When it comes to heat, the UAE reigns supreme. A perfect place, then, for Jaguar Land Rover to have a permanent test facility.
UAE extremes test the mettle of Jaguar Land Rover's new cars
Jaguar Land Rover uses the torturous heat and sand of the UAE to make sure its new models can handle the worst of all possible worlds, Kevin Hackett finds
In the middle of a rather nondescript warehousing complex adjacent to DuBiotech, Dubai's Biotechnology and Research park in Al Barsha, a new Range Rover is parked up next to a Toyota FJ Cruiser. The building overlooking the two lone cars could be home to anything - there are no signs to identify what lies within, and there are no signs of life, either. But behind the faceless façade, a team of engineers and scientists is busying itself "crunching data", as the Pentagon might put it, carrying out vital research work that will ensure the cars that Jaguar Land Rover produces are more reliable and better built than ever. Because if they can perform faultlessly in the summer heat of the UAE, well, they can perform faultlessly anywhere.
Inside the facility, which officially opened just a few weeks ago, John Winchester takes me on a one-to-one tour. Winchester is the manager for JLR's regional engineering technical services department and heads up the company's Global Test Facilities and Planning division. He's friendly, talkative and has the look of someone who likes to get his hands dirty in the name of engineering progress.
There are a couple of brand new Range Rover Sport models in the immaculate workshop area. Up until just a few days ago, they had been pounding the roads and dunes of the UAE in camouflaged livery, but now they're being pressed into service as appetite-whetting models at the regional unveilings. They're pretty much production ready, with only data loggers in the boot space giving the game away.
This 1,033-square-metre facility set back its owners approximately Dh6 million and is one of a network of five global test centres. The other four happen to be made up of two cold weather facilities (Arjeplog in Sweden and International Falls in Minnesota, USA), another for hot weather (Phoenix in Arizona, USA) and the Nürburgring in Germany, where vehicles are honed on one of the toughest tracks in the world. But Dubai is where the main off-road capabilities are refined, along with the cooling systems of JLR's vehicles, where ambient temperatures and humidity levels are some of the highest on the planet. This is an extreme environment we live in and our cars need to step up to the mark.
While the cars being tested here are becoming more high profile, Land Rover has had a presence in Dubai since February 1998, when a sole engineer was based at the Al Tayer dealership in Al Garhoud. "That was when the company was owned by BMW," says Winchester. "We had an office in the World Trade Centre and, when Ford took control of the company in 2001, a test facility was opened within the Jebel Ali Free Zone. In 2009 we relocated to a bigger premises in Dubai Investment Park but that was nothing compared to what we have here. There's a huge push going on right now for new models and derivatives within JLR, and every single one of them will go through our hands. This place is absolutely vital to the success of the company."
For all of Dubai's glitz and glamour, it's somehow gratifying to note that it's the very nature of the place that provides such a valuable test bed, not only for Jaguar Land Rover, but for the countless other car manufacturers we spot testing vehicles here. Quite apart from the obvious dune work that's carried out in the vast wilderness surrounding both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, valuable data is gathered from normal A-to-B driving, particularly in congested city traffic. And if you're wondering why these manufacturers don't simply stick their cars inside an oven and bake them instead of heading for our dusty climes, there's a very clear and simple answer: those artificial conditions aren't enough - there is no substitute for real world conditions. Even the distance between your car and the one in front will make a difference to the cooling system's performance, and the demands placed upon it are almost infinitely variable.
The desert environment also puts unique strains on rubber seals, oil and air filters, glass for the windscreen and headlamps, paint, tyres, brakes and, of course, the highly complex electrical and computer systems that all have to perform without a hitch or glitch, whether its plus or minus 50 degrees outside. "We're striving to increase the service intervals of our cars," says Winchester, who has been here for more than a decade, "and the ones we have in place right now are as a result of the research we have been doing here. We also have to bear in mind the type of driving that our customers do - it can be extremely demanding."
How long, I ask, does the R&D work take in Dubai on a new model? "It can be three years or more," says Winchester.
So these cars have been doing the rounds all this time? I express surprise that they managed to keep them from being spotted for so long. "Well we start out by using old body shells on new underpinnings and then, as the styling was finalised, we brought complete vehicles over. The shape, size, weight and aerodynamics of a vehicle's structure all impact on the way it performs out here, so we need to carry on the testing with the cars in their signed-off production form as soon as possible."
With that, it's time to head for the very playground that these new models have to contend with. My own sense of direction when it comes to the desert is scarily useless and I have no idea where we end up. But I'm assured this is an area where the team actually heads to put the development mules through their paces. There's a huge crater behind the massive dunes that has been present for a great many years, which is used as a high-speed bowl, almost like an enormous, sandy "wall of death" made famous by stunt motorcyclists.
"Ten years ago, we could only get a new Range Rover half way up the bowl," Winchester admits. From where I'm standing under the ridiculously punishing sun, at the bottom of the bowl, that would be impressive enough. "But now, let's see what a decade of testing and development has enabled us to do."
The new Range Rover tears up the sand without letup, without any hint that it might get stuck or even find it a struggle. Apparently a decade ago, by the time the car had reached the halfway point, it was overheating and couldn't really do much more than trundle around in the shadow of the crater's jagged edge. But here we are, tearing around just under that very edge, with no trouble at all and all systems functioning perfectly.
What a remarkable achievement this is in itself. Winchester is clearly proud of the way his employer has turned around its fortunes and it is down to its continuous investment in research and development, even when the company was staring into the abyss of bankruptcy just a few years ago, that these advancements have been made.
"We're reaping the benefits of being based here in all sorts of ways," he tells me once we're back on solid ground. "For instance, with the findings from developing this new Range Rover, the amount of development work for the new Range Rover Sport was vastly reduced because they share the same platform. And that new model's build quality is sky high as a result."
The processes involved are highly complex when it comes to gathering data and sending it back to the company's UK headquarters but, in the most basic terms, each day information is sent via the internet to the engineers responsible for bringing new models to market. Codes are interpreted, fixes are suggested and relevant information is sent back to the team in Dubai. The vehicles are then altered according to the suggestions received and the process starts again, repeated until either the particular problem no longer exists or the targets set for performance are met. Without the ability to communicate instantly over the internet, I cannot imagine how time consuming and utterly laborious this would be, never mind what the costs would be.
What, I ask, is the benchmark temperature when it comes to hot weather testing? Four years ago I accompanied Aston Martin's engineers in the deserts of Kuwait, while they carried out tests on the upcoming Rapide. The way they did things there and then is very similar to what I've seen here today but, while I was staggered that the thermometer onboard the Aston was reading 42 degrees, I've witnessed it a full 10 degrees hotter in the UAE.
"Fifty-two," is the reply. "But we've seen it even hotter than that and I'm pleased to say there were no adverse affects on the cars. While we have a test centre in Arizona, it doesn't get as hot as our summers here, so you might ask why we bother being there as well. The fact of the matter is that, in that part of the world, apart from arid heat, there's elevation to content with - mountain roads the likes of which don't exist in the UAE. So it's safe to say we cover all bases, every possible scenario, when it comes to the development cycle."
As harsh as the summer heat is, however, I still prefer it to the other extreme. I have, in the past, visited the test centre operated by Volvo in Sweden, way north of the Arctic Circle, and can confirm that it's horrifically cold up there - cold enough to give you nightmares. That's another story for another day and I sincerely hope I'm not the one to tell it, but isn't it fantastic to know that there are cars being brought to market that can cope with these absolute extremes?
For John Winchester and his staff, there appears to be no let-up. With JLR's ambitious (and, it would appear these days, totally realistic) plans to massively increase the range of its cars, once one model has been signed off there's another being started on. Even models we won't ever see on sale in our own market are put through their paces in Dubai - hybrid, diesel, EV, you name it and it'll be out there, on the dunes and on the streets, sometimes in disguise, providing essential information to teams of people based thousands of kilometres away.
When the Range Rover Evoque was being developed, 170,000km of endurance driving was carried out in the UAE by Winchester's team. And, as pretty as that car is, it's biggest appeal could be said to be the fact that it's obviously UAE summer-proof. After that, it really doesn't need to prove itself any further.
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