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

Manufacturer’s Website
Mercedes-Benz Canada

Review and photos by Mike Schlee

Photo Gallery:
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive; Part 3

Mercedes-Benz is always up for an adventure. In 2010, they took a group of Canadian automotive writers deep into the northern Canadian wilderness – in Smart Fortwos – in the dead of winter. We at Autos.ca attended that trip and loved every second of it. So, when Mercedes-Benz proposed driving their Sprinter commercial vans from Edmonton to beyond the Arctic Circle, how could we say no?

The trip was split into two legs with the first leg being a six-day trek from Edmonton, Alberta to Anchorage, Alaska. The second leg was a round trip, four-day journey from Anchorage, AK to Coldfoot Camp, AK and back. Travel Editor Paul Williams was on the first leg of the adventure while I took part in leg two.

The task set before me and my fellow automotive writers was a 1,972-km expedition in extreme cold temperatures on roads that were usually under a layer of ice and snow. It may not sound like a big deal for most Canadians, but we were travelling in rear-wheel-drive, empty commercial vans through mountain passes intended for transport trucks and four-by-fours. Our convoy included a lead Mercedes-Benz ML 350 BlueTec, two passenger Sprinters, four long-wheelbase (170-inch) Sprinters, three short-wheelbase (144-inch) Sprinters and a support Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTec bringing up the rear. All of the trucks were equipped with regular winter tires – no studs or chains here.

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

During a brief information session before hitting the road, we were informed that although the Sprinter van underwent extensive winter testing, there was a chance we were going to experience temperatures that exceeded the limits of these tests. Lucky for us, all of the Sprinters we were driving featured 17,000 BTU diesel heater boosters that run on their own to warm the trucks coolant and provide extra heat inside the cabin. When it is running, small plumes of exhaust can be seen coming out from middle of truck. Thankfully, all of our cargo Sprinters had a partition between the driver’s compartment and the rear cargo hold, which allowed the front cab to stay warmer. After our mission briefing was done, it was time to hit the road.

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

Day 1
We headed outside and found our chariots were all nicely pre-warmed and running for us; we would not receive pampered treatment like this again during our journey. I jumped into one of the tall-roof, long-wheelbase Sprinters and prepared myself for the drive.

As we headed out of Anchorage en route to Fairbanks, everything from the morning’s information session was still circulating inside my head. Don’t honk at wildlife if they are blocking the road, they can be unpredictable and charge the van.  Survival gear is in the support vehicles in case of an emergency like an avalanche or road closure. Use our transmission’s manu-matic feature for engine braking on steep descents.  Run with rear fog light on during ice fog, constant blowing snow and reduced visibility. Be wary of stopping distances on ice; brake hard initially, then ease up as speeds slow down.

All throughout the driving legs, we were in constant radio communication with the support vehicles and fellow Sprinter warriors. After a few long days, in areas where radio stations do not exist for hours on end, the banter on the two-way radios got, um, interesting.

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

Our first day of driving would prove to be our easiest. The weather was perfect, with bright sunny skies and hardly any wind. We were given a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley this day. The roads were a mix of pavement, snow and ice, but never any real challenge for the Sprinters; the steeper, slipperier mountain passes were yet to come. The roads themselves, though, were quite rough and I really got a chance to experience the highly touted (by Mercedes reps on hand) suspension geometry. It allows for offset road imperfections, like frost heaves and minor snow drifts, to be swallowed up with little rebound off-load. This allows the driver to maintain better control of the truck. I was impressed by the setup and never found the Sprinter to be jittery on rough roads. In addition, the ride is so refined that I had to keep reminding myself I was in a commercial vehicle and not a sedan or crossover; it is just that good.

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

Day 2
Our second day started with a lengthy delay. We were all instructed the night before to set the Sprinter’s onboard timers that turn on the auxiliary heater engine to kick in and pre-heat the van’s coolant; a crucial step when overnight temperatures dipped below -40 C. The Sprinter requires about a half hour to warm up properly in extreme cold. The timer itself was very easy to set and I had our van all ready to go for the morning.

That morning we woke up to temperatures hovering just about -40 C with the wind chill making it feel more like -51 C. Despite my auxiliary heater kicking in and warming the vehicle as planned, there still wasn’t enough juice in the main battery in these frigid temperatures and my vehicle, like a few others, required a boost to get going that morning. One van didn’t have the timer set correctly and despite our support crew’s best efforts, would not start. We had to leave it behind in a heated garage and pick it up on our way back through town the next day. There is a reason why most trucks, tractors and commercial vehicles up here do not turn their engines off, ever, for the entire winter.

Once on the road, we quickly lost any signs of civilization and would only come across the odd building structure every once and awhile, half of which were long abandoned.  With no satellite radio or regular radio stations to be found, two-way radio banter quickly filled the void – and quickly got out of control.

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

It was another clear sunny day which made for some spectacular scenery as we went up and down mountain passes and entered the Dalton Highway, which follows the Alaskan Pipeline all the way north.  For those who have never been to the far north before (like me), it truly is breathtaking scenery, like nothing I have ever seen before.

A few of the valleys we passed through had temperatures that dipped below -40 C; this would confuse the van and make the external temperature gauge read +85 C.  I would love to meet the German engineer who thought there was no way a vehicle could ever meet outdoor temperatures below 40 degrees Celsius, but would drive through an area where it is plus 85 degrees Celcius.

After a long day, we finally arrived at Coldfoot Camp, AK which is the halfway point between Fairbanks, AK and Deadhorse, AK. Coldfoot Camp is just that, an outpost camp first used when building the Alaskan Pipeline. It is less a hotel and more a barracks for workers. But it was a warm meal, warmish bed and a place to rest after a long drive. Coldfoot Camp is also considered the centre of North America for viewing the northern lights and that night we were not disappointed. I missed it, as I attempted to sleep in the freezing cold, hoping that the rats wouldn’t get to me.

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

Day 3
Coldfoot Camp lived up to its name and offered me one of the coldest sleeps I ever had.  While the lobby, lounge and hallways of our rooming building were toasty warm, several of the bedrooms did not receive much heat, mine included. At least my van was nice and warm waiting for me; to avoid any of the issues we had in Fairbanks with vans not starting, we left them running all night long just like the half dozen big rigs and half dozen support pickup trucks sharing the Coldfoot Camp parking lot with us.

Today we would truck back down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks. The weather promised to be another crystal clear but ice cold day. In fact, the morning of Day 3 was the coldest of the whole trip. It was -43 C outside and playing havoc with the Sprinter’s sensors. The van was firing off warning signals for check engine lights, low brake fluid and low tire pressure due to extreme cold weather. Mechanically the van was 100 percent and drove fine, except for the steering getting very stiff after extended highway runs thanks to the power steering fluid freezing up. A radiator grille cover, as seen on virtually every truck in Alaska, would most likely solve many of these issues.

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

Because of the fact it is so cold and they do not use road salt in Alaska, it is impossible to clear the roads completely after a snowfall. So for the third straight day, we were driving on snow and ice covered roads and I must say, the Sprinter is planted on the snow. I never thought I would be travelling at 100+ km/h on snow/ice covered roads in an unloaded rear-wheel-drive commercial vehicle through mountain passes. Only the steepest and iciest of inclines would provoke the Sprinters traction control to momentarily engage, and never once were the anti-lock brakes needed when descending a mountain pass thanks to careful driving and downshifting the five-speed automatic transmission. Even with a mere 188 hp, the 325 lb-ft of torque from the 3.0L turbocharged diesel would muscle the Sprinter up every inclined we tackled.

Day three saw our first incident involving one of the vans.  During a stop at the Yukon River a van was negotiating a U-turn in a parking lot when it drove over an area that had been plowed, but was really a snow-filled ditch waiting to swallow the sprinter like an evil trap.  While we waited for it to be freed by the GL 350, we noticed that idling for too long in -43 C temperatures would eventually render the heater useless, even with heater booster on. Ramping up the engine rpms and/or getting back on the road cured this in a hurry.

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

Day 4
Since day one had been such an easy drive between Anchorage and Fairbanks, we were expecting the return drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage would be the same, and it started out that way. Everything started out great. Instead of being -45 C overnight as it had been two days earlier, it was a relatively balmy -13.5 C when we left Fairbanks for the final drive.

Along the route the weather was great, the skies were clear, and as we approached the Denali Mountains we were presented with a spectacular view that I will never forget for the rest of my life. But then began the snow flurries, which turned into a full assault of snow, reducing visibility to that of a backyard swimming pool filled with milk. Even with the rear fog lights on it was difficult to see the van in front of us and were left to follow the moving snow cloud in front of us, hoping it was still on the road and not the ditch.

After the snow let up, we had our first major incident on the trip. The same van that had sunk into the parking lot yesterday, and subsequently had its rear tow bar split in two during the frigid temperature evacuation attempt, had a cloud of bad luck following it. It was following another non-Sprinter van, when an oncoming big rig hauling two 53-foot trailers misjudged its closing rate on another oncoming car waiting to make a turn.  The semi-truck driver panicked and hammered the brakes. With nowhere to go, he ditched his truck into the snow bank to avoid smashing into the car in front. Our driver and the driver of the other van saw this and stopped immediately, but the inertia of the dual trailers on the rig caused it to snap out and collect both vans in a slow-speed sideswipe.

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

Thankfully, everyone was okay in both vehicles and after all the proper police reports were filled out, we were on our way once more; with the battered but not defeated Sprinter still driving under its own power. This is one tough van.

In the end, I learned a lot about versatility and endurance of not just the Sprinter van, but also the human body. When a vehicle whose primary purpose is not about driver comfort, but is still able to provide a compliant ride, confidence inspiring control and enough heat to keep you warm in the worst of conditions, well, that says a lot about the engineering about this van. Those who need a long-haul commercial van, I highly recommend this rig.




About Mike

Mike Schlee is the Social Editor at Autos.ca and autoTRADER.ca. He began his professional automotive writing career in 2011 and has always had a passion for all things automotive, working in the industry since 2000.