It's no wonder Australians cling to their coastline. Venture inland, and you approach the harsh netherworld known as the Outback. Unlike Lewis and Clark, Australians Burke and Wills died in their exploration. Stuart finally made it out alive, but nearly blind and with scurvy.
The north-south highway through the Outback bears his name. A mere two lanes and unpaved until 1987, at least it's there; only dusty tracks venture east and west.
"If an alien probe landed here, it would say 'no life' and go home," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz writes of the Outback, which spans an area about the size of the contiguous United States west of the Mississippi. But instead of majestic mountains and national park vistas, the Outback is a still, flat sea of rock, sand, and scrub, unbroken by meaningful topography--but with one amazing exception.
Smack dab in the middle, floating like a gigantic red iceberg, is Uluru, the rock formerly known as Ayers, and just a few miles to the west are the Olgas (Katra Tjuta to the aboriginal Anangu people), looking like a cluster of smaller icebergs melting under the intense sun.
Uluru is a red-rock cathedral. You instinctively understand why the Aborigines consider it holy, especially as it appears to change shape, color, and, in an Outback optical illusion, even location as the sun exposes shadows, textures, and creases that may remind you of the wrinkles around your grandmother's eyes.
Uluru would be a major tourist destination on any continent, and it's even more spectacular here because it's surrounded by so much--well, so much nothing.
But you must be motivated if you want to visit. Australia is 24 hours from everywhere. Leave home, and you consume a full day before landing on the continent's coast, and then you'll endure two more days, long days, driving through a blistering flatscape.
Fortunately, our drive is fun. While others have tried to penetrate the Outback with everything from camels to canoes (an 1844 expedition in search of an inland sea), our rides are prototypes of the Porsche Cayenne. We're with the engineers charged with making sure that, while this vehicle is a true SUV, with all the off-pavement abilities needed to survive the Outback. It also needs to excel, accelerate, stop, and turn on pavement like a Porsche.
We're on the Ultimate Car Guy's Adventure Tour. "People pay for visiting such places, and they would pay to drive such a nice car," says Juergen Kern, a more than 20-year Porsche veteran and co-leader of this test team. "We really do enjoy this job."
What's not to like? Kern enjoys his job, but Michael Pfeifer is the proverbial kid in the candy store. He remembers the day he first heard a neighbor's 911. "I want to drive a Porsche," Pfeifer told his mother. "You are a crazy boy," his mother replied.
Crazy boy has grown up to become a Porsche engineer developing Porsche Stability Management for the Cayenne, a complicated task because the technology must interface with center differentials and adjustable air suspension and work on and off pavement. We're well into the second day of our drive when Pfeifer casually announces that, "we're going to do a lane change."
"Usually we do this on the test track at Weissach," he adds, explaining that, "it's not good to do on the normal road." A normal road has normal traffic. In the Outback, normal traffic is an oncoming vehicle maybe once every half hour.
Still, that oncoming traffic might be a "road train," an Australian aberration that has one semi-tractor pulling as many as four trailers. All the vehicles in our caravan have two-way radios, and Pfeifer checks with the lead car to make sure the road is clear. Then, without relaxing the pressure his right foot applies to the gas pedal, he turns our Cayenne abruptly into the adjacent lane and darts back to our original lane. Immediately he repeats the process. Everything and everyone stay nicely composed.
Just as we're settling in to resume the ride, Pfeifer announces we're going to do it again--except now he has dropped well behind the vehicle ahead of us and tips his right foot much closer to the floor. We're approaching 100 mph when he repeats a maneuver that might send an ordinary SUV somersaulting into the bush. The Cayenne responds like a jet fighter in dogfight mode.
Maybe this is a real Porsche, even if it has its engine in front, seats for five, and room for cargo.
Back in our lane, and back to normal speed (but long before the back-seat passenger's heart rate has returned to normal), Pfeifer smiles and chassis engineer Eugen Oberkamm confirms "the PSM works," before he returns to the notes he's been making all along. One note says to check the seal at the front edge of the sunroof; Oberkamm heard air leak as Pfeifer tried to rip the chassis from its wheels.
Cultural commentator Bill Bryson describes Australia as the "driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents." He provides a list of the snakes, spiders, ticks, crocodiles, sharks, and even caterpillars that can end your life. "In short," Bryson says, "you don't want to be caught in the Outback."
As we're about to discover. We're some 850 miles into our drive when we stop at the Kulgera roadhouse. In the flat but dangerous Outback sea, a roadhouse is a lighthouse, a place of refuge and relief: fuel station, emergency repair shop, snack bar, tavern, campground, and motel, all rolled into one and all sort of rolled back into the '50s.
Travelers stop at every roadhouse. Nobody wants to run out of fuel in the Outback.
The roadhouse also provides a shady break. We'd call it a cool, shady break, but the thermometer on the covered patio points to triple digits.
While the Cayennes are refueled, we scour the snack bar for staples of the Australian road: Chiko (a sort of large, chicken-flavored egg roll), fruit (fresh or dried), candy bar (love that Cherry Ripe, but some prefer Violet Crumble), and bottles of water. As we make our selections, the locals speculate about the vehicles camouflaged in black-matte cladding and angular, taped stripes.
"I know what they are," the lady at the counter proclaims. "They're those new Land Rover Freelanders," she says, proud of her automotive knowledge.
Upon hearing this news, Porsche test- team co-leader and trail boss Peter Hass beams. "So, the camouflage works," he says, admitting there was a debate about how much disguise the Cayennes needed just a few months before the start of production.
But Hass' smile immediately turns upside down. After being refueled, one of the Cayennes won't start. It's pushed under a tree, its hood raised, dashboard panels removed, and laptop computers hooked into various sensors. Codes are punched into keyboards, then more codes. But the car still won't start.
For some reason, the anti-theft system has locked the steering wheel and disabled the ignition. As we wonder if Cayenne owners might be glad to know the anti-theft system is so good that even Porsche engineers cannot hot-wire the car, Hass is on the satellite phone calling Germany, where it's 3 a.m. After some consultation, it appears the problem may be hardware, not software. New parts will be sent, but until they arrive, the car must be towed. No worries, mate, she'll be apples.
"Usually, when you carry something, you don't need it," Juergen Kern says. "You need what you didn't bring. But fortunately, this worked quite well."
Fortunately, that is, because on the team's last visit to the United States, Kern saw a tow bar and thought it would be a good addition to the gear the test team hauls around the world. Making the best of a bad situation, the engineers turn this setback into an opportunity to test the Cayenne's capability as a tow vehicle in high heat.
Finally, we reach our hotel, but engineers and technicians face hours of work that resumes early in the morning. No one is optimistic. The car will have to be towed all the way to Alice Springs, the Outback's only real city, where the new parts will arrive and where Cayenne project managers will land for their evaluation drive.
As electrical engineer Arno Wunderlich points to possible sources of the problem (how five systems must talk to each other, how temperature might have had an effect, how it could be as simple as a bad solder), Sascha Kissner, a "comfort electronics" (heating/air-conditioning/ventilation) specialist and, at 29, the youngest engineer on the trip, tries the key. The Cayenne resuscitates. The team celebrates.
"That's why you test," Kern says calmly, explaining that potential problems must be discovered in the development process, not after the car is in customers' hands.
"What's important isn't the trouble, but what happens afterward," says noise/vibration/harshness engineer Jochamin Maunz.
The consensus is that high temperature caused two electrical contacts to separate, preventing the necessary communication. But the switch will be studied, and the problem will be solved. That's why Porsche does such extensive hot- and cold-weather testing, and does it under real-world road conditions, not just on test tracks.
For the next two days, our real-world road conditions involve not much pavement.
The Cayenne already has proven its capabilities on some extremely high-speed pavement. On the Nuerburgring, where 160 turns test power and precision, the Cayenne Turbo posted laps as fast as Porsche's Boxster S. Imagine, an SUV is as quick as a sports car.
Cayenne Project Manager Egon Verse says the 444-horsepower Cayenne Turbo owns the eighth fastest lap by a road vehicle in testing at Hockenheim, Germany's Grand Prix circuit. "And that includes sports cars," Verse says proudly. (As he left for Australia, the Cayenne S with its normally aspirated 334-horsepower V-8 was at Hockenheim. "I think it's in 12th place," he reports.)
The Cayenne Turbo can do 165 mph on the test track, and the S will hit 150. We'll not approach those speeds today, although we'll get closer than you might expect. Australia's Northern Territory is one of few places left that posts no speed limit on its open roads.
Although this is the dry season, a storm off the Gulf of Carpentaria has flooded several communities. Alice Springs' biggest weekend of the year is the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, a waterless spoof in which bottomless boats are run along the dry bed of the Todd River. As we arrive, the Todd is a torrent, and our cars are the color of tomato soup after wipers have painted them with gallons of pink slop removed from windshields.
Actually, such horrible conditions provide a good test of the car and show the skills of the Porsche engineers, who seem to make only small-degree inputs to the steering wheel as we run at rally-stage speeds on the wide, flat, unpaved roads.
But speed doesn't mean foolishness. Safety is stressed at meetings and on the radio. Tire carcasses that litter the road's shoulders provide shredded reminders this can be an unpleasant place to travel.
We're making this drive on high-performance tires that should be susceptible to damage on such roads, though the real test in that regard should come tomorrow at the special off-road venue used to train the rangers who patrol the Outback in high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles.
At one point, the road suddenly narrows to a single lane for several miles. Hass reminds everyone that if we meet a road train, we'll pull over until it passes. But even while stopped, testing continues.
"We are never resting. We test even in traffic jams," Kern says, explaining no one's happy when stuck bumper-to-bumper in traffic and in such situations customers have time to seek out anything they might criticize, including switchgear detail they hadn't noticed.
It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
In testing, everything is checked and rechecked and checked again. Notes are made. Days in the cars are long, and even after the driving is done, the cars must be maintained and reports written, meetings held and assignments made, correspondence sent back and forth to Germany, and, finally, there's dinner and maybe a glass of one of Australia's remarkably good wines or a round of Redback, a beer named after a deadly Australian spider.
"We're proud," says Kern. "We want to tell people this is the perfect new Porsche. But we have to hide everything."
Soon, however, the team's work will be made public when the Cayenne is officially unveiled. But even then, "We keep on testing," says Kern. Development doesn't stop when production begins. There are new options and special features in the works. Already, a new generation of engine-management software has finished winter testing in Sweden and is on its way to Australia for hot-weather verification.
"I don't see any chance to retire," notes Kern. Why would he want to? TT