IN 1979 Marvel Comics launched a character called Black Cat, a female bad-dude foil to Spider-Man. The artwork depicts a spunky female built like a gymnast below the waist and Dolly Parton above, all (nearly) wrapped up in skin-tight black lycra.
I was thinking of those visuals as I approached the new CAT630LS prototype just outside Adelaide recently. The new model was first displayed at the Melbourne Truck Show, where the matt-black and sexy carbon-fibre wrap that enclosed the entire truck stopped anyone from walking by without a closer look.
CAT has built the new model with the solitary goal of getting C15-loving road train operators back on the road with their engine of choice. To do that, the truck has been upgraded and a decent sleeper included for long haulers.
I got the chance to drive the prototype rig up to The Alice with two loaded trailers behind.
The matt-black finish had a texture that wouldn't be out of place at McLaren F1, although it wouldn't be strictly practical for 24-7 outback work. It draws dust and handprints like a magnet. Everywhere we stopped, truckies and bystanders couldn't resist a closer look and a touch.
But the real story was hidden away underneath the slick exterior. Other than the new sleeper roofline, the front end would easily be mistaken for the existing model CATs, which were all produced in Tullamarine late in 2010.
The 630LS is scheduled for launch early next year, and brings the requisite increased GVM of 90-tonnes. While that won't put it in the top category for these specialised trucks, the new rating will get it comfortably into the biggest volume sector of road train operators.
But ratings aside, the acid test is how the truck handles two loaded trailers in traffic, around suburbs and outback on wide open spaces surrounding the Stuart Hwy.
The newest CAT has the new ADR80/03-compliant engine, which is a C15 at its core, treated to comply with regulations by tossing EGR and SCR components into the recycling bin. This CAT engine has no converters, recirculation pumps, coolers or other associated bolt-ons.
The emissions control is all done downstream of the combustion chamber and turbo, where dual vertical exhausts have their own DPF filters that take care of all particulate matter and are designed to last the life of the engine. For CAT buyers, that means you put diesel in, and drive. It also means the techies who used to
service the pre-emission C-15s will find themselves very much at home with the new one.
The result is an engine that feels the same as C15s have for decades, with tons of grunt low down in the rev range and a comparatively cool running temperature.
But when I first saw the specs for radiator size it had me concerned. The engine coolant area is "only" 1000 square inches, with the intercooler a further 545 square inches.
Compared to the massive radiator area on the new Freightliners it seemed inadequate, on paper at least.
However the system is designed as an over and under set-up, so the engine coolant component is faced with fresh air all the time, rather than getting ambient air plus additional heat from the intercooler. A two-speed Horton DriveMaster fan is there for the long slogs up hills and, once again, pulls air directly across the engine coolant radiator rather than through any other component.
And it worked. The engine temperature was substantially lower than the DD15 and Cummins competitors. I suspect that will be a vital advantage.
The new sleeper cab is a fair dinkum overnight living area, instead of the poky dog-box that was glued on to the 2010 models.
It's wide, with stand-up space and a broad bed area. There's a huge amount of storage and the bunk allows lift-up access to the external locker boxes on each side of the truck. Importantly the sleeper is integrated with the cab. All you have to do to move in is touch the steering wheel adjustment lever, lift up the armrest and swing your feet across the flat floor.
At stops the stand-up space made the CAT sleeper a standard room and office rather than just a crawl hole. Moving around, setting up gear and changing coats was easily done without worrying about banging elbows and heads.
The low cab height brings outstanding vision across a short bonnet and a wide view of the side of the road. All the driving controls are on hand, except for the traditionally stupid US park-brake and engine-brake locations, which need a reach to operate.
CAT deserves credit for putting the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the last stretch on day one was in the dark and those buttons are not illuminated. They really need to be backlit.
Two very bright LEDs located under the overhead storage compartments behind the windscreen light up with a quick push and don't leave you fiddling around among switches, great for documentation and a quick look around when you pull up.
Settling into the air seat, setting up the wheel - it will be adjustable reach as well as tilt in the production models - then dropping the armrest down, I felt I could drive forever. The stability and comfort was perfect for helping to keep that back trailer on track.
Overall, I think it's the best cab set-up of all the conventionals.
Unlike the arch criminal Black Cat, the 630LS has a small frontal area rising and widening to a generous sleeper area. With clever aero-sculpturing there was almost no wind noise at cruising speed. Only the mirrors could just be heard. Less wind noise equals less wind resistance equals less fuel.
The truck's 90-tonne GVM will be welcomed by road train operators.
The C15 ruled the road trainers for many years before CAT pulled out of the on-highway business, leaving fleets stranded with parts, expertise and driver experience that had to be re-directed to Cummins and Detroit Diesel.
This prototype truck had an 18-speed Eaton manual and it was the best one I've driven. It suits the C15's 550hp very well, whether on deserted plains or wheeling it through Honeymoon Gap into the Alice Springs town centre.
From my first drive back in 2010 I found the CAT to be very manoeuvrable and the new version is no different. A couple of the park-ups were a bit tight but it was dead easy to keep both sides in sight and out of trouble.
On the highway I think the CAT will be a road train driver's best mate as the chassis tracks straight all the time. There is quite a bit of rutting in the road at some points on the Stuart, but the prime mover stayed exactly where I pointed it, keeping both trailers in shape as well.
It's a lot better than cab-overs in that department.
The information screen is very small and is limited in the data it can provide but the instruments are comprehensive without going overboard and I could get the picture of engine and oil temp, gearbox condition, air supply and fuel at a glance in both direct sunlight and at night.
I have little doubt that the new road-train version will attract a lot of CAT devotees that were forced to go to Cummins a few years ago.
All will be forgiven when they can get behind a C15 again, hitch up a big and ballsy load and listen to those sequential turbos whistling their way across the great Aussie outback.
And with an ultra low cab floor you don't have to be Spider-Man to climb aboard.