New Western Star 49X looks tough but creampuff to drive
December 23, 2020
A heavy-haul tractor ought to look the part, and this one from Western Star surely does. It’s a 49X, the manufacturer’s brand-new premium vocational model that’s available as a truck or tractor, and in multiple component combinations to do any conceivable severe-service job.
Vertical bars decorate its massive grille, as they do on all Western Stars, but these are canted inward toward the top, providing a distinctive accent. Surrounding trim is of real metal, company reps point out, underscoring the hoped-for tough image.
But the big tractor was a creampuff to drive during several laps on the paved oval at the High Desert Proving Grounds in north central Oregon owned by Daimler Trucks North America, parent of Western Star, Freightliner and Detroit, the engine, axle and electronic systems maker. Officials brought in two waves of reporters to experience the new model and crammed a lot of activity into one day.
I also drove three dump trucks loaded and empty through mud and over rocky terrain, and up and down a steep grade of a quarry on the premises. I was impressed with all of them. Each had a Detroit Diesel set for healthy horsepower and torque and running through a new vocational version of Detroit’s DT12 automated manual transmission, which always shifted smoothly and appropriately. That made them easy to drive, and all reporters, with or without CDLs, were able to handle them. A 49X can also be equipped with Eaton automated and manual gearboxes, as well as Allison automatics.
A major new 49X component is its aluminum-and-steel cab, which is a departure from traditional Western Star practice.
Since the mid-1990s, the builder has used annealed steel in its cabs (annealing is a tougher form of galvanizing), and current cabs are still assembled from that material. The 49X’s cab and doors have aluminum skin and some structural members, while high-strength steel is used at points of high stress. While not new to the industry (other brands have combined these materials for many years), the design combines strength with lightweight and corrosion resistance. All-steel cabs in current Western Stars are still good places to work, but the 49X’s cab is about 11% bigger and 8% lighter, and its composite roof features a “trench” in which air horns and extra lights can snuggle. The windshield is a single expanse of tinted safety glass, while an optional three-piece rear window gives a good view of what’s going on behind the cab of a dump truck or other non-sleeper configuration.
The 49X’s hood is fashioned of a composite plastic material that’s stronger and lighter than fiberglass. Special attention went to mounting and suspending the hood so it doesn’t shake and vibrates only slightly while the truck traverses rough ground. Our guides pointed out that the movement between a hood’s rear and a cab’s cowl was miniscule, indicating the design works. A downward slope provides a decent view of what’s ahead, and for pre- and post-trip checks and maintenance, the hood is fairly easy to pull open. A simple lock on one of the struts keeps the wind from blowing a hood back down. Rear strap locks are recessed into the cowl, and easily pop open and snap closed. There are two hood styles, one for a forward-set steer axle and another for a setback axle.
The trucks and the tractor steered easily with rather small turning circles, thanks to effective steering gear and a tight wheel cut.
Under the tractor’s hood was Detroit’s biggest road-legal diesel, a 15.6-liter (953-cubic-inch) DD16, rated for 600 horsepower and 2,050 lbs-ft of torque, which should please all but refugees from the old Cat Dyno days (remember them?). Cat’s been out of the truck engine business for more than a decade, but Cummins is still going strong, and you can get an X15, X12 and L9 in a Western Star 49X (the X12 has been shunned by most other truck builders except the Daimler brands, by the way). But they’d rather sell you a proprietary Detroit like this one, or a DD15 or DD13. They’re good engines, and the latest ones are tuned to meet the latest 2021 exhaust emissions limits. Not much of the DD16’s sound could be heard inside the cab, making for easy conversations. The big 16’s 600 horses never breathed hard as they pulled the long, moderately loaded lowboy trailer around the track.
This tractor had a 42-inch sleeper behind the cab, though I spent no time in it, and a 73-incher is also available for long trips.
The 49X comes with a host of electronic safety, diagnostic and telematics systems, most under the Detroit Assurance name, that can make life easier for driver and owner if they take some time to learn how to use them. For instance, automatic braking can stop the truck before it rear-ends another vehicle or runs over a pedestrian. A deep pitched warning that simulates pavement rumble strips warns when the truck is about to leave a lane. Telematics, which broadcasts data to and from a fleet’s office, might not be as valuable to an individual owner-operator unless he/she captures operating numbers back home or on a personal laptop or tablet, where programs can crunch the numbers for maintenance and tax purposes. On those scores, the truck world has become a wondrous place.
The 49X is a premium addition to Western Star’s vocational lineup, and is meant to enhance Daimler Trucks’ share of the vocational market, executives said during the new model’s podcast launch last fall. It does not replace the long-running, long-nose 4900, which remains available, along with the slightly shorter 4800, compact 4700, sleek 5700XE, and the off-road 6900 series. Most of those are built in Portland, Ore., while some are assembled in Cleveland, N.C., which is where the 49X will be built starting in early 2021. Should those be called Eastern Stars? I’ve asked Western Star people that question and they just chuckle. Anyway, if you buy one of these you’ll make them and yourself smile. LL