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.

The now leaner, meaner, post-bailout GM believes its tests are working, so much so that this summer the company staked everything on an unprecedented money-back campaign. "If you're not happy with your new Chevy, return it," the company's commercials, played endlessly during the Olympics, boasted.

But despite its vigorous testing, General Motors just last month recalled over 40,000 vehicles over potential fuel leak concerns, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

And Consumer Reports ranked GM 12 out of 13 car companies for reliability in its most recent list, noting that models designed by the "old GM" are dragging the automaker's score down. So "Nightline" pressed GM about that.

Chris Perry, GM's vice president of U.S. marketing, said the company's process is improving.

"We believe in the products we're developing," he said. "[And] we're saying 'hey, you know what, we recognize the ills of our past, but do yourself a favor and compare us again.'"

A bright spot: GM's crash test results are far better now than they were in the past, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has named some GM vehicles as "Top Picks" for safety.

GM now conducts more than 50 different crashes before releasing a new model, including frontal collision, t-bone crash and a roll-over crash tests. Nightline was on hand for one such test so secret we were only allowed to film it from select angles, because the vehicle has not even been released yet.

In total, "Nightline" was allowed to film eight tests, an incredible series of splashes and crashes. But for the new GM, the true test is whether more people will buy its cars and that test is just beginning.

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