First Drive: We haul some John Deere equipment then play in the dirt.
On paper, the 2017 Chevrolet Silverado 3500 HD with the new 6.6L Duramax diesel produces 445 HP, 910 lb-ft of torque and tows a maximum of 23,300 lbs. This sounds good on paper, but where is the fun in just reading the specs? Jumping at the opportunity to see what these numbers translate into real life, we joined Chevy in Moline, Illinois for a unique, joint demonstration with John Deere. And yes, we even got to play in the dirt.
All new for 2017, the 6.6L Duramax has been significantly improved with engineers going through every part of the engine making improvements wherever they could. The goal was to provide a smoother towing operation by improving the power delivery and torque curve to allow for better acceleration when passing and off the line. Also, they did extensive work to quiet the diesel engine in the new design and inside the cabin.
This work on the engine pushed the horsepower numbers to the top of the segment while the torque number fell just 15 lb-ft short of the new Ford Super Duty trucks. However, when the torque number is over 900 lb-ft, 15 lb-ft isn’t a big deal.
These numbers are a big boost over the prior model which maxed out at 765 lb-ft of torque and 397 horsepower.
Loaded up with a Big Tex trailer and a John Deere backhoe loader, we rode shotgun in a 3500 HD to see how the truck handled the maximum load in real life. Off the line, the truck pulled the load with smooth power and incredibly was fairly quiet for a diesel engine as the truck got up to speed. The load and the poor road quality did cause the truck to buck a considerable amount as it got up to speed. However, it is difficult to determine if this was primarily the truck’s issue or the really poor roads (we think the latter).
During our morning of driving, we also tested out a 2500 HD loaded and unloaded again with the Duramax diesel engine. The 2500 had a skid steer on it again with the Big Tex trailer pushing it close to its maximum towing capacity of 14,500 lbs. Unlike the 3500, the 2500 didn’t buck at all under load and pulled it with little complaint.
These trucks are also equipped with Chevy’s new digital steering assist which turned out to be pretty helpful towing these loads. This system senses when you are constantly steering to keep the truck on point and adjusts the steering automatically to help correct the oversteering. For example, if you are constantly steering the truck to the left, the digital steering assist will alter the steering to reduce the amount of time you are doing this. For our purposes, we tested this on the highway where we were often coming close to the outside line on our lane. As we steered the truck back a few times, we noticed the truck adjusted and it took longer to move towards the outside line.
Back at John Deere’s Davenport Works Assembly plant, we were given the chance to tour the factory and see firsthand how they build the massive equipment used by mining companies and specialty items like the tree remover for forestry work. We also toured the tractor building assembly line and watched a slew of welders join an impressive array of different metal items.
It is interesting to see how much John Deere utilizes welders still instead of robots. In a typical automotive plant, there is very little welding done with the majority of that work done by robots. Watching John Deere’s assembly reminds us of an automotive plant 20 years ago. It speaks to the lack of need to produce a large number of tractors and other equipment each year. In fact, one of the largest John Deere pieces of equipment, the monstrous 944k loader is pretty much hand built with what would seem to be a good month spent putting together all the electronics, welding the bucket and assembly the other various parts. While line speed is pretty slow, the quality of assembly is likely pretty high.
After touring the assembly plant, we headed out to John Deere’s proving grounds for some fun in the dirt. Driving around in a tractor, scrapping up dirt, digging a hole with a backhoe and taking a spin in a 60-ton loader, it was literally a child’s sandbox in real life.
What was really interesting about all the equipment is how far they have come into terms of comfort and ease of use. For example, nearly all the equipment was equipped with air conditioning, radios and fully adjustable seats. This equipment was truly made to spend all day in the cabin without complaint.
Driving and using the equipment was also improved and made incredibly easy. Like with the 9570 RX quad-track tractor equipped with a scraper which was literally controlled by four buttons – open scraper, close scraper, unloaded scraper, reset the system. If you can count to four, you can use this piece of equipment. Literally. We drove it around a few laps and were surprised at how easy it was to steer and drive. A great feature is the thumb-controlled cruise control which is just a brilliant idea.
The backhoe was also different and vastly improved over than ones we last used nearly a decade ago. Operating the bucket was literally like playing a video game with dual joysticks providing precise control over the opening, closing and movement of the bucket. You could also adjust the responsiveness of the joysticks to match your preferences.
Finally, the drive of the day was the 460E loader with its articulating axles. This beast of a machine, like the rest of the equipment, was surprisingly easy to drive. It might have lumbered to a start, but once it got going, it was a simply a matter of steering it where you want to go. The steering response was similar to an older truck without power steering and this was likely done on purpose allowing for play in the steering when carrying a heavy load – the last thing you would want is sharp steering carrying 60 tons of rock. It also moved. While John Deere, smartly, had put a 17 MPH governor on it, it easily felt like we were doing double that speed.
While playing in the dirt was fun, it was really using the Chevrolet HD trucks with their new Duramax diesel that was the real treat. Like the John Deere equipment, the improvements in these trucks is very apparent and really makes a difference with driver fatigue and towing confidence.