About 100 miles north of Los Angeles International Airport in the Mojave Desert you’ll find Kia’s 4300 acre test facility. The South Korean company has been rigorously testing its vehicles here for just over a decade, with the view to building world-class cars and SUVs.
CarAdvice has been invited onto the test track surrounded by camouflaged test mules to get an idea of what goes on behind the wall fences and razor wire.
Photographers camp out in the desert for weeks on end trying to get a shot of vehicle we’re going to be standing next to and in some cases driving. Its a rare privilege. We’re not allowed to photograph anything, so the accompanying images are as basic as you get - suffice to say, there’s plenty of top-secret testing going on. During our visit we lose count of the number of prototypes working their way round the various test tracks.
“The facility was constructed between February 2003 and December 2004 at a cost of US $58 million,” explains Matt Seare, facility manager VE - California Proving Ground. It’s a long job title, but Matt has a pretty important job managing the testing of nearly every new Kia model.
“The Kia Proving Ground has quickly become a very important part of Kia’s global development,” says JH So from Kia’s global PR Team. “It provides not only on-road and off-road testing and assessment facilities, but also allows colleagues in other areas of development to put materials and components through the most strenuous conditions due to the climate in Mojave.”
At the immense facility you’ll find ten separate courses that are used in a variety of ways to torture the vehicles. They include a garage of different tests all designed to best replicate the kind of stresses daily driving put on a new vehicle.
The high speed oval is self explanatory and allows testers to run at set speeds for as long as they like. There’s a gradual uphill climb that starts at three percent, moves to four percent and finishes up at a 12 percent gradiant. It mirrors what you might experience on a long climb up a country road.
The vehicle dynamics area is especially interesting. It is designed to test the limits of adhesion and the capabilities of the suspension system at speed, while the Winding Road Test is like a mini racetrack within the large oval.
The straight stability surface has been tailored with a visible crown in the centre of the lanes. It’s cambered surface ensures the tyres pull left and right to test both steering dynamics and response. The Special Surfaces Test section is also interesting in that every lane - across six lanes - has a different texture.
“This area is mainly for NVH and chassis development,” says Seare. “The chassis guys love being able to closely monitor what is happening across an array of different and challenging road surfaces.”
The gravel road and off-road sections aren’t super tough, but they put plenty of twist and torque through the chassis, while the section Kia engineers call the LA Freeway is an exact mirror of a section of, you guessed it, LA freeway, that the government closed down overnight to allow Kia engineers to measured and take readings of all the various surface imperfections and replicate them on their own test section.
The durability loop incorporates different aspects of day-to-day use like a curved block road, a sharp 16 degree driveway entry, twist ditches, a sine wave, a rail crossing and even a grit trough where the vehicles plough through a bath that shows them with gravel, grit and mud. All up, there’s a combined 120 kilometres-worth of testing road at the facility.
“All vehicles, even the sports cars, use the off-road test track,” says Seare. “As you experienced, it isn’t a hardcore off-road track but it is used to assess vehicle durability over rough surfaces, dust intrusion into the cabin, noise and insulation, that kind of thing.”
CarAdvice is particularly interested in the weathering facility, which is new to the complex. Adjacent to the engineered tests, a brand new Hyundai Genesis has been sitting out in the elements for two years. “We expose our parts to the UV radiation of the sun,” says Seare. “We use a special system to accelerate the weathering process and then measure that against real world measuring of a car just weathering in the sun.”
This process is applied to all aspects of a new vehicle including interior parts, door panels, headlights, clusters, mirrors, bumpers, as well as full vehicle weather.
“It’s a solar measurement area so we can measure exactly how much solar energy is going into the part,” says Seare. “Not just the time the part has been sitting in the system.”
The Mojave Desert might not be as extreme as what we experienced a day earlier in Death Valley, but the extent to which Kia is now testing it’s global fleet is one aspect of the brand’s success. We’ve had a window into a part of the vehicle development process that we rarely see.