MARICOPA, Ariz. — Here in the Sonoran Desert, shielded from prying eyes by an impenetrable wall of 15-foot-tall shrubs, lies a supersecret torture camp for cars.
For more than a quarter century, Volkswagen has used this anonymous 2.5- square-mile tract of sand — with its merciless sun and triple-digit temperatures — to test the breaking points of every vehicle and component it sells. Under the Arizona sun, a Bentley Continental bakes on the blacktop between an Audi Q5 and a Seat Mii — all dressed in black paint and fresh off their respective assembly lines — along with scores of all-black Skodas and Lamborghinis, Bugattis and VWs.
A few hundred feet away, other unlucky vehicles meet a different fate. Clad by their respective factories around the world in white paint, they take turns inside darkened, sealed chambers being sprayed for hours at a time with fine salty mists, basting in a choking mix of high heat and brine-y humidity, before being quickly moved to another chamber, where the air and humidity replicate central Alaska in January.
This is Volkswagen's $100 million Arizona Proving Grounds, the automaker's worldwide center of excellence for high- temperature testing and the place where it brings samples from all 355 of its vehicles to learn how they are likely to fail and, hopefully, how to prevent it.