The ongoing Mercedes-Benz Sprinter “Arctic Drive” (set to wrap up tomorrow) is demonstrating hands-on the prowess of a fleet of nine diesel-powered cargo and passenger vans in the harsh face of incredibly adverse winter-driving conditions. The van convoy is averaging 350 miles a day over snow-packed and ice-topped roads and through deep subzero temperatures— including nearly the entire length of the fabled Alaska Highway--  travelling its route from Edmonton, Alberta through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to beyond the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

Mounted jointly by Mercedes-Benz Canada and Mercedes-Benz USA, the invitation-only event for Canadian and American journalists is enabling them 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.

"We knew how well the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter range performs in the hands of our customers in various applications, but we also wanted to find out how well it can operate in the world's most difficult climate conditions in the Arctic,” Miki Velemirovich, manager-- Mercedes-Benz Vans for Mercedes-Benz Canada, told FleetOwner.

“The main question,” he added, “was whether the Sprinters could make it to the Arctic Circle [which they did yesterday]. “The Sprinters did not only cross the Arctic Circle, but they also performed flawlessly on snow- and ice-covered roads, over steep climbs and descents, and in temperatures that dipped to almost -50 Fahrenheit."

This reporter joined the convoy in Whitehorse in Yukon Territory last Thursday evening as it rolled up its third day on the Alaska Highway. Then, for the next two days in shifts he got behind the wheel of a Sprinter 2500 (170-in. wheelbase with “high roof”) Sprinter 2500 model that features a standard Mercedes-Benz six-cylinder, 2987-cc diesel that pushes out 188 hp @ 3800 rpm and a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.

The route from there led over roads that were narrowed by snow piles, hard-packed and ice-slicked all while running entirely safely at speeds up to 75 mph (although the average speed was about 60 overall) northwest to the U.S-Canada border near Tok, AK.

That 385-mile run, including a lunch stop and two brief coffee breaks, took all of 11 hours. The next day’s trip southeast to Anchorage, which included a rather slowly served lunch in Glennallen, covered 340 miles and lasted about nine-and-a-half hours.

The most challenging aspect of the Arctic Drive was not staying straight and planted on the ice-covered roads— the Sprinter’s tight-and-true handling (in part thanks to rack-and-pinion steering) and its electronic safety features made smart work of that— but rather, dealing with visibility.

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.

Once the convoy rolled into Anchorage just before sunset, the Arctic Drive still had 1200 miles ahead of it. The next day the Sprinters would head up to Fairbanks. From there, vans and drivers would encounter what was expected to be the most challenging stretch of driving, the run north to Coldfoot, which sits very frigidly 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, and of course, the backhaul over the same route to Fairbanks. The last leg of the Arctic Drive will be to its terminus in Anchorage tomorrow..

The first new thing learned, and gratefully, about Sprinters on this little adventure was the power of their diesel-fired pre-heaters. Set with a timer accessed via the dash information center, the auxiliary heater ensured the engine and the cab interior were sufficiently warm before hitting the road each morning.

“The auxiliary heater works both as an engine pre-heater and a ‘heater-booster’ for the cab,” explained Mercedes-Benz’s Velemirovich. “The heater heats the coolant in the truck engine. This in turn heats the engine, increasing its temperature, for easier starting. And since the coolant is already warm, the heater, in its boost mode, provides instant heat to the cabin.”

The auxiliary heater, which is standard on Sprinters sold in Canada and optional on U.S. models, was especially welcome on the second day. Emerging from the motel restaurant in Tok in darkness at 7:30 am, this reporter glanced very quickly at the outdoor thermometer and felt immensely justified in thinking “Yes, it sure is cold out” as the mercury indicated it had plunged to -40. By the way, -40 is at virtually the same mark on both the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales.

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 standard Adaptive Electronic Stability Program (ESP) along with the electronic brake distribution and Brake-Assist System (BAS) raised driver confidence by kicking in instantaneously as needed. And so quickly and seamlessly, the driver barely had time to register that a driving correction on an extra-slippery turn might be warranted. Also helping grip the road were the Continental ContiCross winter tires fitted to all the Sprinters.

The gearing of the 5-sp. automatic transmission helped smoothly slow the vehicle as needed, reducing the risk from applying brakes on the slick road surfaces. During the Whitehorse-to-Tok leg, it was usually enough to downshift only from “D” to “4” while “3” was sufficient for even the steepest downhills encountered.

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

It should be noted that fuel efficiency on the Whitehorse-to-Tok and Tok-to-Anchorage legs averaged roughly about 21.4 mpg.

The Sprinter’s tire-pressure monitoring system, according to several of the drivers on the Muncho Lake, BC to Whitehorse, YT, leg, was a godsend. When one truck’s monitor indicated pressure falling in a tire, the convoy was able to continue until a safe place to get entirely of the road came along to swap out the tire.

That sure beat having the tire fail unexpectedly and then having to change it on the road's non-existent shoulder while praying that no tractor-trailer came barreling along. By the way, as revealed at dinner in Whitehorse, it was a three-inch long spike that did the Conti in.

Mirabela Muresan, field sales manager—vans for Mercedes-Benz Canada, told FleetOwner that the genesis for the 3,200-mile jaunt was to “clearly” demonstrate to prospective Sprinter buyers that the commercial vans were capable of operating anywhere, anytime.

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