The making of the perfect drive
During the lingering northern Swedish winters, temperatures regularly drop to -35˚C and below. By comparison, the cold box of your average domestic fridge freezer is -18˚C. And yet it is this extreme cold that makes it a perfect environment for testing Volvo cars.
Lying just inside the Arctic Circle, in Swedish Lapland, Volvo Cars’ winter testing facility is celebrating 30 years of helping make its cars more enjoyable to drive, more reliable and able to cope with any condition. It’s part of a network of facilities and public road tests around the globe, where Volvo’s vehicle dynamics experts assess, refine and improve the driving attributes of their cars. Across tens of thousands of miles and over thousands of hours and in all conditions imaginable – whether stifling desert heat in the USA, pothole-strewn northern European public roads and, here, in the Arctic – Volvo Cars leaves nothing to chance when striving to make cars that can cope with anything. There is even a high-tech driving simulator at Volvo Cars HQ, that allows engineers to ‘drive’ in any conditions they want, without even leaving the comfort of the workshop. It’s another example of Volvo Cars’ craftsmanship and attention to detail.
The winter testing facility isn’t on any map. And yet, despite being on the edge of civilisation and fiendishly tough to find, Volvo engineers regularly undertake an odyssey to get here from their Gothenburg HQ, involving multiple flights and hundreds of kilometres of driving.
It is mid-March. The near perma-darkness of the Arctic winter is losing its annual battle with daylight, but the snow is ever-present. Up here they call this time of year ‘the fifth season’ – not quite winter, not quite spring (although our breath clouds suggest otherwise). Trees stretch out in seemingly infinite fashion along the roads, boughs bent over in snow-laden genuflection. It feels like driving on a giant luge track.
Once we arrive at the test site – no Volvo signs, no fanfare – we pass through an anonymous-looking security barrier, before driving along a network of icy thoroughfares until we reach Volvo Cars’ workshop facility. A rectangular green box lurking behind a three-metre-high security fence, it’s the hub of the activities here. A pride of cars, many of them wrapped in the telltale uniform of development cars – black & white zebra camouflage – line up outside. Inside, however, it is warm, the atmosphere calm and focused. Surrounding us are a clutch of ‘zebraed’ cars, many raised high on vehicle lifts. Mechanics are buzzing around them. Some have their heads under bonnets, others are analysing streams of data from their computers. We could be at a car testing facility anywhere in the world, but we’re not. We’re at 66°N latitude – that’s 5° further north than Anchorage, Alaska.
In one of the workshop’s sparsely-decorated offices emerges Roger Wallgren, attribute leader in vehicle dynamics. He and his team are responsible for chassis development and fine-tuning – they develop the driving ‘character’ of every new Volvo. As we talk, a delivery driver drops off a parcel containing some newly-designed and manufactured suspension parts that Roger has ordered to be fitted to a test car. We maybe tens of kilometres from the nearest settlement, but true quality requires such a supply.
Roger pulls on a wooly hat and a thick, thermal coat – we’re going outside to drive cars. This is certainly not your normal day at the office. Beyond these workshop walls are conditions as extreme as you get in automotive testing. Spread over thousands of hectares of dramatic Arctic scenery is a network of icebound test tracks – high-speed straights, off-road courses, slippery ovals and tight circles.
‘It’s about achieving predictability and that feeling of confidence, consistency and controllability’
Attribute leader, vehicle dynamics, Volvo Cars
Here, Roger and his colleagues put test vehicles through their paces, noting how each reacts to different road surfaces, temperatures, speeds and steering inputs. In order to capture and interpret every byte of data, each car is hooked up to a laptop, secured to the centre console by a bracket. This is for good reason, as we find out. The extreme conditions are matched by the extreme manner that Roger drives these cars in order to get things just right. A flying laptop can do a lot of damage.
I’m sat in the passenger seat as Roger zigzags down an icy straight whose surface is scored, as if by a metal comb, with long, deep ruts. Through a series of firm steering inputs and a balletic dance between brakes and accelerator, he pushes an all-wheel drive XC60 to its limits. Despite the vigorous treatment he is dishing out, he and the car feel well balanced and in control. So, what’s Roger looking out for here? “It’s about getting that feeling of confidence,” he explains, leaving plumes of loosened ice in our wake. “You put a car to the test using different kind of steering inputs – quick inputs, slowly increasing inputs – to see if it does what you think it will do. It’s about predictability and that feeling of confidence, consistency, controllability. You need a car that will provide feedback to a driver, so they can feel what’s going on.”
“The end game here is the confidence that the driver will feel when they drive it,” explains Roger. “When a car comes to the end of its grip, is it easy and smooth to control or snappy? We want it to be predictable and easy to control. This is not just a winter car or a summer car – it has to be good in all conditions.”
The following morning, we have an early start. The temperature is -31˚C… artificially generated. We’re inside a freezer box. Part garage, part industrial fridge, it allows Volvo Cars engineers to mimic extreme ‘cold starts’. Spend 10 minutes inside here and your thighs feel like a side of chilled venison, every breath you inhale courses through your lungs like you’re swallowing icicles. A new Volvo XC40 has been shut in overnight. When the freezer box doors are opened and the car rolls into the morning sun, the warmer air outside – it’s a sweltering 2˚C, in comparison – causes the condensation on the car to form mist clouds. There’s now half an hour to get the car out on the test routes to take full benefit of the car’s lowered temperature. Are all mechanical fluids working properly? Steering? Electronics? Will it start first time? The answer is yes. This is a car that has the strength of character to go anywhere.
Roger is deep in concentration as he drives. You can almost see his own internal computer making tiny calculations. “I love the problem solving and engineering parts of my work,” he says. “What we’re doing here is balancing our latest driving technology with the skill, expertise and experience of Volvo Cars’ engineers, who all love driving. This meeting of art and science allows us to create such a natural, rewarding driving experience.”
It’s this combination of extreme attention to detail, expert human input and innovative technology that lies at the heart of this new generation of Volvo Cars – a definitive mark of quality.