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Chrysler’s Arizona Proving Grounds, New and Old

proving grounds

Yucca, Arizona (opening in 2008)

In November 2007, Chrysler officially bought Ford’s Yucca, Arizona proving grounds, around 25 miles southwest of Kingman, Arizona. The site covers 3,840 acres, with 50 miles of test roads and 109,000 square feet of building space; it cost $35 million, and Chrysler planned to put in another $10 million including a 70 foot high test grade. This site will be used for hot weather testing, supplementing the Chelsea, Michigan proving grounds. Ford sold it after deciding to have a single Romeo, Michigan proving ground; it had been converted to a testing site in 1955, after serving as a World War II training base.

Chelsea Proving Grounds

Surfaces currently include on dirt and mud roads, twisted asphalt, and a five mile high speed oval; to be added are a cross-country road, 20% and 30% grade hills, traction hop bumps, a 12% reverse gear jump out, a three point turnaround, two 4,400-foot straight-aways, a “tortuous” track, a 100mm bump course, checkerboard tile, brushed concrete, and a low friction area to simulate ice and rain.

Around 2,000 vehicles will be tested each year to the tune of around a million miles; 75-100 people are expected to be employed, many moving from the old Chrysler proving grounds in Wittmann. The facility started operating for limited testing in May 2008.

The proving grounds are 1,950 above sea level, experience an average summer temperature of 103° Farenheit, an average winter temperature of 59°, and average rainfall of just 6 inches.

Chrysler’s Wittman Proving Grounds (closing in 2008)

In 1971, Chrysler wrote:

Almost one-half a million test miles are logged each year at the "Hot Weather" test station near Phoenix, Arizona. Cars are driven in the desert heat and sand for testing and evaluating air conditioning, engine cooling, fuel systems, carburetor air cleaners, and weatherstripping. As an indication of how warm normal conditions can become, temperatures as high as 225° Fahrenheit have been recorded inside closed cars parked in the sun.

Update: the Wittman proving grounds were sold to Toll Brothers, and is being leased back to Chrysler through June 2008.

I had the opportunity to take a fairly substantial tour of the Arizona Chrysler Proving Grounds, located northwest of Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday, March 19, 2005. The tours were made available through the 22nd Annual High Energy Mopar Invitational, the main show for Mopars Unlimited of Arizona. This year's car show was held at Speedworld Raceway Park, about five miles from the Proving Grounds. This tour in itself is an oddity; with the Proving Grounds normally closed to the public, the H.E.M.I. Show chairman managed to contact the right people within Chrysler Corporate to arrange for forty-five minute guided tours running every fifteen minutes throughout the course of the morning, conducted by regular Proving Grounds drivers using Dodge Sprinter vans. No cameras were allowed, and we did get to see several camoflauged and preproduction cars.

Arizona proving grounds

The tour guide, being a regular Proving Grounds driver, was able to give us detailed information as to how the testing procedures work at the facility, and in a very direct way. We got to see test setups and preparation processes for all kinds of conditions, including systems that would heat cars up before and during testing for specific results, systems that change the temperature of the fuel used to simulate conditions, and how new European testing procedures, recently implemented, required additional construction at the Proving Grounds.

We sampled all of the specially-constructed road conditions that the driver takes non-4wd test vehicles over as well. They've very thoroughly covered nearly all imaginable road conditions. The driver took the Sprinter through reinforced potholes, uneven pavement, broken pavement, simulated-washboard, cobblestone, freeway bridge seam simulation, speed bumps, drainage dips, and a whole slew of other "events" to accelerate wear on the vehicles. He also took us down several roads that were built to specifically mimic actual streets in Detroit and Stuttgart.

We as passengers were spared no regular road condition, getting to feel first-hand what the test drivers feel as they perform their normal duties. The Sprinter was obviously starting to feel the results of the testing too. I took one of the later tours, and the van's sliding door was starting to creak and squeal when the van absorbed road conditions at speed far in excess of what it would normally be subjected to.

The driver ran us through tests for non-suspension testing, showing us turning radius tests, water fording and wet braking tests, braking tests on grades as steep as 30% (a scary proposition as it was raining that day, a rarity for Phoenix), testing involving driving along a sound-reflecting wall to note any abnormal noises, and the high speed oval, where the van's governor just allowed us to reach the high bank lane requiring a minimum of 85 miles per hour. He didn't take the Sprinter on any offroad courses, but we were directed to see several mud, rock, dirt, sand, and dry creek trails that were either built or were naturally occurring on the massive site. He was able to show us some other Chrysler products using the various test roads and tracks, and we actively saw Neon SRT4s, Chargers, Magnums, Grand Cherokees, Liberties, Wranglers, PT Cruisers, and several cars fully or partially shrouded under test. In addition to the Mopars, there were a few vehicles from other manufacturers being put through the tests for comparisons.

One of the most interesting tests that they were performing on both Mopars and on other brands were with the SUV segment of the market, testing corrosion and wear effects on body and paint by forcing the vehicles through dirt, mud, and gravel in fast succession to pelt them with rock and stone chips and coat them thoroughly. The driver then described placing the vehicles, still caked with wet mud, into environment chambers to simulate different climate and temperature conditions, testing long term effects of the abuse and caked dirt. As another surprise, we saw that they actually test snowplows at this desert Proving Grounds, pushing around sand and testing how the trucks react to striking immovable objects with the plow at operating speed. The driver suggested wearing one's seatbelt when performing that particular one.

Another interesting facet of the tour was seeing an autocross event staged by the Viper Club of America, which used one of the large, multiacre paved lots on the Proving Grounds property. Vipers and SRT4s were being put through extensive cone-delimited road courses by their owners, and cars from all eras were represented. Apparently the VCA coincidentally chose the same weekend as Mopars Unlimited of Arizona to stage their events at Speedworld Raceway Park and the Proving Grounds; their drag races at the strip were Friday evening while the H.E.M.I. show used the track Saturday and Sunday. It was a nice boost to an already Mopar-filled weekend.

As for specific models not yet on the road, we got a pretty good glimpse of the Grand Cherokee SRT8, sitting in the internal test car parking area, sporting 20" aluminium wheels. We also saw a PT Cruiser with a masked front end, but under the mask the front facia somewhat resembled the spy photos of the Dodge Rebel, giving more weight to particular details to the design of the replacement small car platform. Also present was was almost certainly a Charger SRT8 (though the driver said that he couldn't comment), and a test mule of the new Dodge Ram Mega Cab, with particular styling cues somewhat masked with unfinished sheet metal, but indicating that it was built off of the Ram in its current style. The driver pointed out another gem to us as well, a Wrangler-like Jeep built for the Egyptian military with a wheelbase significantly longer than the Unlimited's, but with very similar front and rear overhangs. It looked like it would seat four with room for a lot of cargo, yet still be ready for severe service.

Talking with the driver and the tour organiser, we learned that Chrysler has been testing their products in Arizona since shortly after the conclusion of the second World War, and that they established the site of the Proving Grounds around twenty years ago for more thorough testing than Arizona's highways would allow. They value that which most summer visitors despise, the blisteringly high temperatures and the abundance of fine airborne dust and dirt. While they could perform almost any of the road condition testing at any location, Arizona gives them the ability to test for how the cars react under severe conditions, with high heat, thick dust, and clinging dirt. They get to see how these conditions affect all mechanical aspects of the car, and apparently part of their testing regimen is to forego fluid changes for double the prescribed light-duty service intervals, going 14,000 miles between oil changes and topoffs instead of 7,000, for example.

To help ensure that they always have such conditions, they've built a special track around the
perimeter that lets them stir up as much airborne dust and dirt as they can, saturating the property with more fine particles than most vehicles will ever see in their lifetimes. Additionally, once night falls, cold sets in very, very quickly, and this lets the three shift rotation get even more conditions to sample. It was very reassuring to see so much effort being put into research, development, and quality assurance as Chrysler.

I would encourage anyone who ever has a chance to tour an automotive testing facility like the Arizona Chrysler Proving Grounds to do it. The tour was interesting, highly informative, and quite a bit of fun.

See our Chelsea Proving Grounds page, which goes into detail on the purpose and history of proving grounds

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