We knew we were going to Alaska in winter, understood what the weather reports were telling us about the upcoming week, and bought extra cold-weather gear, but no matter what you prepare for, no matter what it looks like on paper, the reality of a trip like this is always somewhat unknown. We were as prepared as we could be for the sub-zero, 1300-mile drive through Alaska. But how would a caravan of rear-drive Sprinters fare in country that is so severe that only oilmen, big-rig drivers, and reality-show hosts dare visit? And why would Sprinters go there in the first place?
We met up with Mercedes-Benz Canada in Anchorage, for the second segment of an Arctic Adventure that had already visited remote portions of northern Canada. That part of the journey was more east to west, going through the Yukon Territories, and the Sprinters did well. But that leg didn't venture north of the Arctic Circle and wouldn't experience the temperatures we -- and the vans -- would have to endure.
After a presentation about the vehicles and the route, our boots crunched on the snow-covered roads as we walked to the van-filled parking lot. Our vehicle for the journey was a 2013 2500 Canadian-spec Cargo Van with the 170-inch wheelbase. Its biggest difference from the others was that the gauge showed km/h instead of mph. It was powered by the venerable 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel with the five-speed automatic, like it is in the U.S. We packed our gear in the back, climbed in, and pulled into line with the rest of the group for the drive. Our trip's starting temperature was -2 degrees Fahrenheit.
The drive from Anchorage up to Fairbanks was on wide highway, comparable to an Interstate. It proved a good opportunity to get used to driving a rear-drive full-size van on iced-over roads, better here than on a twisty mountain road. We did end up on narrower sections, down to two lanes in each direction, but it was fairly straight. Our route took us past Denali National Park, and the weather was clear enough that we could see Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The Sprinter did amazingly well; stability control was competent on these roads, and the aux heater in the cab provided plenty of heat. We were warm and comfortable, despite watching the brief window of sunshine close. By the time we got to Fairbanks, the sun had gone down, the temperature had dropped dramatically, and the wind had picked up. It was also around this time we realized that, once the temperature gauge in the vehicle driver information center reaches -40 degrees Fahrenheit, it glitches. In our van's case, the gauge read 185 degrees F. Once it warmed up to -39 outside, the gauge was accurate again. We were to stay in Fairbanks that night, so we hooked the vans up to block heaters and set the pre-heaters to start at 7 a.m. and run for 45 minutes. It was abnormally cold, the kind of cold where exposed skin hurts in just seconds, so we were all eager to get inside as quickly as possible. How cold did it get? We discovered the next morning that the temperature had dropped to -48 F the night before, the lowest temperature of the year in Fairbanks at the time.
When we were ready to head farther north, we had to make sure the Sprinters would start -- the coldest cold start we've ever dealt with -- and all the vans but one started. (It hadn't been properly set up the night before.) We let the engines run for 30 minutes, and were on our way. We took Elliot Highway to Dalton Highway, the road that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. As we drove along this lonely two-lane, we rarely saw other traffic, and when we did, it was mostly semis. Sometimes the road crossed over the pipeline, but most of the time we just saw it out of the corners of our eyes, wondering how much oil was running through it at the time and if it was warm. These are the things you think about on a quiet icy road in the middle of nowhere, and the vehicle you're driving is making the trek drama free. There was little to no sliding, and according to the expert guides, the ridiculously cold weather actually made the icy roads less slippery and offered better traction. Huge pines coated in clumps of icy snow flanked the road. We crossed the Arctic Circle, took some photos at the sign that marked the border, and carried on.
After traversing two-lanes that climbed over hills and into valleys, with the jagged snow-peaked mountains seen in every direction reflecting the pink sunset, we reached Coldfoot Camp at a reasonable 5 p.m. This is essentially the last stop north before reaching Prudhoe Bay and the end of the Dalton Highway. Once the sun was down, it was a balmy -25 or so. Even so, Mercedes still opted to take extra precautions with the Sprinters, and, after filling the vans' fuel tanks -- after waiting for the fuel truck to arrive to fill Coldfoot's station -- kept the vans running all night. We had the opportunity to meet a sled-dog musher and his team, which, despite the bitter cold cutting through our cold-weather gear, seemed totally ecstatic to be outside. Then we stayed up -- and out -- long enough to see aurora borealis. The display that night was made up of diagonal green streaks across the star-specked sky.
We never got warm in Coldfoot Camp, but were certainly less cold. After topping off the tanks, we headed back the way we came. It sounded like a relatively easy proposition, but a warming trend meant that, even though we would be on roads we'd driven before, this time the conditions would be more dangerous -- warmer weather means less traction. The sun worked on rising, and finally succeeded around 9:45. At one point, we saw that it was -6 F, the warmest weather we had seen in days. It was a fluke, as it dropped to -40 again. A crosswind kicked up low snow swirls that skittered across the road. If it had been tan instead of white, it would've looked like sand blowing across a beach road. On the bridge over the Yukon River, we could feel the stability control working. There was no sliding, though, and we continued to Fairbanks.
Minus 12 the next morning, and everything started without issue. We were so used to the cold by then that it felt OK to go outside without gloves. We continued to Healy, where we had stopped for lunch on the first day, and it was more than 60 degrees warmer than it had been during our stop there. Even though the Sprinters were doing very well on the ice, a big-rig going the other way on the highway misjudged stopping distance. Its second trailer came around and hit an E-Series van, and the van was pushed back into a Sprinter that was part of our group. The van was hit hard, but was in good enough shape to keep driving to Anchorage. As we traveled south, the conditions were completely different from on the way up. The road was blanketed in icy white, with winds kicking up huge clouds of snow. These were white-out conditions, and we were a chain of white vans lumbering like polar bears across the tundra. Even the red rear foglight of the van ahead was difficult to see, and the center yellow lines weren't visible.
Once we got out of that unscathed, we saw plenty of indicators that we were getting back to the city -- more lanes, houses along the highway, chain restaurants. We were soon back in Anchorage, tired, and thrilled that we had gotten through this adventure successfully. The Sprinters had proven their toughness through it all: 1300 miles, most of it in sub-zero cold, gusting wind, and on icy roads. The van market is going to change a lot over the next few months; other manufacturers need to take notice that the benchmark is a tough vehicle. Mercedes doesn't expect drivers to subject its vans to these harsh conditions, but a trip like this shows the Sprinter is ready for just about anything.
| 2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 |
| BASE PRICE || $36,290 (est) |
| PRICE AS TESTED || $39,000 (est) |
| LAYOUT || Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 3-door van |
| ENGINES || 3.0L/188-hp/325-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
| TRANSMISSION || 5-speed auto |
| WHEELBASE || 107.3 in |
| LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT || 273.2 x 79.7 x 107.5 in |
| CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) || 5545 lb |
| GVWR || 8550 lb |
| MAX PAYLOAD CAPACITY || 3005 lb |
| TOWING CAPACITY || 5000 lb |
| EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON || Not rated |
| CO2 EMISSIONS || Not rated |
| ON SALE IN U.S. || Currently |