By Tony Whitney
Before any new model vehicle reaches the showroom, all kinds of fascinating activities go on behind the scenes as manufacturers pull out the stops to ensure that nothing goes wrong with their “latest and greatest” in the marketplace. Automakers must make sure their vehicles are ready for any kind of challenge, whether normal daily use or outright neglect.
To put new vehicles through their paces before they are shipped, most major auto manufacturers, and more than a few minor players, operate comprehensive “proving ground” facilities. Proving grounds allow automakers to evaluate every facet of a new or concept vehicle’s performance under all kinds of conditions. Usually, these facilities are located in remote areas, partly because the vast amount of land required doesn’t cost too much, but also to keep prototype vehicles away from prying eyes. I’ve visited three proving grounds in Arizona alone and there are several others scattered around the wilder parts of the U.S.
My most recent proving ground visit was to a facility operated by Subaru in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture, located about 120 km north of Tokyo. Subaru’s operation is fairly typical of what you would find at a major automaker’s test facility, with one or two unique characteristics. Although Subaru doesn’t rank as one of the world’s bigger vehicle manufacturers, its Tochigi proving ground would certainly be envied by many far larger corporations. There is no doubt that the facility has played a major part in Subaru capturing an important niche in the world vehicle market, not to mention its string of successes in the prestigious World Rally Championship.
The Tochigi test centre is located on 177.8 hectares of undulating land in a fairly remote area surrounded by rice paddies. It began full operation in 1989, in time to evaluate the early Legacy sedan. Interestingly, Subaru points out that its old proving ground at the nearby Gunma assembly plant, which was quite a decent complex by most standards, simply wasn’t up to the task of aiding development of vehicles for today’s demanding markets. In the words of one Subaru engineer, “It was too small to develop a real driver’s car.” The highlight of the newer facility is a 4.2 km high-speed oval track that looks rather like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, without the stands. It has far higher bankings than Indianapolis, making it easier to test normal road vehicles at very high speeds. Driving the track in a Subaru Impreza WRX STi, I found it easy to get up to 180 km/h on the straights and then power into the steep bankings without even lifting off. Ovals like this help automakers evaluate performance at higher speeds than most buyers would ever attain. You can bet that if your Subaru is happy at 200 km/h on this track, it’ll be very safe and stable on the highway at 90 km/h.
The Tochigi complex also has a “handling course”, akin to a road racing circuit, where testers can check out vehicles to the very limits of their adhesion in safety. I found this course to be quite demanding and very narrow; the experience was like driving at high speed on a country lane with, thankfully, no chance of anyone coming the other way.
Of course, there are many aspects of vehicle performance that can’t be evaluated on a smoothly surfaced road, whether an oval track or a handling course. At Tochigi, there are roads with every kind of surface imaginable, from bone-jarring Belgian cobblestones to the kind of poorly-joined concrete freeways you come across in the U.S. Vehicles are also checked out on wet road surfaces and on paved roads that are specially formulated to be extra-slippery. Some road surfaces are designed to extract a rattle or two out of the tightest of vehicles and if your new Subaru has nary a squeak to its name, those hours of ripple-surface testing at Tochigi are what made it that way.
Since Subaru markets a popular SUV, the Forester, there are large areas of the proving ground allocated to off-road testing. Some of the rock-strewn hills over which I drove a test Forester would have challenged a Jeep TJ or Land Rover, putting to rest thoughts I had that this particular Subaru was more of a boulevard cruiser than a “stump puller.” I was impressed with the Forester’s capabilities on the mini-canyons of Tochigi, one of which involved a worrying 45-degree side slope. I would guess that with the current popularity of SUVs, most automakers have converted large areas of their proving grounds for off-road evaluation. Of course, all Subaru’s vehicles are available with four-wheel-drive, so even Legacys and Imprezas get a going-over in the off-road areas.
Although I didn’t see evidence of this, I’d imagine that prototype vehicles are tested almost to destruction at Tochigi. Better that a component fails in the confines of Subaru’s test centre than out in the marketplace. And one common sight at most of these test areas is evidence that rival products are carefully evaluated. I’ve seen rows of Mercedes and BMW products at proving grounds in Japan, some of them so battered they must have really been put through the mill.
Whether your next new vehicle is a Subaru or some other product, you can bet that prototypes and early production examples were rigorously evaluated at a proving ground rather like this. Automakers have been testing cars at these facilities for decades now and the result has been a level of reliability and quality unheard of in years gone by.