2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Anchorage, AK - Sure, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a real workhorse, as proven by its ability to survive some truly extreme conditions during the automaker's recent 5,300 km Sprinter Arctic Drive event, which ran from Edmonton, Alberta, up to Coldfoot, Alaska.
But despite being able to boast highlights such as an advanced stability system, segment-leading fuel economy, and enough room for 12 adults in the passenger model, all I cared about once I was a few hundred kilometres north of Anchorage was one thing - the heating system. In case you couldn't guess for yourself, it gets really damn cold that far north.
Mercedes-Benz held the 11-day event simply to show off just what the Sprinter commercial van is capable of withstanding. Very few Sprinters are sold to non-business consumers, so for those people whose very livelihood rests on the tires of these vehicles, safety and reliability are arguably even more important than your average passenger vehicle.
My time with the Sprinter started in Anchorage, where temperatures on the first morning hovered around -20C - downright balmy compared to what our convoy of nine Sprinters would encounter in subsequent days.
Besides the co-operative weather, the roads out of Anchorage on our way to Fairbanks - about 600 km north - were also very driveable, all things considered. That said, things would become much more challenging as we travelled into the abyss of snow, ice, and terrifying outhouses beyond Fairbanks, and not all Sprinters would come out unscathed.
For the Arctic Adventure event, Mercedes-Benz offered up both short-wheelbase (144-inches) and long-wheelbase (170-inches) cargo vans, as well as passenger vans, which share the same wheelbase as the smaller Sprinter cargo vans.
My time behind the wheel was split up between the short- and long-wheelbase cargo vans, and when the ice hit the road and the snow hit the fan, they behaved remarkably well.
Our group began dark and early in Fairbanks (the sun doesn't begin to rise until after 9:00 a.m. at this time of year), and rumblings between automotive journalists said the temperature was colder than -50C with the wind chill. While we had long johns and toques to fight the chill, the Sprinters have a pre-heat function that can be activated via a timer - a perfect feature for these kinds of conditions.
Unfortunately, the timer on one of the Sprinters wasn't set properly for the morning and sure enough, the vehicle doesn't make it out of Fairbanks. A few Sprinters needed a boost in order to start, but my short-wheelbase model fired up with nary a problem. The convoy was down to eight (slightly more crowded) Sprinters, but we went on our cold and merry way to Coldfoot, which is approximately 400 km due north.
We reached our destination - which is for all intents and purposes a glorified truck stop - with quickly-multiplying windshield chips, but the Sprinters were for the most part no worse for the wear. We learned from our previous morning in Fairbanks and, like the truckers who stay in Coldfoot, leave the Sprinters running overnight in order to avoid any more cold-start issues.
The trip north features cloudless skies, but things change as we travel back south. Wind picks up, ice appears just as frequently, and whiteout conditions from blowing snow make the driving a little more "white-knuckle."
Time and again though, the Sprinters show their mettle. For something so long and tall, the vans feel solid on the road, even over dramatically-changing elevations and while taking tight corners relatively quickly.
The 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 engine that comes in every Sprinter, meanwhile, is eager to move the vehicle up those hills with little fanfare. Mercedes-Benz likes to talk up the fuel economy benefits of the Sprinter over competitors like the Ford E-Series and Nissan NV, and sure enough, I manage sub-12.0L/100 km numbers after one particular day.
That's not too shabby considering the cold weather, the size of the vehicle, the unpredictable conditions, and the constant downshifting that I do via manual shifting whenever coming across one of the many downhill.
We aren't so much focused on the cavernous cargo area that allows the Sprinter to swallow up a lot more than the couple of suitcases found in most of the vehicles on our trip, but everyone seems to appreciate the numerous cubbies and sundry storage compartments in the cockpit. It ain't pretty up there, but you can bet it'll do what many business owners want it to do, which is hold all sorts of stuff.
It would be easy to complain about the squeaks and rattles, the seats that need to be manually-adjusted, and the wind noise that permeates the cockpit at high speeds (which I do), but to be fair, commercial vans aren't built to be ultra-luxury models along the lines of a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Unlike me, the Sprinter is a real workhorse, and considering how well it behaves in winter conditions in and around the Arctic Circle, it should make for an especially good choice for the business owner who isn't one of the 10 people who live in Coldfoot.
2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Trim levels available: 2500 144" WB; 2500 170" WB; 2500 144" WB Passenger Van
Models: 4-door cargo van; 4-door passenger van
MSRP range: $42,900 - $50,100
Configuration: front engine/ rear-wheel drive
Available engines: 3.0L 6 cyl. (188 hp/325 lb.-ft.)
Available transmissions: 5-spd automatic with sequential shift
Warranties: 3 years/ 60,000 km (basic); 5 years/ 100,000 km (powertrain)
Competitors: Chevrolet Express; Ford E-Series; GMC Savana; Nissan NV
Strengths: cargo space; safety systems; engine
Weaknesses: seats; styling; loud interior