Lucky for us, it's merely single-digit cold the day we're in Kap, as the locals call it--a virtual heat wave. "You guys came at the right time," our gawky, teenage hotel clerk tells us. "It was twenty degrees below zero a week ago, and it's supposed to be even colder in a couple of days."
GM initially came here to evaluate military vehicles. It didn't begin testing its passenger cars until the early 1950s, when it based its operations out of the parking lot of a local motel. You can't help but imagine pipe-smoking engineers wearing Buddy Holly glasses and fur ushankas, sizing up an early Corvette with slide rules while snow piles at their feet. It wasn't until the '70s that the company moved to the more permanent digs that we'll be visiting.
The current facility encompasses nearly 32,000 square feet of office and garage space; a 1.2-mile, half-pavement, half-gravel test loop; and a vehicle-dynamics area set up on a leased runway at the airport across the street. Visually, it's nothing special. The dark blue buildings are constructed from corrugated metal, and what isn't a building is a flat area covered in snow. What's really fascinating are the twenty cold-soak cells, essentially large freezers used to chill up to thirty-four vehicles to a very specific temperature as a control for development. We're allowed to step into a unit set to negative eighteen degrees, and with the cell's refrigerator units blasting frigid air on my feet and legs, it's probably the coldest place I've ever been. Even crazier: When the weather is colder outside, these chambers are used to warm the vehicles before they head out on local test loops.
After touring the grounds, we're allowed to observe two actual development tests. From the outside, the dark green Hummer H3 we're climbing into appears to be completely normal. Once you open the doors, however, it's clear that things aren't quite what they seem. Our host, site manager John Komar, explains that while many of the vehicles on site look familiar, most of them are mules. "We don't test what we already make," he says. "It's too late." The H3 has so many wires and mysterious electronic boxes crammed into the cargo compartment, under the hood, and in the footwells that a spontaneous fire seems like a real possibility. We're in the Hummer to experience a cold-start evaluation. My imagination kicks in and tells me that it's time for the cars to start jousting with thirty-foot ice lances, but the strictly regimented, ten-minute test isn't quite that exciting. Start vehicle. Let vehicle idle for thirty seconds. Reverse. Quarter-throttle to 25 mph. Stop. Wide-open throttle to 35 mph. Stop. Repeat. I resist the urge to fall asleep.