Try to remember the hottest temperature you’ve ever experienced in Australia. Add a few degrees, and remove almost all of the humidity and you’ll end up with the kind of torture the engineers are putting the 2016 Kia Sportage SUV through in Death Valley, California.
Death Valley is notorious as one of the hottest places on earth with good reason, and Kia has been testing its vehicles there for a decade now.
“Kia does a lot of development in a chamber at the factory, and they specify a certain set of parameters, but then we test the vehicle in the real world,” says John Luyster, senior product quality engineer.
Think of these engineers as the last line of defence before a new Kia hits the market and it’s their job to identify any potential issues that will affect the buyer. The outgoing Sportage for example, was measured to be the class leader for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) efficiency. So the new Sportage had to be better again.
More than ever, the South Korean manufacturer is acutely aware of the diverse demands of a global market, one with huge differences in climate, completely different buyer profiles, and markets that expect completely different things from their vehicles. The new Sportage also needs to deliver the goods in the extremely competitive Medium SUV segment, one that has been enhanced further by the recent release of the Sportage’s Hyundai Tucson sibling.
CarAdvice was invited along to Death Valley to take part in some critical HVAC evaluation to illustrate the kind of extreme conditions the engineers subject the prototypes to and also to see just what goes into these seemingly minor details of a new vehicle release.
“Kia wants its vehicles to be durable and reliable,” says Luyster. “Subjecting them to this extreme heat is one way we can ensure that kind of reliability.”
CarAdvice gets to not only sit in, but also drive for three crucial hot weather tests in the searing heat.
Test 1: Furnace Creek – 45.5 degrees celsius
Aptly named, Furnace Creek provides the entree for the weather we’ll experience later in the day. First up, we take part in the ‘One Hour Heat Soak Test’. Before we arrive the test mules have been sitting out in the baking sun for an hour. During that time the interior temperatures have climbed up to at least 50 degrees celsius.
There’s a strict sequence that must be followed to enter the vehicle so that as little heat escapes as possible. Passengers first, followed by the driver. You have to get in and close the door as quickly as possible. Then, after some measurements are recorded, the engine is cranked, and the AC is set to recirculate at the lowest possible temperature and maximum fan strength.
When we set off, we climb gradually uphill at a steady 60mph for 30 minutes.
“While you’re doing this, we’re monitoring engine temperature through an array of sensors, radiator coolant temperature and engine oil operating temperature,” says Luyster. “We’re also checking for air conditioner cutout under load, which will indicate that the compressor has become too hot and can’t continue working.”
Test 2: Furnace Creek – 47.2 degrees celsius
The temperature has climbed slightly during our short lunch stop in time for the ‘Stop And Go Test’. With the cabin temperature up to 50 degrees celsius again, we run through the same entry and start up procedure, but this time we need to run the Sportage at a steady 25mph for a total of 30 minutes around a basic circuit.
It’s a simple process of two minutes running and two minutes stationary. Here the engineers are replicating what might happen in heavy stop/start traffic.
“We want to record the temperature variations both in the cabin and in the engine bay,” says Luyster. “We also want to record, on a scale of one to ten, what you’re feeling in terms of cabin comfort either in the front seat or back seat.”
Test 3: Badwater Basin – 51.1 degrees celsius
We head further into the desert and the temperature slowly climbs until our stop point where the mercury reaches a suffocating 51.1 degrees. It’s so hot, that if you’re wearing metal-framed sunglasses they will burn your skin, and standing in the direct sunlight isn’t even remotely comfortable. The air temperature is such that your eyeballs feel like they’re burning with the slightest breeze.
Once again, we have to lock the test mules up and wait until the interior temperature reaches a minimum of 50 degrees celsius.
Inside again, we start the ‘Slow Drive Away Test’. The engineers ask us to drive away from the stop point at a steady 20mph for 30 minutes. It seems painfully slow on the highway, but it’s critical to maintain a low speed because the dramatic reduction in airflow through the condenser has a serious impact on the cooling capacity of the system.
The cabin temperature, which starts dropping immediately, is measured and recorded every five minutes.
“We want the temperature to get down to 23.5 degrees celsius by the end of that 30 minute test,” says Luyster.
While these three tests certainly rank at the basic end of the spectrum when a manufacturer is fine-tuning a new-to-market model, we’ve been given a rare window into just how seriously these tests are taken. If you think the process is a little mundane, imagine the engineers out in these conditions for weeks recording test data.
“We aim to give the market exactly what it wants obviously,” says Ron Murray, ride and handling engineer. “Sometimes we have to compromise to get that exact result, but the aim is to compromise as little as possible and part of that is beating the competition.”
The extreme temperatures obviously highlight the contrast starkly, but the cabin temperatures in the new Sportage drop rapidly and the system is obviously efficient in environments most owners will never go close to replicating.
Kia has come a long way in a short time and this dedication to product improvement, no matter how incremental, looks set to ensure that journey continues.