Freightliner Cascadia test drive: The star continues to shine brightly

Freightliner Cascadia

Cascadia has been a star product for Freightliner since its
introduction. After all, it is the top selling truck in America and now it is
winning fans in tough, extreme export markets like Australia and South Africa,
and nearer home in equally tough Mexico. In the United States, it is the
cornerstone of Freightliner’s 36-plus percent share of the heavy truck market.

But drive one today and compare it with the model that
debuted 13 years ago and the trucks are like night and day. For one, there was
a significant refresh for the Cascadia with the Evolution in 2013 and then
again, a high-tech upgrade with the New Cascadia in 2017. Now we have the New,
New Cascadia – an awkward model designation – with totally new features and
connectivity that went into production shortly after mid-year 2019.  

The big news is that it is optionally Level Two automated.
That means it has a steering and braking system that makes the driving chore so
much easier for the driver. The Cascadia can be configured many ways, but with
the full complement of safety systems it has adaptive cruise control (ACC) that
maintains a safe cruise following distance, but this is overlaid by full
emergency active brake assist (ABA 5.0) that can stop the truck if the driver
does nothing to restrain the vehicle before an impending accident. Add to this
recognition of stationary vehicles such as in a traffic lane where all vehicles
are stopped. It will also spot a walking person in a crosswalk or a bicyclist
wobbling along the curb and apply the brakes as necessary.

In addition to the straight ahead safety, there’s lane
keeping assistance (LKA) that adds steering control to keep the Cascadia in
lane by reading the trucks position between the lane markings to prevent it
from drifting away from the set position.

Freightliner Cascadia cab view
The super comfortable seats, adjustable steering column and clean dash provide plenty of driver comforts. (Photo: Steve Sturgess)

Detroit Assurance 5.0

But if this seems impressive, and by gosh it is, the real
revolution is depth of Detroit Assurance 5.0 that does a whole lot more than
run the safety systems. It is also a complete telematics and business solution
that effectively makes the Cascadia a node on a trucking company’s business
network. It tracks how the truck is being driven, it tracks any fault codes and
alerts fleet and dealer that an ailing truck needs repair, makes the booking at
the preferred dealership, and even picks the parts for repairs.

But more than that, Detroit 5.0 tracks the performance and
economy of every truck, or groups of trucks, and the whole fleet at large. It
measures driver performance, truck performance and efficiency by massaging
massive amounts of data and integrates an individual or a fleet of Cascadias
into the trucking company’s back office system.  

So, the New, New Cascadia is a technology tour de force and
while you hear claims from other OEMs that they do similar things, Cascadia
seems to offer, with 5.0, the most comprehensive and completely integrated
package available.

Freightliner Cascadia fuel economy
The digital glass dash shows 8.5 mpg at the turnaround during our test drive. (Photo: Steve Sturgess)

Fuel Economy

But, as the TV ads say, there’s more. We were fortunate to
have Al Haggai, channel marketing manager for Freightliner Trucks along for the
drive and also have spent time previously with Clint LePreze, Freightliner’s on-highway marketing manager, at the initial
debut of the latest Cascadia back in the early summer last year.

There are many refinements that improve the fuel efficiency
of the latest Cascadia. Some of them you can see in a glance, such as the
closures between the fenders and the wheels that prevent — as far as possible —
air getting under the truck from the sides. Less obvious is the deep, deep air
dam under the front bumper and even less obvious is the fact that the
suspension “kneels” at freeway speeds to put this aero device an inch closer to
the road surface.

Up behind the cab, the side and roof extenders keep the air
more closely attached to the cab/trailer so it doesn’t bleed into the trailer
gap. And that air is already tight to the cab sides from the new A-pillar deflectors
that turn the air coming off the windshield to keep it from billowing out as
eddies to the side. This has the added benefit of keeping road dirt off the
side glass and mirrors in wet weather. Complementing this are remodeled
sideskirts that add to the overall aesthetics of the latest Cascadia model.

And Freightliner was an early adopter of the Flow Below
tandem air control panels and wheel cavity covers. These provide incremental
improvements but as Haggai parked the truck ready for the drive out of the Velocity
Truck Center’s impressive dealership in Fontana, Calif., the all-electronic
“glass” dash was showing 9.0 mpg. This is especially impressive as it was one
of those blustery Southern California days that can actually turn over tractor-trailers
at the base of the Cajon pass.

Our test route was a run out east on I-10 about 80 miles to
the Dinosaur truck stop at Cabazon. But on the way we quartered the streets of
Redlands in a futile attempt to get into the old Santa Fe railroad station to grab
a few pictures at this splendid location. But that was not happening. In the
end, we got back on the freeway and continued. That meant a long crawl through
the Banning Scales on the return run, but still, returning to Velocity, the
fuel readout gave us 8.8 mpg at a gross combination weight of 70,000 pounds.

On The Road

The total mileage at around 160 was by no stretch a day’s
work, but this was the second drive of the New, New Cascadia. However, it the
first time on a road that is in such bad condition as I-10. Great chunks of
concrete have been blasted out of the pavement and the lane markings in many
cases were almost invisible.

We were running 60 to 65 mph where possible but in busy
traffic that was down to 55. And on Redlands city streets we dawdled around at
20 to 25 mph, taking our time and avoiding curbing – or worse – all the tight
right-angle corners in the heart of this university town. Once on the freeway
again, the cruise control proved its merit, keeping a comfortable distance from
the vehicle in front until it was time to take a lane and pass slower trucks.
The driving is so easy with the DT12 transmission that a driver has the luxury
of keeping the correct position in lane or even in town, where the transmission
handles all the decisions about the correct gear selection.

Keeping in lane wouldn’t have been an issue because of the steering
assist automation. In a short drive last year I found it faultless. It can be
set to occupy the center of the lane, or biased to the left or right. My
preference is to run the right-hand lane marking and, in that drive, it did
just that. But with the poor condition of the lane markings on I-10, I actually
disabled the feature – easy to do with a dashboard switch – as the combination
of high winds and hunting in the lane meant we could get along more smoothly
without the assistance. That’s not to say I didn’t just get buzzed by the lane
departure warning more than a few times.

Performance was assured from the 400-horsepower DD15, 15-liter
that has 1,650 lb.-ft. of torque. The Detroit engines are also enhanced in
Assurance 5.0 with engine load balancing where the engine holds constant torque
over small, subtle grades that a driver may think are flat to reduce
unnecessary fuel use from varying engine load. There’s also updated map
coverage with the on-board map database increased by 35% for added coverage of
existing major highways and interstates. This feature increases the utility of
the engine controls to better use kinetic energy and minimize brake usage.
Neither features are obvious and especially so with the smooth and intelligent
shifting of the DT12 transmission, but the new features make for a really
comfortable drive.

And there were added sophistications detected during the
drive. For one, the cruise control just does not follow a vehicle at a fixed
distance, it will operate right down to zero road speed. Then, providing the
vehicle ahead moves off again within two seconds, the Cascadia will pick up the
pace again. This makes for extra comfortable and easy driving in slow crawling
traffic in and around Los Angeles.

A super nice feature is the hill-hold, especially around
Fontana where freeway bridges mean quite steep hill starts.

Seating in the sleeper is angled so there’s more foot room for occupants. (Photo: Steve Sturgess)

As far as diver comfort is concerned, revised seating is
even more comfortable than before, allowing for great forward visibility. The
view to the rear is also good with rigidly mounted mirrors. On this Cascadia,
there were no hood mirrors, an addition I used to think unnecessary but
experience has shown is actually quite useful. However, the Side Guard Assist
featured on this Cascadia more than made up for the lack of hood mirrors
because it detects vehicles in the otherwise blind spots around the truck. If
the truck drifts into an already populated lane or the driver attempts a right
turn in city traffic with objects in its blind spot, audible and visual
warnings alert the driver. If the turn signal is used with a vehicle alongside,
the warning light turns from amber to red.

Also addressing comfort are the triple door seals that make
the cab really quiet, allowing for easy conversation between Haggai and myself and
PR manager Fred Ligouri back in the dinette style sleeper. A neat feature of
this configuration is that the left side seat is angled away a little from the
table so that two team members sitting at a meal don’t have to avoid treading
on each other’s toes.


There are so many new features on the New, New Cascadia that
it would take a book to explore them all. Suffice to say this very
driver-centric truck is also a maintenance manager’s delight and a business
owner’s best investment. It is so far from the original Cascadia, another
manufacturer might consider a different model name.  But the Cascadia has been a star product for
Freightliner and this new model continues that tradition.