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Horses for courses: Kenworth's Triple Crown stable of highway haulers

May 18, 2015
We compare and contrast the Class 8 highway trucks Kenworth had on hand for an editor's ride and drive through central Ohio: The ICON 900, the T680 mid-roof sleeper, and the T680 Advantage.

It’s one thing to get a first look at new trucks at the Mid-America Trucking Show every year, it’s another to actually climb in the cab and take one for a spin. So a few weeks after the trucking press got the technical details and some show floor photos at MATS, Kenworth Truck Co. invited a handful of editors to the Chillicothe, OH, assembly plant to see how the trucks are built and, more importantly, to take a range of products out on the road.

Let’s compare and contrast the Class 8 highway trucks Kenworth had on hand: The ICON 900, the T680 mid-roof sleeper, and the T680 Advantage.

(See more photos here.)

ICON 900

The ICON 900, unmistakably, is a classic W900L—only more so.

For anyone who’s been behind the wheel of a modern, aero-styled tractor lately, the first thing you’ll notice is the hood—because you can’t miss it. By comparison, it’s like driving with a flight deck for a front end. And if you’re of a certain age, it’s like a time machine—with an angel/devil on your shoulder whispering ‘find me a load—a big one.’

But whispers won’t cut it once that Cummins ISX15 and its 550 horses shake to life. Paired with the Fuller 18-speed transmission, this machine is now begging you to go to work.

On the road, the phrase ‘be careful what you ask for’ comes to mind.

Rolling through the lovely hills, farmland and horse country of central Ohio will keep your gear-shifting skills fresh (an automated transmission is optional, however). And the rumble of the big ISX comes through loud and clear, but it’s a sweet base line resonating through the large chrome air cleaner cans on either side of the cab—with the melody notes provided by the rise and fall of the turbo whistle.

This is not a truck for rookies, at least not on narrow, winding country roads. (Did I mention the wheelbase is a whopping 280 inches?) Not that driving it is hard or uncomfortable—the ICON 900 is, after all, a very modern piece of engineering, and the high-back leather seats don’t hurt—but it doesn’t drive itself.

And that’s how Kenworth is marketing the immodestly named ICON: “a trucker’s truck.”

“It’s been a great launch, right out of the gate,” said Kurt Swihart, Kenworth marketing director. “Dealers, customers, everybody wants to get in that truck.”

He also noted an early rush to grab the low serial numbers on the limited edition ICON, although the company has yet to announce just how limited that will be.

“It’s going to be a collector’s item. It’s just a cool-looking truck with all the chrome, all the lights, the chrome logo,” he said. “There’s a lot of owner-operators coming back into the market. Diesel prices are down and the market is hot.”

Companies are also using the W900 and ICON as “reward” trucks to retain their drivers, Swihart added.

And there’s more reward to driving an ICON than admirers in a truck stop parking lot. (A road construction crew paused and gave a thumbs-up as we passed by in a section of road reduced to one lane.)

The 86-in. Aerocab isn’t big enough to play basketball in, but there’s certainly room to two-step—that’s just to give you an idea of the space, not a suggestion. (Although the top-of-the-line trim set featuring buttoned-down leather upholstery and custom lighting might pass for a booth in the VIP lounge.)

The ICON 900 may well be collectible, but this stud demands to be put through its paces first.

T680 mid-roof

The T680SH 76-in. mid-roof Kenworth had on hand, in contrast to the ICON, introduces itself in a business-like way: “Please permit me to assist in efficiently pulling your flatbed or tanker.”

After being in the ICON, the visibility from the driver’s seat is striking. (Another editor reported being grateful she was driving the T680 when a person in a scooter crossed in front of the truck late at a stoplight.)

There’s no mistaking this view as that of a cabover—the nose is there, you just don’t notice it. But the aero-styling is a key element of the T680’s fuel efficiency. As is the Fuller Advantage Automated 10-speed transmission.

Not only does the integrated drivetrain use the wonders of electronic control to sip fuel only as needed, the drive that had required a certain amount of attention with the 18-speed ICON became a pleasant jaunt through the countryside when the transmission did all of the work.

Combined with the 455hp Paccar MX-13 engine, the T680 handled the hills effortlessly, with no lags or missed shifts. With a 220-inch wheelbase and a loaded flatbed trailer, the rig handled some close quarters in town with no trouble.

Cab insulation also made for a much quieter ride than that of the ICON—but again, it’s a different animal for a different job.

The mid-roof sleeper, while still plenty tall for a six-footer, saves 100 pounds compared to a full height sleeper, and as much as 5% on fuel as well.

The T680 Advantage

The T680SH Advantage, with a 76-in high roof sleeper, is designed to be the king of road when it comes to operating efficiency. Kenworth boasts that the latest model gained another 10% in fuel efficiency compared to one built in 2013.

Like the mid-roof, this T680 features the MX-13 and Fuller automated 10-speed. Additionally, the Advantage aerodynamic treatments include longer side extenders for the 76-inch sleeper, lower cab fairing extenders, front air dam, aerodynamic mud flaps, rear fairing without steps coupled with an air deflector, exhaust cut out covers, and optional wheel covers for drive tires.

Again, the automated transmission made for a comfortable country drive. And, as with the mid-roof, the Advantage handled well—so well that lane departure tone was silent and I didn’t remember the Bendix Wingman Advanced safety system was engaged until a four-wheeler passed and jumped into our lane a little too closely.

Indeed, the only downside to the 21-mile loop we drove was that it did not include an extended limited-access leg where we could’ve tested some of the high-end highway options such as the predictive cruise control system which uses GPS technology to maximize fuel economy in hilly terrain.

Pick a truck

As with any modern commercial vehicle, buyers needn’t worry about which truck to buy: What’s important is to know exactly the application.

Sure, the ICON not’s going to get the fuel economy of the Advantage hauling coast-to-coast van loads. But for a specialty hauler pulling oversized construction equipment, aero is not nearly so critical as horsepower.

And, as we saw on the plant tour, modern manufacturing means that every truck is essentially a custom truck, with enough equipment and trim options to give me a headache just imagining how Kenworth’s Chillicothe facility can turn out one made-to-order truck after another and get every color, interior trim and exterior light preference right.

The good news is that truck buyers don’t have to worry about how it’s done: Just pick what works for your operation and let Kenworth do the rest.

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor

Kevin has served as editor-in-chief of Trailer/Body Builders magazine since 2017—just the third editor in the magazine’s 60 years. He is also editorial director for Endeavor Business Media’s Commercial Vehicle group, which includes FleetOwner, Bulk Transporter, Refrigerated Transporter, American Trucker, and Fleet Maintenance magazines and websites.

Working from Little Rock, Kevin has covered trucking and manufacturing for 15 years. His writing and commentary about the trucking industry and, previously, business and government, has been recognized with numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards.

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