Volvo FE350 4x2: Low entry cab test

Colin Barnett
September 10, 2019

Jump to: Vehicle specifications, In the cab, On the road.

Volvo’s 18-tonne FE Low Entry 4x2 is a manoeuvrable and versatile workhorse that will suit many an urban operation and offers a driving experience similar to a regular FE.

Getting to drive this Volvo FE Low Entry 4x2 in rural Gloucestershire involved something of an international journey. It started life as a regular medium-roof sleeper cab in the shared Volvo Group facility at Blainville, in Normandy, France. From there, it moved to the Netherlands, where the low-entry semi-crew cab conversion was carried out by Estepe. Then it continued north to Kristinehamn in central Sweden, where the long established (and long named) Bro Bärgningsbyggen AB recovery vehicle manufacturer fitted the car transporter body. After that, it was a short hop to Volvo HQ at Gothenburg to join the central demonstration fleet, before the longer trek back south for us to drive. On the way, it stopped off to pick up an authentic load, too – a shiny Volvo XC90.

The FE Low Entry has its roots in the UK, initially designed as a specific solution to operating in London, but has now become a fully- edged model in its own right and is offered on many markets.

The Volvo had barely stopped moving at the Hut truckstop at William Gilder’s yard on the Evesham road out of Tewkesbury before it was surrounded by uniforms. Fortunately, they were firefighters on a training run, who proceeded to crawl all over the bright red FE that looks as though it might be a ¬ re appliance. What they saw inside the low and forward-mounted cab was a low-volume conversion which, while beautifully crafted, veers more towards functional utilitarianism than plush trim, with more alloy chequer plate and phenolic ply than brushed aluminium and walnut. Despite its length, the cab tilts as normal.

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In the cab

Wide doors lead into a cab with seating for a driver and three passengers. The passenger seats are mounted around 100mm higher and 300mm further back than the driver’s. This truck’s driver gets a nice cloth-trimmed seat while the passengers only have vinyl seats, although they are comfortably shaped and other more egalitarian options are available. There’s considerable space behind the seats for the paraphernalia needed for recovery work, but only the driver’s seat folds to provide access to it. Other storage includes reasonably-sized lockers above the screen and, on the rear walls, a document pocket and some heavy duty fabricated steel hanging racks.

While there’s no bi-fold or bus-type door option, the standard slam doors open a full 90 degrees with only a shallow armrest moulding at the top preventing a completely at door trim. Even with the FE’s full air suspension at its lowest level, there are a couple of highish steps to negotiate. Once inside, the crosscab access isn’t the widest at ground level, but widens considerably as it gets higher, making it almost completely free of any intrusions, with only the park brake lever and body remote control to negotiate, so it’s actually easier to use than some rivals. Should any passenger – an RCV crew member for example – need to stand in the passenger step well for any reason, there’s room to do so with the door closed.

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On the road

Making allowances for the left-hand-drive, which presented a few challenges out on the road, the visibility is very good, including from the passenger seats which are effectively in the back. The side windows behind the B-pillars prevent your guests from feeling claustrophobic. The passenger door is fitted with a fair-sized vision panel, unobstructed by passenger legs. Although this forces the use of a two-part horizontal sliding window, the vertical frame in the middle wasn’t an issue.

The dash is mostly all familiar FE, apart from being on the wrong side, although the central area has a large at panel intended for easy mounting of operation-specific equipment such as body control panels and monitoring screens. Although the FE’s front bumper sits 2m ahead of the front axle, there’s no problem with placing it on the road, the left-handdrive being a bigger handicap on some junctions. The FE can be driven normally with the full air suspension at the fully lowered position, providing the desired interaction with vulnerable road users in urban situations while retaining maximum distance vision on the open road. The ride is surprisingly good, even on the lowest setting, where suspension travel is inevitably reduced.

While the low-entry cab sector is not known for excessive power-to-weight ratios, the 18-tonne Volvo came with a similar 350hp rating from its 7.7-litre engine to most of its 32-tonne rivals. As a result, and with only a 2-tonne car on the back, the performance was suitably brisk, particularly with the 12-speed I-Shift transmission taking care of the gears.

While the FE Low Entry cab comes as a one-size-fits-all offering, with no options to the basic structure, it is similar in terms of driving experience to a regular FE. Consequently, it’s likely to prove suitable for a variety of operations such as urban distribution, with less chance of drivers feeling they’re being made to drive a bin lorry than some rivals. And you could also use it for fighting fires.

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