Winter Testing with Acura
"Must like walleye." You're likely to find that stipulation on any job posting at Automotive Enviro Testing (AET), a sprawling, for-hire winter proving grounds in one of the lower 48's coldest locales, Baudette, Minnesota. The city dubs itself "the walleye capital of the world," and backs that claim with Willie the Walleye, a 2.5-ton, 40-foot-long fish statue that probably wasn't sculpted by Rodin. During my February visit to AET, I had fried walleye for lunch, broiled walleye for dinner, and probably creamed walleye in my oatmeal too.
Don't mention the word "walleye" to the members of Acura's Ohio-based engineering team. Every winter, they live on the grounds at AET (in Spartan but comfortable dorms) for six to eight weeks, pushing prototypes and test vehicles to the max in a brutal yet incredibly well-controlled environment. "This is the best place in the world for winter testing," says Ted Klaus, the first and thus far only American to serve as an Acura vehicle chief engineer. "Working with AET, we've developed an ideal set of courses for refining our Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive system and performing components testing under extreme conditions [winter temps of 30 degrees below zero or colder are common here]."
A former Air Force radar base, the current AET site has been a winter-test facility since 1996 (begun on a frozen lake three years earlier, AET now covers 820 land acres). Using high-tech, GPS-guided tractors (they're manned but capable of steering themselves) and grooming equipment largely designed in-house, the AET team works 24/7 (the courses are lighted) to maintain consistent snow or ice surfaces-from a sinuous autocross to "split-Mu" half ice/half asphalt grades to the largest land-packed snow VDA (vehicle dynamics area) in North America.
Acura does some nasty stuff to its cars here. In one test, engineers repeatedly drive a vehicle through a slush bath, out onto the autocross course, then back through the slush. Do it enough times on a really cold day, and a car can pick up more than 800 pounds of ice in its undercarriage and wheelwells. The result looks like a frozen wooly mammoth stuck in a Siberian glacier, but, says principal vehicle-reliability engineer Jeff Ertz, "Everything still has to work." To that end, Acura tweaks include extra talc in its plastics (which helps keep them pliable at low temps), glycol-filled engine mounts, and special temperature-compensating software for its variable-rate magneto-rheological shocks.
AET also operates several cold cells capable of maintaining an internal temperature of -45 degrees F. Gazing through a cell window, I see a hapless inmate -- a new ZDX -- looking about as mobile as a fire hydrant. I open the heavy fridge door, step inside, and...the cold hits me like a snowball to the face. Today it's "only" 35 below zero in here, but within seconds it's difficult to talk clearly. I'd mug for the onlookers on the other side of the window, but I can't risk pulling a "Christmas Story" by flash-freezing my tongue onto something nearby-like, say, the air. In another few hours, the poor ZDX is going to have to start up and drive away without complaint. Wear gloves before departure, please: A bare hand will bond with the door's metal on contact.
Naturally, I can't leave a winter playground like AET without performing a bunch of exacting scientific examinations like power drifts, handbrake turns, and full-throttle donuts. Then it's time for lunch. That's the great thing about Baudette, though: Even when it's 30 below, the walleye is never frozen.