If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to an automaker the proof of its products is meant to be in extreme testing. Over millions of miles in the most extreme conditions, car manufacturers test their wares prior to selling them to you. Here's an inside look at that process.
The same way you lather extra lubricant on a bolt you want to make sure comes out easy the next time, auto manufacturers put their cars through trials of strength and endurance that only an Eskimo or a Bedouin could hope to recreate.
That's why you'll see pre-production Bugatti Veyrons doing rooster tails in Sweden, Bentleys running through entire tanks of gas at 185 mph in South Africa, and Aston Martins emerging from a dust storm in Kuwait.
For instance, before the latest Mercedes C-Class was introduced in 2007, it was submitted to 31,000 miles at full throttle, 15,500 miles of pulling a 2-ton trailer, 3,700 miles on the Nurburgring, and engine and climate control system testing in South Africa, Arizona and Texas, Scandinavia, and Japan.
But wait, there's more. After those kindergarten-level challenges, the car was put through a "World Test final examination" which meant 32,000 miles of testing in the Arctic Circle, stop-and-go traffic in Paris, a long, leisurely cruise through the Arabian Desert, on top of 15,000 miles in the African uplands and Namib Desert climbing twisty mountains to more than 7,000 feet of altitude. The cherry on the cake was a trial on mechanical rigs and test tracks to simulate 186,000 miles in four weeks.
Germans being Germans, though, they still weren't finished: a batch of 450 cars was given to company employees for everyday driving to test for nearly ten million miles. That's right, million.
The theory is that if the car survives thirty straight days of icy, 3-dog-nights in the Arctic, it will shrug off at least decade of New England winters. Or, for that matter, Minnesota winters. Jason Widmer, a principal engineer for Acura, tells of putting a car through Midewestern tortures.
"In 1996 when we were cold testing in International Falls, Minnesota," Widmer said. "The annual Icebox Days festival was, in fact, cancelled due to the extreme cold! During that same stretch, Tower, MN recorded -60 deg F, the coldest air temperature ever recorded in the state, and in the midst of it all there we were testing our products."
Of course it's called "hell" for reasons that go beyond climate: things are going to break.
"The driving standards in Kuwait are, on the whole, appalling," said Aston Martin's Simon Barnes while testing the new Aston Martin Rapide. "We've spent one day out here, and already the headlamp glass is shot. The front number plate delaminated too. And by the time we get back to the U.K., the windscreen will need replacing because it's constantly being etched by windborne sand."
It is better, though, that breaks and boo-boos happen to the engineers rather than the customers.
"During development of the first generation Acura MDX in the dunes in Glamis, California, we managed to strand 4 of our 5 vehicles in a deep valley in temperatures approaching 120 degrees F," said Acura's Widmer. "Only with the help of 'Crazy Craig,' his buddies Cooper and Mike, and a 3 legged dog named 'Lucky' were we able to get the caravan back to home base. As we parted ways, just before the trio stripped down to go swimming in the aqueduct, they said 'You guys should know better – nobody comes out here in the middle of summer!'"
Nor is it necessary for "hell" to be a faraway place – nearly all manufacturers have in-house testing facilities that can be as unkind as Mother Nature. Rolls-Royce hoists its Phantom by the tail and, while it's suspended, douses the car with water. The only way you could recreate it is to drive into a hurricane. Or a lake.
Nevertheless, in spite of all of this testing, the recall rolls of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attest to the fact that car engineers simply can't test for everything: the Arctic doesn't have salt trucks, Australia doesn't have that magic combination of ruts in your driveway that highlights a suspension's single weak point, and Namibia doesn't have that hill outside your house that's at just the right angle to keep fuel from getting to the pump when the tank is three-sixteenths full.
So while there are national regulations for vehicle safety, emissions, and even lighting, there are no federal standards for automobile capabilities in extreme conditions.
That's because, for as much work as the NHTSA and carmakers invest to make sure the products will keep going and going and going, they know that there is just one person who can ultimately make the drive to hell and back: you.