Introduced: 2001 (MDC version) and 2005 (Athearn version)
These models were originally produced by MDC/Roundhouse. Circa 2005, MDC was bought out by Horizon Hobby, who then re-issued these models under their Athearn label (another Horizon acquisition). The most noteworthy difference between the two releases is in the tender pickup scheme, redesigned on the Athearn release to eliminate the need for wires between the trucks and the tender (basically the newer and better tender developed for the MDC 2-6-0 was moved over to the 2-8-0). Additionally, the coupler situation has evolved over the years. The first MDC release came with a rigid, non-functioning knuckle coupler mounted on the pilot (and a Rapido-style coupler on the tender). Subsequent MDC releases have a new pilot that contains a coupler pocket wherein you can mount whatever kind of coupler you want. The Athearn release comes with Accumate couplers both front and back.
This model represented the start of an absolute deluge of N scale steam releases that was to eventually see more than a dozen new models emerge between 2001 to 2005. And like most things in N scale steam (seemingly anyway), this model is a bit of a mixed bag. The main downside is that, prototypically speaking, it has its problems. However, I won't dwell on that aspect because, frankly, I don't really care (and anyway, the MR reviewer below covers all of those issues quite ably). The good news is that this thing is a terrific runner. It's smooth, quiet, and responsive at all throttle levels. Slow speed creep is awesome. Pickup is accomplished by all eight tender wheels along with six of the eight drivers (two drivers are equipped with traction tires and the pilot is electrically neutral). Consequently, this baby operates flawlessly through turnouts and anything else you care to throw at it. The addition of the factory-installed traction tires makes this loco a fine puller (why doesn't everybody just fess up and admit that these are a neccessity?) The headlight is directional and very bright. The 5-pole, skew-wound motor is actually located in the tender (with a driveshaft running from the tender into the cab). A small flywheel is mounted to the back side of the motor. The rear pair of driversets are both geared, whereas the forward pair is driven by the rods. The middle two sets of drivers lack flanges (presumably to ward off problems on sharp curves). All wheels are low-profile, so no problems on Code-55 rails.
I guess my only real concern here is the complex nature of this model - lots of tiny and intricately assembled pieces. IE, good luck trying to disassemble it, work on it, and then get it all put back together correctly!
Anyway, all of the cautionary hand-wringing aside, I think these are great locomotives. The paint and detailing are superb, and they're head and shoulders above 90% of the N scale steam out there as far as performance is concerned. And, at least of this writing (2006), people are practically giving these things away. I bought two brand new models for $60 apiece.
Reviewed: 12/01 Model Railroader "It's been five years since an all-new N scale steam locomotive (Kato's 2-8-2) came down the track, so we're happy to see MDC's first entry into the N scale locomotive market, a 2-8-0. Despite some appearance shortcomings it runs great and meets a large need in N for a workaday steamer... The model was made in China. Except for an extra foot of length in the smokebox, the engine checked out well against (prototype drawings)... This extra length was a compromise made to extend the pilot truck forward and provide extra clearance so it wouldn't foul the cylinders on tight curves. The detailing on the cab, pilot (really nice), and other plastic parts is crisp and well done. The bell, whistle, and the safety valves are particularly sharp, and the separate wire handrails and smokebox braces are outstanding. The cab roof hatch opens and closes. The boiler is cast metal, which contributes to pulling power, but the boiler bands and other details are not as sharply defined as on the plastic parts. I don't know if this is a consequence of the casting itself or of a heavy paint coat. The air pump was missing on the right side of my engine, although there's a mounting hole for it and an earlier (pre-production) sample I saw had it. There is no representation of valve gear. The tender has a cast metal frame and shell. Again the detail is not as sharp as on plastic parts. It stands three feet taller than the prototype, a concession to housing the motor. Also there's no hatch for filling with water.
"Prying out the coal load will get you to the motor, a five-pole, skewed-armature, open-frame type equipped with a tiny flywheel... The motor is so quiet and smooth that when I was running it disconnected from the engine I couldn't hear it. Electricity passes to the tender via a split drawbar (no wires). This is a very nice feature. Power is transmitted to a worm gear in the boiler through a ball and socket plastic universal joint (Yes, the prototype's boiler did extend to the rear of the cab. Firing was an adventure.) The worm gear drives a system of spur gears that powers the rear two axles, which are also equipped with plastic traction tires (perhaps a necessary evil on small N scale steamers for sufficient pulling power). The forward pair of axles is powered through the side rods. The four middle drivers are blind (without flanges), enabling the engine to negotiate 7 1/2"-radius curves. I found the performance very smooth and quiet. With its light weight the 2-8-0 has a drawbar pull of just .32 ounces, which equals about eight cars on straight, level track... This is a soundly engineered mechanism. The bronze axle bearings are a particularly good feature. The tender picks up current on all wheels, the engine on the right-side drivers only. All the wheels were in gauge according to my NMRA gauge. The flanges are about .010" deeper than NMRA recommends. The headlight is a bluish-white LED that's quite bright. There is no provision for a decoder, and really no place to put one... The front coupler is a dummy and the rear one is the Rapido type often found on N scale equipment. A non-working knuckle type is included and can be substituted... To sum up, this is a sweet-running engine that's a little skimpy on the detail, but it certainly fills a void in N scale. AT&SF, C&NW, D&RGW, NYC&H, PRR. $189.98"