The Great Desert Bake-Off

Kia’s extreme test facility is located of all places slap bang in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Rob Gill wonders if it’s all a mirage

Two hours north of Los Angeles, next to Edwards Air Force base and a working goldmine in the Mojave Desert, sits the place that inspires Kia’s seven-year warranty and the reason it regularly tops dependability surveys.

Here, every single Kia component – steering wheels, dashboards, consoles, seat covers, headlights, bumpers, you name it – bakes in blistering 40deg C heat to see if they melt under the scorching Californian sun. The facility’s boss, Matt Seare, describes this extreme test facility as “a car’s worst nightmare”.

Some parts are monitored in Nasa-like pods that track the sun. Others are just screwed to work benches and left outside in the elements. The £1.5 million testing facility sends minute-by-minute data back to the mothership in South Korea.

Lab technician Tim Martinez says: “Those pods are like incubators. They are fitted with fans and curtains as temperatures can reach 90-110deg C inside there, following the sun 12 hours a day. Basically, we dose car parts with UV and total radiation to see if the sample is going to deteriorate, blister, fade or fail. We call it accelerated weathering. We can get five years’ wear and tear here in just six months.”

So, has anything ever caught fire? “Yes. But not from sample failure – from machine failure.”

But in one test car I spot a loo roll hanging between the seats to protect a thermocouple (thermometer with two wires) from direct sunlight. A loo roll? “Well, it does the job,” says Martinez. A

THE DESERT BLATS

Kia’s 4300-acre complex also includes 10 test tracks. There’s a billiard-smooth, 6.4-mile, high-speed oval; a twisty 2.4-mile circuit for handling; and an off-road track for SUVs. But most surprising is the ‘special surface’ loop replicating the world’s worst roads. There’s a cobbled section, concrete blocks, pot holes, speed humps, a rail crossing, salt baths, chassis twists, grit troughs and something called Choppy Road (LA Freeway) with teeth-gritting hops in it. “If you’re a test driver here, you’ll be best friends with a chiropractor,” says facility boss Matt Seare. “It’s pretty brutal – like a horror movie for cars.”