North to Alaska

March 1, 2013
Extreme winter trip tests operating mettle of vans

Media ride-and-drive events conducted by truck makers can range from a quick spin around a convention center parking lot to multi-day trips covering 1,000 mi. or more.

The most exciting for me came way back in 1985 when another young American editor and I were invited to climb into a Class 8 bobtail Iveco cabover in Torino, Italy. It was a test truck and we managed to share the passenger seat/doghouse area (there were no seat belts for us, either) as the driver proceeded to fling us around a high-banked oval track for several laps at what were heart-racing if not excessive speeds.

But the most rewarding such event by far to date was co-driving two legs of the truly “Arctic Drive” conducted jointly in January by Mercedes-Benz’s Canadian and U.S. arms to show off the prowess of the Sprinter van in extreme cold-weather driving and operating conditions. Over the course of driving 700 or so miles over snow-packed and ice-slicked roads, I got to experience by eyes, hands and right foot the various safety and performance features that Mercedes-Benz claims make every Sprinter cargo and passenger van variant suitable for four-season commercial operation anywhere in the U.S. and Canada.

I joined the van convoy in Whitehorse in Yukon Territory as it rolled up its third day on the Alaska Highway. Then, for the next two days in shifts I got behind the wheel of a long-wheelbase, high-roof Sprinter 2500 model equipped with the standard Mercedes-Benz 6-cyl., 2,987-cc diesel that pushes out 188 hp. @ 3,800 rpm and 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.

The positive impact of several Sprinter safety and performance features was much more evident on the Arctic Drive than in a run-of-the-mill test drive. That was especially so given that the wintry miles conquered without incident were covered by non-professional drivers piloting vans that were unloaded, save for the weight of two co-drivers and their hand luggage. The transmission’s gearing helped smoothly slow the van as needed, reducing the risk from applying brakes on the slick surfaces. During the Whitehorse-to-Tok leg, it was usually enough to downshift only from “D” to “4”—and “3” was sufficient for even the steepest downhills.

And the gear selector’s operating design made the shifts incredibly ergonomic and thus ridiculously easy to make. Once in “D,” downshifting was done effortlessly by “batting” the shifter sideways slightly with my uptilted fingertips and then back the other way to return to “D.”

Blowing snow often obscured most, if not all, of the Sprinters running in front and behind most of the time spent on the highway. This “rooster-tailing” was often, yet not always, overcome by the driver’s side rear fog lamp (optional on U.S. Sprinters) that could be switched on as needed to cast a very bright, red light that served as a beacon marking where the Sprinter ahead ended.

The fog lamp’s intensity was such, however, that drivers had to remind each other (via the two-way radios that linked the convoy on the road) to switch them off when conditions were clear.

Whether I’m being taken literally for a spin overseas or taking part in an epic trek, for me (if not for trucking) it’s most definitely the journey and not the destination that counts.

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