New Western Star 49X looks tough but creampuff to drive

December 23, 2020

Tom Berg

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Western Star 49X heavy-haul tractor
New 49X tractor is a heavy-haul version with 20,000-pound-capacity steer and lift axles and 46,000-pound tandem, and a DD16 diesel rated at 600 hp. The massive grille is unique to the 49X while retaining a Western Star family resemblance. The roof “trench” accommodates air horns, and cool-burning LED headlights have heating grids to melt snow and ice. (Photos by Tom Berg)

 

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.

Western Star 46x  DD16 engine
DD16, Detroit’s largest on-highway diesel, was in each of the demo rigs and all had ratings above 500 hp. Other Detroit and Cummins diesels are also available.

 

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.

Western Star 494X driver side door
Doors on all 49Xes are wide and swing open 70 degrees for easy entry to and exit from the aluminum-over-steel cab. Vertical handrails stay clean and dry because they’re inside, and exterior rails are optional. Three-piece rear window allows a good view of what’s happening behind the cab, especially with the slanted-front box on this dump truck.

 

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

Int'l Used Trucks
Tom Berg

Tom Berg worked his way through college by driving trucks. Since 1978, he’s been writing about trucks and trucking. He holds a Class A commercial driver’s license and drives trucks as part of story research. While semi-retired, Berg still writes about semis as a contributing editor at Land Line.