The Arizona Proving Grounds: Destroying VWs So that You Don’t Have To

Yesterday VWVortex published the First Drive of the upcoming Jetta A7 and how it was accomplished under the tightest of security to make sure that we journalists didn’t spoil all of VW’s big surprises. But being forced to hand over our cameras, phones, and even our laptops (they have cameras, too, after all) doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what goes on there, and that’s a good thing because what goes on there is pretty dang cool.

Despite having been built in 1992, not much has been said about the Arizona Proving Grounds (APG) and that’s because until last week no journalists had ever been allowed on the premises. The reasons for this are simple. Every vehicle produced by the Volkswagen Group worldwide goes there to be torture tested at one point in its production. As a result, the compound hides a lot of secrets, something made obvious by the giant, landscape halting wall that greets outsiders.

Once you get past the wall, it’s actually a relatively normal place, but for its size. The offices are nondescript and there are some cars around, but since this location’s focus is on warm weather testing, and since we visited during the winter (or late fall or whatever), the proving grounds had relatively few cars and staff on hand.

At a minimum, the APG employs about 200 people, but during the summer months, when things are at their busiest, it accommodates an average of 2,000 visiting engineers from around the world. With German, Brazilian, Czech, Spanish, and more among the languages being spoken by visiting engineers on hand for the summer testing, James Marsella, Senior Director of the ADP, says the office turns into the United Nations overnight.

Outside, meanwhile, there are black cars sitting out in the sun and other bits in hot boxes or simply attached to plywood making sure the interior and exterior materials can withstand the heat of the desert. These are all measured and tracked meticulously, with temperatures and weather conditions all factored in and time-lapse photography constantly being taken to see what happens to the plastics, metals, and fabrics in and on cars.

It’s not all left to nature, though. As you can imagine, VW has an interest in testing the effects of the weather on an accelerated timeframe. Corrosion testing, in particular, is an impressive affair. With climate controlled garages, VW can put 12 years-worth of corrosion onto a car in a matter of 16 weeks. The cars are kept, four by four, in small hotboxes that are filled with a salt fog. The really fun thing is that it’s safe to enter, so you can experience the world’s worst and saltiest sauna for yourself. The fog is so thick that you can hardly see your hand when it’s extended, and the air so salty that before long your lips taste like the bottom of a bowl of pretzels. I don’t imagine you’d want to spend much time in any of these garages, but the all-white cars (makes it easier to see corrosion) spend hours on end in these rooms to make sure that none of them rust before their time.

To make sure that no cancerous rust is hiding under it all, after the car’s time in the hot box, every panel is taken apart to check for rust (or any other alarming signs of damage). To do that, every single tack weld is drilled out and the panels lain on the floor for inspection. It’s a remarkably time-consuming but fascinating process. And remember, it’s not just Golfs and Polos that come here. Everything does, even Lamborghinis have to be corrosion tested and blown apart meticulously. As Marsella says “nothing is sacred.”

But it’s all important testing to do if you don’t want to get a reputation like Lancia. And to be sure that the results of the testing are accurate, the ADP actually does buy old cars to compare against their results and ensure that their tests are effective.

But testing isn’t all accomplished onsite. Although there’s a five-mile oval (or “Schnellbahn”) to test the cars at high speed, the 1,600-acre compound doesn’t contain a city street section. So cars are driven around Arizona, something you may remember from the Atlas teasers. On an average year, test drivers are driving more than 7,500,000 test miles to make sure that the cars operate properly in hot conditions.

Given the site’s competence, it’s not just hot weather tests that are being run there. Although Arizona doesn’t have the climate to test for cold weather, the office is the control center for American cold weather testing in Alaska (VW has a thing for As, apparently). The same cars that test in the Arizona heat also have to be able to withstand the Alaskan cold, so they’re taken north and driven there, too.

But Alaska isn’t the only cold weather test area, nor is Arizona the only hot weather testing area. Both are part of a global web of test centers that ensure VW’s cars are ready to handle the requirements that will be placed on them when they’re handed over to owners. This is, though, one of the big test centers for VW, which has been running hot weather tests here since the mid-1980s, long before this site was first made. And since it’s so well set up for the task now, it’s set to grow.

Starting next fall, the Arizona Proving Grounds will start construction on electric charging stations so that VW’s family of electric vehicles can be tested there, too. All in the hopes of destroying them, so that you don’t have to.