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Mercedes-Benz Canada

Review and photos by Paul Williams

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Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II

Autos.ca writers participated in Mercedes-Benz Canada’s “Sprinter Arctic Drive.” Here’s Part 2 of Paul Williams’ Road Trip Report. He continues from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

After stopping at a popular coffee chain whose name combines the celestial with the financial, we began our drive from Whitehorse west to Haines Junction. From there we would head northwest, eventually reaching the Canada-US border, and then our next destination, Tok, Alaska.  On the road here you see far fewer vehicles of any kind.  Every half-hour or so a giant lumber truck will come hurtling towards you, leaving a whiteout in its wake, and a temporarily blinded Sprinter driver hoping for the best.

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge

Unless other vehicles driving in our direction were perfectly matching our speed, there was no one else heading our way. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that we neither passed nor were passed by anyone for the entire leg from Whitehorse to the US border. Nor did we encounter any speed traps or police cars at all.

Until we got to Destruction Bay, that is. A former construction camp, this small community is located on the shore of Kluane Lake, flanked by the Ruby Range of mountains to the east and the Saint Elias Mountains to the west. Rounding a corner and entering town at the legal speed, an RCMP cruiser suddenly loomed large at the side of the road. Instantly the right foot is on the brake as our convoy obediently slowed to the newly posted 50 km/h speed limit.

But the argument for doing so was perhaps a little thin. Approaching said cruiser, things didn’t look quite right, and we realized that the threat of a ticket from this particular officer would have had no substance at all. The cruiser, it turned out, was an almost life-sized two-dimensional likeness made of plywood, painted on both sides. Too funny, but it had the desired effect.

Lunch at Destruction Bay was punctuated by power outages that, of course, shut down the kitchen and everything else. Our group, so pleased to finally have wi-fi, was left actually having to talk with each other. The police cruiser cutout amused everyone, but what a shame that the fabulous mountain vistas of Kluane National Park were obscured by thick, grey cloud.

Pressing on, we headed for Beaver Creek, 30 km east of the Canada-US border. By now we were seeing no other vehicles at all. If you want remote, this is it.

The US border offices are a stark contrast to the surrounding environment. Modern, brightly lit, all glass and metal, they looked very official indeed. Our lead vehicle seemed to be taking way too long at the checkpoint, however. Second in line, we could see hands being raised, a head occasionally emerging from the booth, peering into the vehicle, and much animated talking taking place.

We idly wondered what you have to do to get posted in the middle of nowhere, with only a handful of vehicles to process each day.

Eventually it was our turn, and we were greeted by what appeared to be a jovial, gregarious and brush-cut-sporting individual in an impossibly starched uniform with a pristine, polished badge.

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge

“So you’re driving into the United States in this Mercedes-Benz,” stated the border guard.

“Yes, Officer.”

“And will you drive back in this vehicle?”

“Um….no, Officer.”

“How will you be leaving?” he asked, his head suddenly tilting to one side, birdlike.

“On a plane,” we ventured. “From Anchorage.”

“And do you know who will be receiving the vehicle?” he continued, his eyes beginning to squint.

“Well…. not exactly. You see, we’ll be in….

He raised his hand for silence, and with his neck appearing to actually elongate, his head jutted out of the booth while enunciating very precisely as if we may be feeble of mind…

“Let me get this straight. You’re importing a vehicle to the United States; then you’re giving it to someone but you don’t know who, and then you’re leaving the country.”

Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good plan. “That’s… right,” we nodded, smiling weakly.

“Well, then,” he said brusquely. “I have to talk to my boss.” And with that he was gone.

We swallowed hard and tried to make casual chat while in his absence. What if they turned us all back?  What if he arrested us? What if his boss was even stranger? He emerged a few minutes later with a stern expression, and news.

“I have news,” he said. “My boss says he doesn’t care. We have bigger problems to worry about. Meet your friends down the road at the gas station. Enjoy your stay.”

We fumbled with the gearshift, found “Drive” and hit the road. Later, reunited, we compared notes with others in our party.

“That guy was a lunatic!”

“I thought he was nice.”

“No, he seemed really angry.”

“We thought he was funny!

And so it went. Who was that guy of multiple personalities? Was he in training or was he the guy who trains everyone?

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge

Welcome to Alaska.

While the temperature may have been rising in some of the vans at the border, it was plummeting outside. Beside the road, telephone poles tilted this way and that (they call them “drunken telephone poles”) due to the heaving of the ground in this area. Trees, too, pointed in all directions (“drunken forest”) and the road itself undulated and tilted like a theme park ride.

By the time we reached the Young’s Motel in Tok (pronounced Toke, apparently), it was down to –24 degrees. That evening, after dinner at Fast Eddy’s restaurant and some of the hugest meals many of us had ever seen, it was -28 degrees. The forecast for the morning was –35 with a high of –38 predicted by noon. This exceeds the Sprinter’s test parameters, you may recall.

Break out the Canada Goose coat and the fur hat (and the heavy gloves and baseline clothing (formerly known as long-johns according to my driving partner). I at least was prepared for the 100-metre hike from my room to Fast Eddy’s.

Breakfast was as gargantuan as dinner. Pancakes were as big as the dinner plates upon which they were served, and piled three high (they came with a side of Texas toast); an omelette would easily feed three, but it also arrived with a generous helping of hash browned potatoes, bacon, toast and a pancake for good measure. Interestingly, Tokians (I made that up) [What about Tokers? –Ed.] themselves didn’t seem to be people of size, so maybe they exercise a lot.

The signature breakfast selection was Fast Eddy’s famous cinnamon bun, an example of which one of our group naively ordered (it was the Public Relations representative for Mercedes-Benz, actually). I kid you not; it was as big as his head. Maybe bigger! You have never seen the likes of such a cinnamon bun. Swimming in a hot pool of molten brown sugar and icing, dotted with plump raisins, it reminded one of a miniature Newfoundland sitting on a plate. He had a go, shared it with several of our group, and didn’t put a dent in it.

That morning all the Sprinters started, but some needed help. Antigel was already being used to keep the fuel from thickening, but our van required the assistance of a Mercedes technician to make it start (although, to be fair, it was likely our inexperience in these conditions that caused the issue).

Diesel engines, as you may know, don’t have spark plugs. They achieve combustion by pressurizing the fuel, and at these extreme temperatures, this called for a different approach than simply setting the pre-heater and turning the key. The battery was fine (even though we’d left our dome light on all night…) and the technique was to keep the key held in the start position, so that the engine cranked faster and faster, until while depressing the accelerator, it fired.

Et, voila. We were mobile, although again we suffered cold feet for quite a while.

At 512 km, Day Five was the shortest drive of the event, and we were now off the Alaska Highway. Heading down the Tok Cut-Off (part of the Glenn Highway), this stretch of Hwy 1 passes through Gakona Junction and Glennallen, then Eureka, Chickaloon and into Anchorage (Juneau is the state capital, even though Anchorage is 10 times its size).

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge

We stopped at Mentasta Lodge about 75 km out of Tok for coffee and found that the cinnamon buns there, while formidable, did not match the magnitude of Fast Eddy’s. Just as well.

Behind the counter, the affable proprietor Scott Schafer served coffee and talked about the devastation brought to the Mentasta area by the 2002 Denali Earthquake; at 7.9 on the Richter scale, it was the most powerful earthquake recorded in the interior of the US in 150 years.

But history buffs will know that while this event wreaked havoc in the area – opening fissures on the highway and damaging local homes – it was much less severe than the 9.2 magnitude Alaska earthquake of 1962. The distinction is that its epicentre was offshore – as opposed to being an inland event – although its effect was much more devastating.

Mr. Schafer’s establishment still has pictures on the wall of the highway fissures and felled trees caused by the earthquake. These make interesting viewing, but also of interest are the arts and crafts items produced by local First Nations people. These included intricate beadwork, a full wolf pelt, and a traditionally tanned moose hide hat made by Ahtna tribal elder Jenny Sanford, among other things. These were the first items of this kind we’d seen on the trip, and were a welcome diversion from the usual goofy postcards and mass-produced tourist mementos.

The big news, however, for our group, was that the skies had finally cleared and now we could enjoy the fabulous mountain environment through which we were driving. En route to Glennallen we sighted the Matanuska Glacier, the almost perfectly triangular King Mountain and Mount Drum (3,658 metres), looming ever larger as we approached Glennallen.

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge
 

Continuing along Hwy 1 into Anchorage, we were met with some heavy construction as crews blasted into the rock face beside us. Here you’re actually driving on a road hewn out of the side of a mountain — rock on one side, precipice on the other. The problem was that the road, in places, was disintegrating at the precipice side. The challenge for the road workers was to shift it laterally, moving traffic away from the edge, which is no small feat. There was some slow going, therefore, on the twisting section between Chickaloon and Palmer as we had to scooch by the heavy equipment without tumbling off the road. This construction is apparently ongoing; the views, however, were spectacular at this slow pace.

Pulling into the Anchorage Sheraton Hotel was a major contrast to the small, back-country establishments that provided food and lodging on our trip. It’s a major urban centre, the biggest in Alaska, and downtown it could have been any small city in Ontario, except for the mountain views! Almost half of Alaska’s population live here. Apparently bears and moose are a common sight in the city; Sprinters, not so much.

We were done.

After five days in the driver and passenger seats of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, I can attest to their comfort. The seats are firm and supportive, and even though they lack lumbar adjustability, we had no issue at the end of each driving day. They could be heated, however. Ours weren’t.

Getting in and out of a Sprinter is something of a chore as there’s no convenient grab handle to assist. The step-up is high, so you’ll have to work on your core to help with ingress and egress.

Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Road Trip: Mercedes Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II winter driving trucks travel car test drives mercedes benz
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part II. Click image to enlarge

The HVAC system was somewhat complicated to operate. Directing air to the desired location seemed more difficult than it should be, and getting heat to the foot wells proved challenging. The defroster was excellent, however, for both front and side windows.

The instruments are easy to read, and the trip computer gives a comprehensive account of fuel consumption, average speed, time in operation, etc. Our fuel consumption ranged from a low of 11.4 L/100 km to a high of 13.8 L/100 km. Our average speed for the entire trip was approximately 70 km/h. It did concern us that there’s no in-dash light to indicate that the cruise control is operational. It’s easy to unintentionally activate it, and not advised on slippery surfaces.

A related complaint is that deactivating the stability control system produces a generic yellow warning light that doesn’t specify the condition that caused it. Several of us drove for long distances with this light on, not realizing we had unintentionally pressed the ESP button instead of the four-way flasher button. They are next to each other, and easy to confuse.

We found the power of the diesel engine – 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque – to be perfectly adequate for accelerating, cruising and hill (mountain) climbing. It drove smoothly and quietly. The brakes, likewise, were effective and progressive. Visibility to the rear with the big side mirrors is very good. There is an optional rearview camera to assist when backing up, but it’s something of a jerry-built affair that sits on a pivoted support bolted into dashboard. It helps, but it doesn’t seem very “Mercedes.”

The Sprinter would be a great camper conversion. It’s tall, however, which has good and bad points. Good, in that you can stand up in it; bad, in that parking garages are not available to you.

In conclusion, though, it’s pretty clear that these vans have no issue at all handling long-distance, winter conditions. We had no accidents, did suffer some cracked windshields (completely expected in this terrain), one vehicle picked up a spike that blew the tire (the Tire Pressure Monitoring System immediately triggered), but otherwise, no mechanical or electrical issues.

The journey itself would be great to tackle if one had more time to enjoy the scenery. This is a trip for people who prefer the wild outdoors to a pampered vacation. Time, an appropriate vehicle, a willingness to explore and adapt would make it a most memorable drive. If you rush, as we did, you get only a suggestion of available activities and sights. Those planning a trip would be advised to get a copy of the annual Milepost. It’s a terrific resource that identifies everything you encounter on the highway, from parks to natural features, lodging, history and more. Yes, they have apps, too. Check it out at milepost.com.

The trip from Anchorage to Coldfoot and back promises to be more of a challenge, even though it’s a shorter overall distance. We were told much of the road is unsanded, and that there are many hills to climb and descend.

I could have done it, but I’ll leave it to my colleague, Mr. Schlee.




About Paul Williams

Paul Williams is an Ottawa-based freelance automotive writer and senior writer for Autos. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).