Ranger Lake Road is one of those roads that we all dream about: utterly deserted, free of intersections, and packed with more curves than a fitness franchise. Unfurling past frozen lakes and between impenetrable walls of snow-draped pines, its surface is normally graded dirt, but since we’re traveling in the dead of winter, there’s a layer of packed snow on top. It’s fifty-two miles of the most rally-ready roadway I’ve ever laid eyes on. The Audi’s roadholding in the snow is amazing–we’re able to zip through blind, sweeping bends like we’re tossing out grappling hooks at every apex, feathering the throttle and dialing in just a touch of opposite lock to keep the rear, which gets 60 percent of the torque, from coming around too far. It’s fantastic.
We left Ann Arbor six hours ago to begin the 700-mile trek into the Great White North. Given the weather and the distance, we’ve chosen to exercise one of our all-wheel-drive Four Seasons test cars, giving the nod to the Audi RS4, a 420-hp, V-8-engined beast of a machine. Its huge trunk and comfortable front seats with blast-furnace-level heaters make it perfect for a long road trip, and the Dunlop SP WinterSport M3s at each corner shrug off snow and ice with casual indifference. We’ve already slogged through all of Michigan–where we crossed the 550-foot-tall, five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge to reach the Upper Peninsula–and driven through Sault Sainte Marie on our way to Canada.
We’re headed to Kapuskasing, Ontario, and an appointment at the General Motors Cold Weather Development Centre (CWDC). Most of us are familiar with the idea of cold-weather testing–run prototypes and mules in frigid temperatures to ensure that you, I, and every other Snow Belter can make it to work on cold winter mornings–but few of us have any clue about how it’s done. Are the cars wrenched on by penguins? Do the engineers subsist solely on whale blubber and vodka? What actually goes on? We decided to find out.
The Audi allows us to make great time, and after turning off Ranger Lake Road, we dispatch the remaining 300 miles on paved highways. We roll into Kapuskasing just past dinnertime.
Kapuskasing (KAP-us-KAY-sing) is one of the northernmost cities in Ontario reachable by highway, rail, and air. General Motors has been there since 1941, and the town’s accessibility–an engineer can board a plane in Detroit at eight in the morning and arrive at the CWDC by ten-thirty–and near-arctic winter weather make it ideal for cold-weather development. It helps, too, that the place itself is interesting. The quaint downtown is arranged around a circular plaza, and the small shops and cafs buzz with locals picking up a fresh sandwich or filling a prescription. Ask any of them a question, and you’ll likely get a response in French–it’s the first language for some 70 percent of the population up here. The whole thing is so picturesque that you nearly forget about the hulking paper mill a few blocks away, its giant smokestacks pumping a thick white haze into the air. The weather, however, remains Kapuskasing’s dominant trait, and you should understand how seriously cold it is here: January temperatures reliably average negative thirteen degrees Fahrenheit, and there are fifty or so days between negative four and negative twenty-two during the testing season, which runs from November to April.
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.
Next, we move over to a Chevrolet Tahoe for a shortened version of the process used to evaluate vehicle accessories. We watch a woman inside the Tahoe open the driver’s door, close the driver’s door. Lock the door, unlock the door. Flip down the sun visor, flip up the sun visor. Move the power seat forward. Move the power seat back. And then repeat it all on the passenger side. It’s so deflatingly anticlimactic that I can’t even summon the motivation to ask if the polar bears have the day off.
Next, Komar escorts us to the vehicle dynamics area, which is currently set up as a training course. It’s designed to educate local drivers on proper driving techniques and emergency maneuvers to prepare them for hours behind the wheels of GM development mules. That’s right: GM trusts its expensive, one-off, handbuilt prototypes to regular guys and gals. They drive predetermined city, rural, and highway routes and report incidents and observations to the engineering staff.
So, that’s it. Those are the cold-weather development tests we observed. Simple, regimented tests. Simple, regimented, boring tests. But even though they’re as dull as dirt, they’re important. Automakers could come up here and run cars in the cold and hope they don’t break, but unless there’s a set of procedures to follow, they’d be wasting time and money. Without such protocols, failures couldn’t be targeted, successes couldn’t be quantified, and you’d probably be stuck on the side of the road in February, up to your side mirrors in slush and snow as you try to figure out why your door won’t close and your car won’t start.
We soon turn our taillights to Kapuskasing, and the return trip takes us through Timmins, Ontario. From the driver’s seat, Timmins appears to be the world’s longest strip mall, a depressing parade of big-box retailers, motels, and fast-food joints. On the bright side, we come across a museum that honors pop-country superstar Shania Twain–Timmins’ favorite daughter–and I pay her my own tribute with several slides and donuts in the deserted parking lot. On the way out of town, emboldened with adrenaline, I play some more on the lonely roads that wind through a local forest–where I high-center the RS4, front wheels dangling, on a two-foot pile of fresh powder. I am an idiot.
Fortunately, my screwup occurs within sight of a logging base, and two unimpressed em-ployees roll over and offer their assistance, smirks creasing their grizzled faces. They’re not interested in chatting; my thanks and their nodded acknowledgments are the extent of the conversation. While waiting for the loggers to pull us out with a massive front-end loader, I ruminate again on the tests we saw back at the Development Centre. It dawns on me that if it weren’t for cold-weather testing, I might not have made it up here in the first place. Also, the Audi’s sun visors work and it’s negative two degrees outside. And that’s always a plus.