By Jeff Zurschmeide, an automotive journalist based in Portland, Ore.
Few people understand how big North America is. Most have a pretty good handle on the lower 48 states. You can drive north from the Mexican border to the Canadian Border in about two long days. But most don’t know how long it takes to get to the northern reaches of Canada. Few people ever make that trip. Those that take the time will find it’s among the most rewarding North American road trips.
The journey from Seattle it to the Arctic Circle takes about 5 days. Those aren’t short days, either. We know, because we did it as part of the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally. Together with 39 other teams and some support vehicles, we drove a 2020 GMC Sierra AT4 to the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the middle of winter. Along the way, we tested the reliability and performance of the truck in the most extreme real-world conditions on the world’s last true frontier.
We needed a four-wheel-drive truck to make this journey into the frozen wilderness, but we needed more than just a typical 4X4. Our research led us to the GMC Sierra AT4 for two reasons. First, the AT4’s Automatic 4WD feature mimics the AWD system found on an SUV, maintaining traction and stability control services while delivering power to any wheel as needed. Second, the two-inch lift and underbody skid plates included with the AT4 trim provided the clearance we would need in the snow.
Another reason to choose the GMC is the availability of the 3-liter Duramax diesel engine. With hundreds of miles separating fuel stops, fuel economy becomes more than a pocketbook concern. The Duramax in the Sierra AT4 is EPA-rated at 22 mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. We experienced more than 30 MPG in real-world driving around Seattle.
One benefit we didn’t expect was the Sierra’s extensive camera system, including a camera rear-view mirror. The rear-view camera is located on the top of the cab, so it does not collect ice and grunge. That’s a problem with cameras located on a truck’s tailgate.
Going to the frozen north also requires the right tires. We selected Nokian Hakapeliita LT3 studded winter tires, and we mounted up six of them to carry two spares. We never touched the spares, but it was good to know they were there.
MAKING THE TRIP
The Alcan Rally left Seattle on Feb. 26, stopping in Quesnel and Fort Nelson, British Columbia as we made our way northward. On the third day, we crossed into the Yukon Territory on our way to Whitehorse and the gold rush town of Dawson. The trip through B.C. is lovely, with many mountain ranges and abundant wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see American Bison, Stone Sheep, Caribou, and more along the road.
In this part of the rally, we appreciated the comforts GMC has included with the AT4 package. Heated seats in front and in back and a heated steering wheel became more important as the temperatures dropped. The AT4 suspension and the diesel engine were reasonably quiet, allowing us to enjoy the satellite radio until the signal dropped below the horizon somewhere north of Whitehorse. We also appreciated the 120-volt outlet on the dash, which allowed us to charge camera batteries and even boil water for coffee.
The world changes as you head north. Towns are fewer, smaller, and much farther apart. Mountains are snow-covered most of the year, and roads are less traveled. Dawson is the jumping-off point for the most intense part of the adventure: the road past the Arctic Circle and into Canada’s huge Northwest Territories province.
DRIVING IN THE ARCTIC
There’s only one road to Inuvik, and it’s called the Dempster Highway. In the summer it’s a gravel road, but by February it’s made of tight-packed snow graded level by the Canadian highway department. When you leave Dawson, it’s over 200 miles to the town of Eagle Plains. Everyone stops for fuel there, because it’s over 100 miles to the next town, and you want to make it.
With the Duramax and a 24-gallon tank, we were better off than most. However, the extreme cold takes its toll on fuel economy. By the time temperatures hit 20 below zero, we were seeing about 18 mpg while running in Automatic 4WD mode. That mileage stayed true all the way to 40 below. We also used more diesel exhaust fluid than expected. It’s used in the exhaust system to control NOx emissions from diesel engines.
Getting the Sierra to start in the mornings was never a problem. In the far north, every parking space has a power outlet. All the Duramax trucks come with a block heater, and we plugged in every night. The GMC started right up without a fuss each morning.
The most remarkable thing about the Sierra’s performance in the Arctic is how unremarkable it was. Even at 40 degrees below zero, we made it through to Inuvik and then up to the tiny village of Tuktoyaktuk at 69 degrees north latitude as easily as if we had driven to the Home Depot in our own town.
The Duramax provides 460 pound-feet of torque and the Sierra still offers low-range 4X4. That combo provided plenty of power to help pull less fortunate rally participants out of snowbanks. The traditional 4WD was good for those special jobs. But while just driving, we used the automatic four-wheel-drive mode. Combined with the Nokian tires the made the Sierra just as confident on snow and ice as if we had been driving to the beach on the 4th of July.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We made it to the top of the world and back again, through some of the most intense weather this planet has to throw at us. If we had to do it again, we’d pick the Sierra. Our only gripe was that the rear side windows tended to ice up. A defrost vent for the back seats would be a nice addition to the package. If you decide to take on the Arctic, you definitely want the power and technology advantage of a new truck. The GMC is a great option.