Can someone remind me how, exactly, I’d wound up in the Arctic this January?

Right: because for as long as there have been automobiles, their builders have wanted to demonstrate how their vehicles are tough enough to withstand the harshest conditions imaginable.  

“Tough” can be tested in terms of climate – consider the blistering heat drivers encounter in the current Dakar or past Camel Trophy off-road rallies – or endurance — even the Indianapolis speedway was originally built a hundred years ago to show off how well cars ran during flat-out torture laps around the brickyard.

Mercedes-Benz wanted me to drive a Sprinter, a commercial European-built van, on a trek north of the Arctic Circle because it’d test both, while at the same time showing a few Canadians they are more than a builder of luxury vehicles. This was a trip that would strain all the components of the truck.

My segment of the drive was over 2,000 km, but with the leg from Edmonton thrown in, each van in Mercedes’ convoy completed 5,300 km in just nine days. The nine vans drove up the Al-Can highway, through the Yukon into Alaska, and then north to just about the end of world.  

The trucks ran on pavement, gravel, ice, and snow; through ice-fog, white-outs and frost-heaved roughness — yes, they had minor issues along the way, but all of them made it, and that’s what Mercedes wanted to show off.  

I drove a long-wheelbase cargo van with a three-litre turbo-diesel engine from Anchorage, Alaska up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot, the northern-most truck stop in the world. In between we overnighted in Fairbanks in the central part of the state, arriving just as the first serious cold snap of the winter set in.

Overnight temperatures dropped to -42C, and the vans started with great difficulty in the morning, even though these Sprinters were equipped with diesel pre-heaters.

They work like block heaters, except they don’t have to be plugged in, and can be set to come on at any time — then they run for a maximum 45 minutes, making up to 17,000 BTU. It also heats the fuel filter and the DEF fluid tank.

Most of the trucks started, but a few needed to be boosted: the weak link in the chain wasn’t the motor but the unheated battery boxes. At these temps, batteries operate at maybe 10 percent of their normal output.

The following night, north of the Arctic Circle, temps dipped even lower, and the Mercedes people opted to leave all the trucks running through the night.

Mind you, at the Coldfoot truck stop, every heavy tractor-trailer was left running. At almost -50C, it hurts to breathe, so not shutting down isn’t a failure of the equipment — it’s a necessity if you want to stay running.

All of the trucks did. The good news is, at idle, the Sprinter diesel sips just 0.6 litres of fuel per hour.  

(On a side note, I realized this extreme test of the Sprinter worked almost too well, as the factory calibrates the on-board temperature gauge down to only -40C. If it goes below that, a default setting kicks in and suddenly the gauge reads +85C. That was a surprise the first time I saw it crossing the Yukon River — I thought I’d been sucked through a wormhole to the Equator!)

What else happens at these extreme temps? Well, power steering becomes heavy as the fluid thickens; stone chips in the windshield suddenly shoot cracks across the entire glass; pulleys and bearings start whining as grease hardens into blobs of cement; and power windows slow down and cabin heaters become overwhelmed (thankfully, each of our trucks had auxiliary heaters that we ran constantly at below -30C).  

LED displays slow down in the extreme cold, too — instead of changing instantly, they take 10 to 20 seconds to slowwwly appear. It’s funny to watch.

But one of the weirdest realizations is that the colder it is, the more traction ice has — take that, Ice Road Truckers! I know your secret! That’s not to say you don’t have to be careful, but it’s nowhere as dangerous as ice at temperatures closer to freezing, which is really slippery.

The Dalton highway crosses two mountain ranges and has severe grades, both up and down. For these I used the Sprinter’s Tiptronic transmission to down-shift and hold the van on slopes and through curves. This is a nice feature: the short shift lever is right at the height of your right knee, and can be easily used without having to look down. A display in the centre of the gauges shows which gear you are in.

Driving on ice for several days also showed off another system most commercial vans (and cars, for that matter) have today: traction-control systems. As most drivers know, it’s a rare occasion when the computer has to intervene, because most of us try to avoid situations where we lose control. This is another reason why, as a manufacturer, if you want to demonstrate this system, the far north is the place to go.

In the Arctic, the roads are almost completely ice-covered throughout the winter. They do plow them, but the snow becomes compacted and a layer of ice builds up – sometimes several centimeters thick – and the plows can’t get under this.

Why? In extreme temperatures, salt doesn’t melt ice, so none is applied. Instead, snowplows have notches cut in their blades (much like a serrated knife) to carve grooves into the ice. This is all the traction you get. Under these conditions the traction control intervenes frequently — and it’s good.

In fact all the systems worked well, and I can say the seating is comfortable, the visibility is good, controls are easy to use and read — I have no complaints as to driver comfort. However, after four days and 2,000 km of brutal driving conditions, I’d like to suggest Mercedes look at offering a few more items on future Sprinters.

One, front and rear tow hooks (don’t ask…); two, a heated battery box to provide more cranking amps; and three, a winter front for the grille to cut down on wind and snow penetration. Welcome to Canada, Sprinter.

  • Chassis • 144 inches or 170 inches long for 2500 or 3500 series
    Body styles • Crew Van; Passenger Van; Cargo Van; or Chassis Cab
    Roof styles • Low (96.3 inches) or High (107.5 inches)
    GVWR • 3,878 kg to 5,003 kg
    Engine • three-litre V6 BlueTec diesel
    Power • 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque
    Transmission • five-speed automatic
    Fuel economy • 9.4 L/100 km highway; 13.8 L/100 km city