North to Alaska

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive demonstrates the vehicles' winter prowess

Published: February 4, 2013, 1:00 PM
Updated: October 10, 2014, 11:43 AM

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive - convoy pause on Alaska Highway

ANCHORAGE, AK – Truckers expect their rides to be rugged – "professional grade; no guts, no glory," as a couple of ads declare.

While the domestic brands have this tough-truck image down cold, it’s still a challenge for newcomers to the segment. Mercedes-Benz, for example, has been building trucks for overseas markets for more than 100 years, but only stepped into the Canadian marketplace in 2010 with its Sprinter van lineup.

(Dodge sold the Sprinter for a few years prior during the Daimler-Chrysler marriage.)

The problem Mercedes faces is that its brand image doesn’t fit the typical trucker mould. Luxury, high performance, precision engineering, premium quality – these are some of the characteristics most buyers on this side of the Atlantic associate with the tri-star symbol.

Toughness? Not so much.

"The perception is that our trucks aren’t tough and rugged," says Miki Velemirovich, manager of Mercedes-Benz Canada’s van division. Although M-B vans have captured 13% of the market in just two years, Velemirovich says this image issue is hampering the company’s growth rate in the commercial vehicle segment.

Changing the perception

So, to demonstrate Sprinters are tough enough to tackle extreme conditions, Mercedes set out on a drive to the Arctic Circle. A convoy, with nine Sprinters – seven cargo vans and a couple passenger models – left Edmonton on a five-day, 3,200-kilometre run to Anchorage, Alaska.

The second leg of this adventure was a four-day drive north to Coldfoot, above the Arctic Circle, and back to Anchorage. I participated in the initial drive to Anchorage, driving a 3.7-metre, short-wheelbase Sprinter 2500 cargo van.

The run was indeed a challenge – for the Sprinters as well as the drivers. The daily drive typically covered 650-700 kilometres, mostly on slick, icy roads that demanded the driver’s complete attention.

Once on the Alaska Highway, running north out of Dawson Creek, B.C., the road became a lonely place, with minimal traffic – perhaps an oncoming vehicle every 45 minutes or so.

Usually, the approaching vehicle was an 18-wheeler highballing its way back to civilization – and stirring up a blinding swirl of snow in its wake.

The scenery throughout the drive was spectacular, whether it was the chiseled mountains, snow-covered plateaus or the wildlife we frequently encountered en route.

They included a group of caribou gathered on the roadway, a herd of bison unperturbed by our intrusion as they ambled along the road, or the numerous moose that noticed our presence then, thankfully, scooted back into the forests.

Capable in the cold

Temperatures plummeted as we moved closer to our destination, with minus 38C the lowest we encountered, in Tok, Alaska. Still, our Sprinter started every morning and kept us comfortably warm all day.

The further north we progressed the more we appreciated one feature offered with the Sprinter – a programmable auxiliary heater. It’s actually a small furnace that burns diesel fuel, similar in concept to the butane heater that Volkswagen installed to take the chill of its original Beetle.

The Sprinter iteration, which consumes about 0.6 litres of fuel an hour, preheats the engine coolant before it enters the van’s heater unit. The warmed fluid is also circulated through the engine cooling system, making cold starts easier.

Before shutting down for the night, the driver can program the unit to fire up in advance of start-up. We set it to kick in 45 minutes before the next day’s scheduled departure time so the cab and the engine were both pre-heated – a feature we warmly appreciated on those dark, frigid Arctic mornings.

The auxiliary unit can also be engaged as a booster while driving, helping overcome the lower operating temperatures of a diesel engine. Despite the extreme cold outside, things stayed comfy in the cab. I expect this feature will be appreciated by Sprinter drivers whether they are on long winter runs or stopping frequently to make deliveries.

Built for work

My five days in the Sprinter enabled me to fully appreciate the van’s "working environment." The large windshield and side windows allow the driver great visibility and the two-part, power-adjustable exterior mirrors make it easy to keep tabs on your surroundings.

The instrument panel is laid out well, with a pair of large gauges, separated by a digital info screen, centred in front of the driver. The two large knobs that control the HVAC system are within easy reach and adjustable even while wearing gloves.

There are numerous storage spaces, in the door panels, instrument panel and overhead. The glove box lights up when opened and its capacity for holding stuff is excellent. There’s even a clip conveniently built into the instrument panel to hold paperwork.

The van I drove had two seats – both were fitted with retractable armrests and proved to be both comfortable and supportive on the long daily drives, although the amount of rake adjustment for the seatback was restricted by the cargo bay partition.

If the seat was moved forward on its track, the seatback could be tilted somewhat, but then the steering wheel was uncomfortably close. There was limited tilt adjustment on the steering wheel but no telescopic feature.

Still, for the use these vans will typically have – mainly on urban streets, not long-haul drives – the tall seating position is appropriate.

Diesel efficiency

All the vans – two short-wheelbase cargo vans, five long-wheelbase (4.3-metre) cargo vans and two 3.7-metre passenger models – were powered by Mercedes’ 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6 BlueTEC diesel engines.

The Sprinter shares this engine with several products in the M-B passenger vehicle lineup, including the E-Class sedan and the ML, GL and R-class SUVs. As you’d expect from any product wearing the M-B badge, it is very refined.

The V-6 pumps out 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, which proved to be more than adequate on this mission, while also being impressively smooth and quiet.

The impact of our intrusion into the beautiful, pristine northern environment was minimal, thanks to Mercedes’ clean-diesel technology that converts harmful nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and water.

This 3.0-litre diesel has a fuel consumption rating of 13.8 litres/100 km in city use, 9.4 on the highway. The actual consumption rate over my 3,176-km run was 12.6 litres/100 – impressive, considering we were certainly not in fuel-saving mode, running at speeds in the 100-120 km/h range and a few times topping out over 140 km/h.

Granted, our Sprinters were running with a minimal payload – a couple of occupants and their luggage.

Cargo capable

The cargo van, which is offered in numerous configurations including the two wheelbases, three overall lengths and three roof heights, has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) that ranges from 3.88 tonnes (8,550 pounds) to a best-in-class 5.0t (11,030 lbs.), depending on the vehicle configuration, while its payload capacity ranges from 1.55t (3,426 lbs.) to 2.45t (5,415 lbs.), also best in its class.

Cargo volume ranges from nine cubic metres (318 cubic feet) to 17 cubic metres (600 cu.ft), while the length of the cargo bed stretches from 327 centimetres (128.5 inches) to a class-leading 470 cm (185 inches.)

The cargo area is readily accessible, either through the wide (best-in-class, 182 x 130 cm) manual sliding side door or the twin swinging rear doors.

Those back doors are hinged at the edge of the truck so the accessible area is almost as wide as the cargo area. In fact, you could actually fit a Smart Fortwo through the opening.

Multiple configurations

The cargo van can also be fitted as a crew cab, with a second-row bench, boosting seating capacity to five.

The Sprinter is also available as a passenger van or a cab and chassis suitable for upfitting as a motor home, ambulance or construction work truck, for example. Configured as a passenger model, it will accommodate up to a dozen people.

Pricing starts at $42,900 for the cargo van, $43,400 for the cab/chassis and $50,100 for the passenger model.

The Sprinter can be ordered in seemingly endless combinations of vehicle length, wheelbase and height, as well as suspension packages and optional equipment, including Parktronic parking assist, heated driver and passenger seats, heated windshield, power adjustable heated mirrors, rear view camera, Bluetooth connectivity, an auxiliary audio interface and bi-Xenon headlamps.

Safety features include an adaptive electronic stability program with acceleration skid control, roll-over mitigation and roll-movement intervention, adaptive load control, enhanced understeering control and trailer stability assist.

Having this stability control system onboard helped give us confidence when we had to tackle the intimidating conditions on this drive.

Other safety features include an advanced ABS braking system with brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, brake disc wipe and electronic brake prefill, as well as driver, passenger, window and thorax airbags and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Velemirovich also notes the Sprinter earned awards for the lowest cost of ownership in its class and the best fleet value in Canada.

That kind of recognition should certainly enhance the Sprinter’s acceptance by fleet buyers; and its success on this challenging Arctic Drive should boost its credentials for toughness.