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Posted: August 1, 2014 by Jim Park

Sterling’s Acterra makes a fine expediter.

Why just drive a truck when you can go down the road in this kind of style? Expedite trucking is a growing phenomena, characterized by bursts of urgency followed by bits of slack time after the run. During the down moments, you’d have to admit it would be nice to have a little room to relax.

Depending on where in the country you operate, trips can range from overnight jaunts to cross-country hauls. If that’s what turns your crank, then forget about living inside the box – a box sleeper, that is. Here’s a truck with more than enough room for a comfortable lifestyle, and the gear to get the job done efficiently.

Sterling offers a pair of chassis options ideally suited to the expedite sector’s lighter payloads. The 106-in.-BBC (bumper to back of cab) Acterra is ideal for 33,000-lb GVW. If you need more, or just want to make a larger impression, the 113-in. BBC A- or L-Line models can be spec’d with tandem drives, a heavier front end, and of course a larger engine to do the extra work.

We came across what has to be the mother of all expedite ships while walking the floor at the Mid-America Trucking Show earlier this year. Freightliner of Knoxville (Tenn) had their flagship model on display, the 8500 Command Cruiser – built on a Sterling L-8513 chassis with a 90-in. Bentz sleeper and a Cat C9 engine. And right across from that one sat what they call the 960 Express Cruiser – an Acterra chassis with a 96-in. Bentz sleeper and a Mercedes MBE 900 engine.

Since both trucks had to be ferried back to Knoxville from Louisville, they agreed to let me drive one. As it worked out, I ran about half way in each truck.

Different Similarities
Freightliner of Knoxville is a leading expedite truck supplier in the U.S., and the specs they work with are, one presumes, tried and true. The following are common between the Acterra chassis and the L-Line:
* Allison HS 3000 6-speed automatic transmission (0.65:1 overdrive ratio mated to a 4.78:1 drive axle);
* 12,000-lb front axle;
* 21,000-lb rear axle; and
* 33,000 GVW

Both chassis feature the same Sterling cab, but from the firewall back, there wasn’t much difference between the two, though the cab on the L-8513 sits about eight inches higher than the Acterra’s.

And quite a nice cab it is, too. At 81 inches wide, there was 16.5 inches between the armrests in both trucks. There’s no dog house to speak of, and with the Allison shifter buttons integrated in the dash, there’s nothing between you and that great big sleeper but time. The roof cut-out leaves plenty of head-room for climbing into or out of the seats – in fact, you’d have to be a gymnast to bump your noggin in this truck.

The visibility from the taller cab was terrific, and even better to the front in the shorter, slope-nosed Acterra. Both feature a 50º wheel-cut so maneuverability really isn’t an issue.
The wheelbases differ slightly: 312 inches for the Acterra and 318 for the L-Line. Accordingly, the Acterra can afford a slightly deeper sleeper. A 22-ft cargo box is the norm in the expedite trade – so I’m told – and there are length limits on straight trucks in the U.S., so going with the slightly shorter hood makes room for a 96-in. sleeper on the Acterra chassis, as opposed to the 90-in. version on the L-Line. Like it matters all that much at 90-plus inches?

For what it’s worth, Sterling’s Acterra and L-Line cab/chassis earned J.D. Power and Associates’ top honors for Medium-Duty Truck Customer Satisfaction in 2003. The award is based on six key factors (in order of importance): vehicle quality; vehicle engine; vehicle transmission; ride, handling and braking; vehicle cab interior; and exterior design and styling. I wouldn’t argue with any of them.

Sublime Sleepers
Bigger bunks are at least part of the fun in trucking, and these Bentz sleepers were no disappointment. While there are no Bentz distributors in Canada that we know of, getting into one would only be a matter of logistics. Both these units, however, are exclusive to Freightliner of Knoxville.

Both feature aluminum floor and exterior skin panels that are bonded and riveted to a welded, extruded aluminum frame, all under two inches of insulation and a one-piece 3/16-in fiberglass roof. There’s a pair of 30- x 30-in. tinted and vented windows on either side, along with a vented 16- x 25-in. window on the right side – all with vinyl covers.
Cab/sleeper integration allows stand-up cab height at front seats and open interior cabin space from front windshield to back of sleeper.

A 48- x 76-in. innerspring lower bunk mattress folds away to create space for a comfortable-sized dinette. There’s a laminate counter top and a stainless steel sink with a 12-volt water pump and a 5-gallon fresh water tank, as well as an 8-gallon gray water storage tank. A 12 volt heater/air conditioner comes with an A/C hose adapter kit to tie into the truck’s A/C system, and it comes pre-wired for 110-volt shore power hook-up or connection to an optional genset. Of course, they feature splendid entertainment systems, too, and all the usual amenities like fridge, microwave, etc. There’s not much missing from these sleepers, except maybe a fireplace and a patio.

Wheelin’ Around
You wanna talk about luxury? Cruising down the road in the big Sterling cab without having to worry about the wagon, shifting gears, or axle weights was a real treat. Out on the big road, you’d never guess you weren’t in a tractor-trailer ’till you looked in the mirror. It handled every bit as well as a big truck, minus the weight.

We left the Louisville Fairgrounds an hour or so after the show closed on Saturday evening, so most of the drive happened in the dark. Still, I had no trouble finding my way around the cab and the controls. There was room on the dash panel for more gauges and switches than we had, but you wouldn’t need much more.

The wheel was easy to adjust, and after getting it just right, I pressed the “D” button, released the parking brakes and was on my way, wheeling through the parked cars and trucks, abandoned trailers and storage crates at the back of the building. Good visibility from the cab, I assure you, and the tight turning radius made it a snap getting the 312-in. wheelbase expediter around the obstacles.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the thing got up to speed on the highway. Climbing the on-ramp and merging, the Allison was shifting happily away leaving me to concentrate on traffic – all the while accelerating. While I still have a hard time with a truck with no clutch, I could get used to the pick-up of the MBE 900/Allison HS 3000 combination pretty quickly.

We were lightly loaded – just the tradeshow booth and related materials – so this trip would hardly qualify as a work-out for the MBE 900, but the Allison transmission proved pretty capable. Depending on the conditions, the operator can drop a gear, or hold it in a given gear with the push of a button.

We stopped near Lexington for dinner at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (there’s another advantage to Expedite: when you have time, you can get parked for a decent meal), and had to weave our way into the parking lot. The 50º wheel-cut came in handy there, let me tell you.

Climbing the Jellico hill at the Kentucky/Tennessee state line illustrated how this bit of extra control really comes in handy. On several occasions pulling the hill, I found myself on the cusp of a gear change. Depending on how aggressive I was with the throttle pedal, it would shift, or not. Or, I could keep it in gear at higher rpm by pressing a button, telling it not to shift.

The MBE 900 engine has a 200-rpm over-rev capacity when mated to this transmission for added flexibility, and with the push of a button, the transmission can be programmed for performance or economy shift triggers.

I had no complaints at all about road or engine noise – though I did find the Cat C9 slightly more noticeable than the MBE 900. I had no trouble maintaining a conversation with the truck’s real driver, Wilburn Cates, riding shotgun over in the passenger seat.
I suspect that with living quarters like the big Bentz sleeper, drivers would be pretty keen to get their backsides into a truck like this one on a long term basis. I know I would be. It’s got all the comfort and style of a real fancy Class 8 with few of the aggravations. H

Meet the 8500 Command Cruiser. Built on a Sterling L-8513 chassis, it has a Cat C9 engine, an Allison 6-speed automatic transmission, a 90-in. Bentz premium high-roof sleeper, and a 22-ft cargo box. The Acterra is set up the same way. Wanna go cruising?


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