Motoring: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans were game for Alaskan journey
“You’re going on an Alaskan road trip with Mercedes-Benz? Cool,” piped up a friend, expecting I’d be driving something like the mighty G-Class or the slightly less rugged, but still capable GL-Class SUV.
I replied that we’d be taking Sprinter cargo vans, nearly 3,200 km from Edmonton to Anchorage.
“The Sprinter? Really?”
Admittedly, this trip may seem a head-scratcher, but according to Miki Velemirovich, manager of Mercedes-Benz vans, “we know how well the Sprinter performs on the construction site, doing deliveries, etc., but with this event, we want to showcase that it could do these things in a really harsh climate.”
And harsh it would hopefully be, although by the time I left, it looked like the Greater Toronto Area was heading into a deep freeze, while the northern route through Alberta, BC and Yukon were unseasonably warm.
We landed in Edmonton on a Monday, and next morning assembled our convoy of nine Sprinters—long- and short-wheelbase cargo vans, along with a couple of passenger units—most with two journalists to share the driving.
Our group also included Mercedes-Benz reps and a hired crew to manage and film the event, and fix any problems along the way. Which hopefully wouldn’t include rolling the vehicle down a mountainside.
They equipped each passenger cabin with a pair of two-way radios, and the cargo hold with a gas can. Here, we also placed our luggage. It barely nibbled at the 10,500 to 14,000 litre capacity of the 144- and 170-inch wheelbase cargo vans, which can grow to 17,000 litres with the extended box and “super high roof” package.
The first leg of our trip—665 km to Fort St. John—followed a route that was, for the most part, devoid of scenic value: flat fields, gas refineries, steel warehouses and outbuildings, all bordered by a continuous line of utility poles.
Wildlife was limited to a handful of deer, a single herd of penned caribou and one dead moose.
But the Sprinter quickly ate up the miles, smoothly, and with some expected jouncing over sections of badly heaved pavement.
One highlight that day was reaching “mile zero” of the Alaska highway, just west of the BC border at Dawson Creek. Here, we did the silly tourist thing—taking our photos beside the original marker—but for the first time, I felt we were really on our way.
Next morning at Fort St. John, we discovered how well the Sprinter’s standard-equipped auxiliary heater does its job.
We had set the overnight timer for this small diesel engine, which preheats and circulates the coolant, to start an hour before departure. It uses only 0.6 litres per hour, so cost isn’t a factor, and the result is an easier cold start and almost immediate warmth blowing through the vents.
Also available is a heater that kicks out twice the BTU, with remote control so you won’t have to fuss with a timer. But even in the -38C we encountered three days later, the standard unit held its own.
And dispelled any misconceptions that diesels won’t start in extreme cold.
Road conditions that day—and throughout most of the trip—were icy, and with intermittent frost heave that could launch smaller vehicles airborne. The Sprinters were shod with decent winter tires, although not studded.
At one point, I felt the back end slide out on a curve, but the Adaptive Electronic Stability Program helped out even though I tried to correct it myself. We were advised next time to simply steer where you want to go and let the ESP do the rest.
As it did flawlessly when my co-driver and colleague, Jackson Hayes, encountered the same thing later that day.
Another element to this system is load adaptive control and roll over mitigation. We had no load and thankfully didn’t test the latter, but it’s comforting to know this tech is in place.
Day Three at Muncho Lake began with a drive on its frozen surface like the Ice Road Truckers. It was a brief demo, but for me, further proof of how well Sprinter nannies work when you’re purposely trying to get out of shape.
Shortly after, and a few clicks down the road, our convoy was surrounded by bison, foraging on both sides of the highway. These are BC’s largest land animals, and with some tipping the scales at nearly a ton, they’re not to be trifled with. Still, I felt pretty secure sitting high in the vehicle.
Bison often come out at night as well, and we had passed a small herd the prior evening on route to Liard River hot springs. Despite the vehicle’s standard front airbags (and available thorax and window airbags), this was one hazard I’d sooner avoid.
Later that day, and just north of the BC border, we stopped near Watson Lake at the Signpost Forest. It was started in 1942 by a homesick U.S. Army G.I. working on the Alaska Highway. He erected a sign that gave the distance and direction to his hometown, and soon others followed his lead. Today there are more than 72,000 signs.
Our group pulled into Whitehorse well after dusk, which after 712 km of driving on the icy highway, was to be expected. With sightseeing no longer a possibility, we refuelled the vehicles and checked into our hotel.
Fuel economy, by the way, had been impressive to this point, considering our fast pace and that the vehicle’s 3.0-litre V6 BlueTEC turbo diesel was pulling a more than 2.5-ton curb weight. Our average readings of around 12 litres/100 km were better than I’ve managed from many SUVs.
Day four began at Starbucks, my first visit since leaving Pearson, and perhaps the longest I’ve gone without a venti green tea latte.
While sipping my sage-coloured nectar, travelling north from Whitehorse, the sunrise began painting the adjacent mountains in a warm glow. This far north, the sun doesn’t rise far, following only a low arc from east to west.
We later passed through Kluane National Park, following the stunning and jagged St. Elias Mountains to the west. This range includes some extremely high peaks that include Mount Hubbard (14,951 ft.) and Canada’s tallest—Mount Logan at 19,551 ft.
Logan is believed to have the largest circumference of any mountain on earth, and because of its extreme altitude (and proximity to the Gulf of Alaska), also holds the record for coldest temperature outside of Antarctica: -77.5 C (-106.6 F).
Kluane Lake was another gem. After crossing a lengthy causeway, we followed the shoreline to our lunch stop at Destruction Bay, population 50. Clouds and blowing snow prevented photographing the spectacular surrounds.
The day ended in Tok, Alaska, our northernmost destination before heading southwest to Anchorage. The mercury here had dropped into the minus 30s, which was a relief, as I dreaded returning home to any whining that the GTA somehow endured colder temps.
That morning, after a night somewhere near -40 C, our Sprinter started lickety split. A neighbouring van, however, had its interior light on overnight and didn’t fare as well.
The last stretch took us southwest to the state’s largest city where approximately half of all Alaskans choose to live. There’s a noticeable rise in temperature along the way, and the trees enlarge from stunted ‘bottle brushes’ to something closer to what we have here.
Anchorage is a modern city, and sadly we had little time to spend here before hopping on the red eye to Seattle, and then home.
This event was an adventure, and at the same time gave me respect not only for Alaskan weather and its highway, but for an unlikely vehicle that made this trip comfortable, secure, and one I’ll not soon forget.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 2013
Body style: cargo van (also available as passenger van and cab chassis)
Drive method: front engine, rear-wheel drive.
Engine: 3.0-litre V6 diesel (188 hp, 325 lb/ft of torque).
Cargo volume: up to 17,000 litres (600 cu ft) depending upon variant.
Payload: up to 2,438 kg (5,375 lbs)
Cargo Height: up to 2.14 m (7 ft.)
Tow rating: up to 3,409 kg (7,500 lb).
Fuel economy: N/A
Price: Cargo Van starting at $45,400 with high roof package; Passenger Van starting at $52,600 with high roof package. See website for full range of models