Driving the 2020 Alcan 5000 Rally in a 2020 GMC Sierra AT4
Arctic Torture Test: To the Shore of the Arctic Ocean and Back
Winter driving is a popular subject, especially for truck enthusiasts. Truck manufacturers like to talk about capability and toughness whenever they can. But it's one thing to successfully manage a trip to the grocery store in a snowstorm. It's quite a different challenge to take a road trip over 6,000 miles to the shore of the Arctic Ocean and back again in the dead of winter.
Yeah, We Really Did That
The 2020 Alcan 5000 Rally left Seattle, Washington, on February 26, bound for the village of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Tuk, as it's called, lies about 300 miles north of the arctic circle, on the shore of the Beaufort Sea. At 69 degrees, 26 minutes north latitude, Tuk is as far north as you can drive in Canada. Past the beach, it's all ice to the north pole.
The Alcan 5000 Rally is among the most extreme motorsports events in the world. Each day requires teams to complete a short Time-Speed-Distance rally segment and then cover 400-600 miles to that night's lodging. Scores are based on how accurately the teams cover the rally route, and then on making it to the "extreme controls" in the Arctic. This year, 39 teams took part in the adventure.
Among this year's teams was our effort, the Professional Grade Rally Team, driving a 2020 GMC Sierra AT4 crew cab pickup equipped with the 3.0L Duramax turbodiesel engine. Full disclosure: GMC loaned us the truck to make the trip and paid the entry fee to the rally. Nokian Tyres gave us a set of six Hakkapeliitta LT3 studded winter tires for the trip.
TIP: Travelers to the Arctic carry two spare tires. You don't want to wait a week to get a tire shipped up there.
The Right Tool for the Job
The Arctic is among the least forgiving climates in the world. Daytime temperatures ranged from -20 to -40, with wind chill to -53. Road surfaces range from loose and packed snow to hard ice and bare gravel. Dangerous snowdrifts frequently narrow the passage, and oncoming 18-wheelers tend to run down the middle of the road.
The Sierra AT4 comes with a 2-inch lift compared to a standard Sierra 4WD, off-road suspension, locking rear differential, and handy features like underbody skidplates and recovery points at the front. The AT4 also includes GMC's best 4WD system, featuring an Automatic mode that emulates an SUV's AWD system.
As mentioned, this particular Sierra also came with the 3.0L inline six-cylinder Duramax turbodiesel engine paired with the 10-speed automatic transmission. The Duramax delivers 277 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough grunt for the Arctic.
On top of the mechanical features, the AT4 is close to GMC's top Denali luxury trim. We enjoyed heated leather seats all around, multiple front and rear camera views, a camera rearview mirror, head-up display, and GMC's best infotainment and navigation system. The truck came with the CarbonPro carbon-fiber bed and of course the GMC Multi-Pro tailgate.
Making It Through the Arctic
If you end up stuck in the far north, it could be the better part of a day before someone can notify the nearest tow truck to drive out to get you. The Canadians do a near-heroic job of keeping the winding Dempster road plowed, but danger is ever-present. When the road is all graded snow, you can't gauge how deep it might be. In that environment, you need every advantage.
As we made our way north, the most important feature was Automatic 4WD. The Sierra can stay in Auto mode all the time, and it will direct torque to the wheels that can use it. Auto mode also maintains traction and stability controls at all times, and that's a critical feature in unpredictable conditions. We tested it for real a few times when seemingly flat road turned out to be soft snow hiding a steep shoulder. It's no shame to say the Sierra's stability and traction controls saved us from grief.
Having the right tires was also essential as temperatures dropped. The Nokian studs are shaped like three-pointed stars, so they bite into ice to give the truck's traction and stability systems a fighting chance to steer and to put down torque.
Things Change at 40 Below
The EPA rates the Sierra 1500 Duramax at 22 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. Down in the near-tropical regions around Seattle, we saw up to 30 mpg running fully loaded on the highway. But when we hit the arctic circle, long stretches at 50 mph yielded only about 18 mpg. The reason is simple: extremely cold air is dense and requires more fuel to balance. Every vehicle on the rally saw its fuel economy drop off steeply. Even with Arctic fuel economy, the Sierra's 24-gallon fuel tank still gave us one of the best ranges of any team at over 400 miles. At normal temperatures, the Sierra diesel will cover more than 600 miles on a tank.
What we didn't plan for was the effect of the cold on the truck's Diesel Exhaust Fluid usage. Cold, dense air not only requires a vehicle to use more fuel, it also uses more DEF. We started getting low DEF notifications on the way up to Dawson. We had to rely on the kindness of local people to refill our tank. Thankfully, there's a culture of mutual assistance up there. It has to be that way for everyone to survive.
GMC equips all their diesels with block heaters, and we made nightly use of ours. The system is automatic, working only when temperatures drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Our Sierra started right up every morning, even at the lowest temperatures.
About the only feedback we had for GMC is that defrosting vents or defrost wiring for the back-seat side windows would be handy. These windows tended to frost over on the inside when the world got really cold. The moisture in your breath condenses and freezes on the glass. The rear window had a defroster as well as the rearview camera. We came to love that feature.
TIP: Carry some clear protective film, like the stuff used to protect against rock chips. When you get a windshield chip (we collected three) get out and dry out the chip completely. Then apply a circle of film to cover the damage. This helps keep cracks from spreading across your glass.
There and Back Again
We stopped in to visit Klondike GMC in Whitehorse to pick up a few supplies. The salesmen there told us that ours was the first of the "baby diesels" they'd seen. People in that part of the world prefer HD trucks almost exclusively. We saw only a few half-tons of any brand, and almost no midsize trucks at all. That makes sense in a part of the world where winter lasts nine months and you could be called on to pull someone out of a ditch at any time.
If we were to run this trip again, there's not much we'd do differently except carry more DEF. That fluid freezes at 12 degrees above zero, so we'd have to carry it in the cab. After 10 days and 6,000 miles round-trip, we can say that if you're looking for the most civilized way to get to one of the least civilized places in the world, the GMC Sierra AT4 is definitely up to the task.