It’s impossible not to notice the wall. Rising above the farmland and housing developments of Maricopa, Arizona, it becomes visible well before you roll up to the unadorned security gate. From the outside, it looks like you could be entering a secret military base, or the site of some Stranger Things-like mad-science shenanigans. But this well-guarded facility isn’t either of those things. It’s Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground.
Digital Trends had a rare opportunity to go past the security guards and get an inside look at this massive testing facility. Volkswagen invited us to drive a prototype of the 2020 Passat midsize sedan ahead of the car’s calendar-year 2019 launch. Our time with the Passat showed how much secrecy and development work is involved in getting even the most ordinary cars to showrooms.
Like most other large automakers, Volkswagen has a network of testing centers where new cars are developed. The Arizona Proving Ground’s role can best be described as automotive torture testing.
The facility is located in Arizona because of the state’s hot summers. Cars are driven on both test tracks and local public roads to make sure they can handle the heat. At any given time, 100 cars and 3,000 parts are sitting in the sun, just to see how it affects them. An average of 250 people work at the site at any given time, but during the summer that total swells to 2,000 as engineers from around the world descend on Maricopa to test new cars.
The proving ground is an open secret. It occupies 1,600 acres, and construction housing developments have encroached closer to its gates. While the wall that surrounds the facility and its entrance are completely unmarked, Volkswagen makes its presence in the area known. The automaker employs locals as test drivers, and supports local charities. The regular flow of people with German accents in and out of nearby hotels, and the occasional camouflaged prototype car on local roads, are other obvious clues. VW isn’t even the only automaker in the area: Nissan has a similar facility nearby.
But the Volkswagen proving ground itself has largely remained off limits to the public. Other than a group of journalists invited to tour the proving ground in 2017, media access has been strictly verboten over the site’s 25 years of operations. The new openness is an attempt by VW to be more transparent as it continues working to rebuild its image after a major diesel-emissions scandal.
There’s nothing unusual at first glance. The first thing you see is what appears to be a normal 1990s office building, full of cubicles, conference rooms, linoleum floors, and fluorescent overhead lights. Aside from the pictures of old Volkswagens and Audis on the walls, it could be an insurance company.
But things quickly get stranger. Outside and in nearby garages, dozens of cars are parked. In addition to the expected mix of Jettas, Golfs, and Passats, you’ll find cars that aren’t normally seen in the U.S., such as models from Volkswagen’s Spanish Seat and Czech Skoda brands, Chinese-market VW models, and even a Volkswagen Amarok pickup truck. The Arizona Proving Ground does testing for all VW brands, even if the cars aren’t actually sold here.
These cars don’t live easy lives. Some will get locked in test chambers that simulate extreme humidity, cold (up to minus four degrees Fahrenheit) or corrosion from real-world sources like road salt. Volkswagen claims it can simulate 12 years of corrosion in 90 days through a regimen that involves bathing cars in a “fog” of three-percent salt at 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with 100-percent humidity. Cars are then disassembled to check for rust. It’s not just humble economy cars that get this treatment: cars from elite VW brands like Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, and Bentley go through this torture as well.
Today’s ride is not a Lamborghini, but rather the 2020 Volkswagen Passat. A prototype sits patiently on the tarmac, completely covered in camouflage to hide the biggest change for 2020: new exterior styling. VW claims to have changed every panel except the roof. While it’s hard to tell exactly what the finished product will look like, some styling elements from the smaller Jetta sedan were visible through the camo.
Under the skin, the 2020 Passat will be basically the same as the 2019 model, meaning it won’t be based on the MQB platform of newer VW models like the Jetta, Golf, and Atlas. It’s a questionable move, given how well the MQB-based cars have been received, and how sales of sedans are shrinking while car buyers flock to crossovers.
Given that tougher sales environment, shouldn’t Volkswagen put its best foot forward?
“We tried to upgrade everything the customer is demanding in the most cost-effective way,” explained Kai Oltmanns, product-marketing manager for the Passat. “It will serve its purpose.”
Oltmanns said Volkswagen focused only the areas that were important to customers in order to keep costs down. He said the 2020 Passat will have more standard tech features, including an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and driver aids like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert.
Customers apparently don’t care about the powertrain: the Passat will keep its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. No other engine or transmission options will be offered. The 2.0-liter engine will make the same 174 horsepower as before, but torque increases from 184 pound-feet to 207 lb-ft.
Not surprisingly given the limited changes, the Passat feels pretty much the same. The prototype’s interior looked virtually unchanged from the current model’s, which at least meant there was plenty of headroom, and an overall spacious feeling thanks to the tall side glass.
We did things to the Passat no sane driver would ever attempt with their own car. The testing regimen included loops on gravel, dirt, and pavement so uneven it felt like a row of speed bumps. This is meant to test a car’s build quality, with different surfaces designed to detect specific problems, like squeaks and rattles, or poor sealing of the cabin from dust. The Passat handled everything with aplomb. It’s still not a very sporty car, but at least its suspension can handle Mad Max-quality roads.
The average Passat owner also won’t take their car on a 4.7-mile banked oval track, but Volkswagen has one of those in Arizona as well. The track is primarily used to run cars at high speeds for long periods of time as a test of durability, but it’s also just a lot of fun. The average test driver is certified up to 140 mph on the track, but really fast cars from the likes of Bugatti can go up to 240 mph. The Passat maxed out at 114 mph.
From what we’ve seen so far, the 2020 Volkswagen Passat won’t be a groundbreaking car. But this peek behind the wall at VW’s Arizona Proving Ground shows that even ordinary cars are subjected to extraordinarily thorough testing before they go on sale. Volkswagen (and other automakers, which conduct similar tests at their own facilities) is serious about finding problems before cars get into customers’ hands. The more testing, the better future VWs should be.