February 1, 2013
Review and photos by Paul Williams
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, Part I
Somebody at Mercedes-Benz Canada has been watching too much television. How else do you explain the decision to drive a convoy of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans from Edmonton, Alberta to Anchorage, Alaska in the dead of winter, Ice Road Trucker style?
It’s the Sprinter Arctic Drive, wherein nine of the big vans haul rubber from Edmonton to Fort St. John, British Columbia, followed by stops in Muncho Lake, Whitehorse, Tok and Anchorage, racking up a total of 3,171 kilometres over five days.
And that’s only the first leg. From Anchorage, a second team of drivers takes over. They’ll head north to Coldfoot, AK, then drive back to Anchorage, adding 2,000 km to the trip. Autos.ca has a driver in each of the two legs: myself and Mike Schlee, the latter taking over in Anchorage.
Now I’ve been talking this trip up to friends and acquaintances, and the question which I’ve most frequently been asked is not the obvious, “Are you crazy?” But rather, “What’s a Sprinter?” (“Are you crazy” comes next…).
This is surprising for an automotive journalist because we think everyone knows that Sprinters are plus-sized vans, typically commercial although sometimes converted into an RV, that were introduced to Canada in 2007 under the Dodge brand (this was the DaimlerChrysler era). But the Sprinter was always a Mercedes-Benz, receiving the three-point star on its grille in 2010 after Daimler and Chrysler separated.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive. Click image to enlarge.
From Mercedes-Benz Canada’s point of view, the question, “What’s a Sprinter,” is one of the reasons for this Arctic adventure. Apparently people in North America just don’t associate Mercedes-Benz with trucks. Another reason is that, according to Mercedes-Benz Canada, potential customers may not think this company’s vehicles are rugged and tough enough for commercial duty. It’s a luxury brand, after all, noted for refinement and sophistication. Trucks aren’t seen to be its forte, at least in North America (although History Television’s American Pickers seem to like them!).
It turns out Mercedes has built vans and trucks for the past 100 years, pioneering the diesel truck in the 1930s. Except for North America, the Sprinter’s been on the market globally since 1995, with the company producing 2.5 million of them over the years. The current Sprinter underwent two years of cold weather testing, with all technologies tested to -30 degrees Celsius.
The Sprinter’s competitors in North America are the Ford E-Class vans, the Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana van, the Nissan NV and soon, the Ford Transit. Sprinters are not exactly everywhere in Canada — Mercedes having sold only 7,000 of them here since 2010 — but they were voted Best Fleet Value in Canada in 2012 (Vincentric).
So Mercedes-Benz is definitely trucking right here in the True North, but maybe you haven’t noticed them. Perhaps nine Sprinters in bright decals heading along the Alaska Highway, along with the attendant articles, blogging and movies will help.
To get to the “Arctic” part of the Sprinter Arctic Drive, our convoy left Edmonton for Fort St. John, British Columbia via Highway 43. This route features mostly four-lane divided highway with vehicles moving at a fast pace.
The Sprinter’s 3.0-litre V6 diesel is very happy tooling along at 120 km/h or so in this environment, turning at about 2,500 rpm and returning a very efficient 12 L/100 km. The engine is quiet, wind-noise is low and the ride is smooth. So far, so good.
Mercedes-Benz Canada tells us that the Sprinter’s fuel efficiency is one of the reasons it costs less to operate than its competition (13 cents per kilometre, about two-thirds the running costs of vehicles in its competitive set). The other two reasons are low servicing costs (25,000 km service intervals) and high resale value. Starting at $50,100, ours is a passenger version of the Sprinter, of which there are two in the group. Starting at $42,900, the others are short and long-wheelbase cargo vans, (you can also order a cab/chassis with dual rear wheels and customize it, starting at $43,400). All are empty except for one doing duty as a technical support vehicle. Finally, there are also a Mercedes-Benz GL taking the lead and an ML bringing up the rear.