Inside General Motors' Top Secret Extreme Vehicle Tests

PHOTO: General Motors granted "Nightline" unprecedented access to its super secretive vehicle testing facility, called the "Proving Grounds," in Milford, Mich.
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General Motors is putting its vehicles through a series of extreme tests in a bid to make sure the cars -- and the company -- last.

The grueling tests come after bankruptcy and a government bailout left American taxpayers with ownership of a quarter of the company. GM's stock price has slumped so that the government has been forced to hold it shares rather than sell them at a loss. The extreme testing is an attempt to strengthen the company's vehicles -- and its share price.

The newly restructured GM granted "Nightline" unprecedented access to its super secretive testing facility, called the Proving Grounds, in Milford, Mich., where it allowed our cameras to film new models being crashed, flooded and pushed to the limit in severe environments.

It's like hazing for cars or engineering as an extreme sport. And many of these tests had never been seen before by the public.

GM was once one of the biggest player in the most important industry in the world, rolling out iconic Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Buicks and more. But the company became bloated and, during the recession, it fell into bankruptcy and begged for a government bailout.

Whether the Obama administration's investment in the company was a good or bad idea has become a flash point in the 2012 presidential election. The Romney campaign cites it as an example of wasteful federal spending the country cannot afford. The Obama team has countered with the line: "Osama Bin Laden is dead, but GM is alive."

"This company is under tremendous pressure to deliver great products and great profitability --and quickly-- and the pedal is to the metal, so to speak," said James Bell, head of consumer affairs for GM.

The new GM recently hired Bell, an audacious choice because he spent years slamming car companies as an automotive journalist.

"I still have my journalist hat on, so I ask those deeper questions and a lot of engineers are like, 'let me see your badge again,'" he joked.

Bell was "Nightline's" tour guide for a wild ride through a series of breathtaking tests. In one test, GM dumps a "lifetime of rain" on a vehicle -- nearly 7,000 gallons in eight minutes -- which tests how well the engine, electronics and other components stay dry. In another, engineers drove a truck into a "dunk tank," then deliberately flooded it to see whether the truck's undercarriage would withstand dangerous corrosion. For yet another, they drove a vehicle at an impressive clip straight into a flooded road to see what would happen if a driver ignored safety warnings and did just that.

"Sometimes floods happen in this country, so we know that these vehicles are going to withstand that," Bell said. "We're doing above and beyond what the government requires."

For the first time ever, GM allowed cameras to film inside its climatic wind tunnel, capable of creating Arctic cold one day and desert heat the next all to see how vehicles do in extreme conditions. Another first: General Motors allowed our correspondent to drive onto a test track to see if a Chevy truck could manage massive pot holes and ditches so deep, their size is a trade secret.

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