs available at the driving track, and we drivers were able to experience the quiet comfort of the new models. There will be more extensive driving opportunities within several months when a full assessment of the new models can be made. Suffice it to say that the visibility, performance and driver comfort were all impressive.

The styling line that runs from the front bumper through the hood and eventually to the sleeper is defined by the sloping waistline at the base of the door glass.

Most impressive of all is the VNL 860 Globetrotter, with its unique orange stitching highlights. Its 1,850-pound-foot maximum torque combines with the super-intelligent iShift transmission for effortless takeoff and quiet, high-performance cruise and gradeability.

With the regional VNR and the latest VNL highway truck, Volvo has freshened and broadened its heavy-truck product offering. Executives said the anticipated gains in the expanding regional hauling business with the VNR have been realized and the automobile-like quiet and comfort of the VNL is attracting new drivers. And with more time being spent in the truck with recent changes in North American driving hours and drive-time recorders, the top-class accommodation is making the new VNL an excellent recruitment and retention tool for driver-starved fleets.

The driving position is similar to European Volvos, with the FH steering wheel and ergonomic dash. The cupholders and storage bins in the center stack are modular.