I woke up bright and early on the second-to-last day of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive to find that our idling vans were still going strong in the parking lot of the truck stop in Coldfoot. After topping them up with fuel and anti-gel to keep the diesel from freezing we head out on the Dalton Highway once again, this time with our compasses pointed south. As we pass through the Brooks Range for a second time and the sun creeps up over the mountains to erase the blue from the sky our vans swing up and down, seesaw-like, on the hills that challenge the turbodiesel engines of our Sprinters to keep a steady pace.
Although the day is much like the one before - with a brief second stop at the Arctic Circle to say our final goodbyes - we get the chance to pull of the road at the Yukon River where we emerge into one of the many extra-cold patches of weather that blanket the highway. Down by the water the temperature drops precipitously, hovering somewhere between -40 C and -50 C, and at its edge we find a tugboat hauled up on the riverbank for the season and a landslide frozen in time across the ice flow that separates one side of the Yukon River from the other. The deceptive snow pack also pulls one of our convoy members into a shallow ditch that will require all of the might of our GL-Class escort SUV to extract it from.
We spend the night again in Fairbanks before saddling up for the longest trek of the voyage, the over 600 kilometre shot back to Anchorage. Our weather luck has run out, for although it is significantly warmer than it had been the day before, blowing snow obscures much of the road and makes the switchback roads that much more treacherous through Denali. Our views of Mt. McKinley completely obscured by whiteout conditions, my co-driver and I find ourselves continually using the manual downshift feature on the Sprinter's transmission to slow the van on downhill sections, avoiding the use of the brakes in order to keep the vehicle as stable as possible.
The warm, blustery weather also brings with it the most frightening incident on our trip. An hour out of Fairbanks, the windows on the Sprinter suddenly frost up. I look down to see the temperature gauge move from -20 C to -5 C then +2 C in the space of a kilometre. Then, word comes over the radio that one of our vans has been involved in an collision with one of the eighteen wheelers we had been seeing all morning.
No one is hurt, but the damage to the van is extensive and it takes close to an hour to extract the Sprinter from the other commercial van that had been knocked into it by the out-of-control semi that jackknifed on the road ahead of it. The sudden heating up of the road caused the ice that normally encases it to develop a thin film of water, making it much more slippery than one would expect. The battered Sprinter is able to make the rest of the journey to Anchorage, where we park the vans and shut down their diesel mills for the final time, but this close call reminds us of how risky the Alaskan interior can be.
A Qualified Success
Mercedes-Benz brought us to Alaska in order to demonstrate just how well the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter family of vans performs when faced with the ultimate in cold weather testing. My experience over the course of 2,000 kilometres of some of the toughest driving I have ever encountered has left me with a mixed impression of their flagship commercial and passenger hauler.
On the one hand, it is impossible to deny that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter transported both myself and all of my companions safely through incredibly remote terrain in temperatures that set records in several of the towns we passed through. The van was comfortable during such a long haul, and it never felt like it was about to slip out of control even when dealing with abrupt elevation changes, curves, and the iced-over gravel of the Dalton Highway.
The counterpoint is that the Sprinter makes use of a turbodiesel engine, which is not the type of drivetrain one would ideally selected for such an extreme environment. The transmission issues, the failure of the pre-heat system in the face of -42 C temperatures and the fact that we had to abandon one of our own when it simply refused to start after a night in the cold indicates that while diesel might be suitable for semi-trucks that are used to idling 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the use of diesel in a smaller transportation platform is not recommended.
It is unrealistic to expect Mercedes-Benz to develop ultra-cold-weather capability for the Sprinter when only a small segment of the world lives in areas where the mercury regularly dips past the -30 C mark. In fact, there are really no commercially-produced trucks or vans that are designed to tackled extreme temperatures on a consistent basis without at least some type of aftermarket modification. After spending so much time behind the wheel of the Sprinter, I can confidently say that it has proved itself a capable, and reliable tool for passenger or cargo hauling as long as you don't have to make a daily jaunt up past the Arctic Circle.