Death Valley's a hotbed of car-testing intrigue

As if torture-testing cars in the nation's hottest place wasn't enough, Lee Foster had to worry about spies.

Lots of them.

Foster was leading a team of engineers from South Korean automaker Kia putting disguised cars through the most grueling tests imaginable. All the while, they had to fend off a legion of car paparazzi hell-bent on grabbing shots of vehicles that hadn't yet been shown publicly.

The cat-and-mouse game plays out all summer in Death Valley National Park, where the temperature was the highest in the USA on all but three days last month. The destination's scorching conditions draw automotive teams from around the world to see whether their latest engines, transmissions and air conditioners can take the heat.

"Death Valley is the mecca for car testers," Foster says.

To see firsthand what the cars — and engineers — endure, Kia granted USA TODAY rare access to a Death Valley testing excursion on a typical 117-degree day in August.

The peek into this usually veiled part of producing cars and trucks showed that the engineers' work is sweaty and tedious. Unrelenting heat takes its toll on team members, who stay at a $51-a-night hotel, catch lunch on the run, and put in 12-hour workdays for four or five days at a stretch. All the while, they dodge the prying cameras of spy photographers, who are paid to get pictures of vehicles still under wraps.

It also showed the amount of effort automakers put into testing new cars under the most rigorous conditions to improve performance and ensure reliability.

From nearly dawn to dusk, Kia's engineers and contractors tinkered with engines, recorded data and gained insight on improving performance. The test data can prove invaluable. Any breakthrough to enhance performance or endurance can be an edge in the hyper-competitive car business. "From our perspective, if we can beat the goal, that's something else (Kia) can advertise," says David Peterson, powertrain evaluation engineer.

For the Kia team members, on their third day of the trip, the morning began early at their desert outpost, the Hyundai/Kia Technical Center, a grand name for an unmarked, tan stucco double-wide garage behind a no-trespassing sign in Beatty, Nev. It's a few minutes' drive from the rundown hotel-casino where they spent the night and about a half-hour from the Death Valley park entrance across the state line in California.

Foster called the nine-man team together, reviewed the previous day's test results and outlined what they would work on that day.

The team included four members from South Korea. Also on the team was Tony Vespa, a former top cooling engineer at Chrysler, who was upbeat despite the heat. "This is fun. I never got to turn wrenches at my other company," he says.

A particularly popular driving companion on the team was technician Tim Martinez, dressed entirely in black even as the thermometer started to soar. A computer key drive dangling from his neck was loaded with road music by artists as varied as Led Zeppelin, Fergie and No Doubt.

Kia puts 3 code-named prototypes to work

This day, Kia's crew was focused on three prototypes: a sporty crossover and two seven-passenger SUVs. The automaker plans to sell the sportster in the USA, but hasn't yet said whether it will offer the SUVs.

The prototypes are costly, running from $200,000 to $500,000.

The engineers were testing a new engine calibration in the SUVs to see if it helped with cooling. And the sports crossover was put through a test meant to simulate steamy stop-and-go city driving to judge the output of its air conditioning.

Whatever the tests, secrecy was an obsession. The vehicles were masked by yards of black vinyl with foam inserts over the hoods, sides and rear to shroud design details. Even door handles were swaddled, lest they be photographed and a competitor get a surreptitious peek. The same treatment extended to the interior. The Kia badge on the center of the steering wheel on one of the SUVs was taped over, for instance.

The secrecy is to keep both competitors and the car paparazzi from getting a look at the cars before the automaker is ready to show them off. The cars even have code names — AM for the crossover, HM for the SUVs — in case a spy photographer can overhear a conversation.

Every hint of what a new car looks like can prove helpful to the spy photographers, who come from all over the world to trail the teams around Death Valley. They sell their photos to auto magazines and websites, many of which post them within hours. A single picture of a desirable new model can generally fetch $500 to $900, says veteran spy photographer Brenda Priddy.

The Kias were tested against peers, a new Scion xB for the sports crossover, and a Toyota 4Runner and a Dodge Durango for the SUVs.

As soon as they hit the road, it was clear the Kia team wasn't alone. In summer, about the only traffic around the desolate landscape here are black-clad manufacturers' prototypes being tested in hot weather. The Kia engineers didn't have much trouble spotting teams from Hyundai, General Motors, Volkswagen, even a heavy-duty tractor-trailer. Only one car, escorted by a Subaru, remained a mystery.

A few minutes after leaving the garage, the team encountered its first spy photographer. Like any desert predator, this one had figured out that the easiest way to catch prey was to stake out the watering hole. Or in this case, the gas station where prototypes fill up.

After about a 20-mile drive, team members headed to a rest stop where they split up for the various tests. At the rest stop, the caravan boxed in the prized AM sports car to try to keep a nearby photographer from getting a clear shot.

The best testing comes in the afternoon. "We only have five to six hours a day when we have good heat," Foster says.

To enhance the sun's effect, the cars were left to bake for an hour or more with the windows rolled up while the crew took a break in front of the air conditioner of a room the team rents at a motel in what passes for an oasis in the otherwise desolate area around Stovepipe Wells Village.

The motel and the convenience store across the street are a convergence point for all the automakers' teams. "They come here and spend a lot of money," says Don Lehmkuhl, manning the cash register at the store.

By the time they arrived at the motel, the Kia team was already starting to swelter. Some napped for a few minutes while the cars heated up only to be roused by Foster with a hearty, "OK, let's go out and get hot!"

It could be worse. The day's high would wind up 3 degrees shy of what Foster considers real pain: "When you wear shorts at 120 degrees and there's a wind, it burns."

The team ran two tests. In one, the SUVs hauled various heavy loads up a hill while temperature readings were taken. In the other, readings were taken in the cabin of the baking crossover and its rival as their air conditioners gradually cooled them.

To get those readings, engineers climbed into cars whose interiors approached 160 degrees. Then they followed a routine: Every few minutes, they would let the car idle, then check the temperature monitors, then head down the road for quarter mile, turn around and come back, then take another reading.

Some findings are subjective. Foster, for instance, recorded how hot he felt on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the most sweltering, as the car cooled.

The SUVs, meanwhile, pounded up and down the 5,000-foot grade from the Devil's Cornfield, an odd Death Valley landmark near Stovepipe, to the top of Townes Pass. They towed trailers weighing as much as 7,000 pounds in a brutal demonstration of their ability to handle heat and loads.

That's the secret of Death Valley, Foster says. It's not just the heat: It's the hills. Engineers pay careful attention to temperatures of transmission fluid and engine oil all the way up.

Look out: Here come the spies

By now, a pack of spy photographers was in the hunt. For the Kia team, protecting the test cars is a little like being a lame jack rabbit stalked by a hungry coyote, because they often return to Stovepipe to regroup. Still, they do their best. This day they kept a sheet on hand to at least cover the sport crossover's secret dashboard.

Vespa said the day before a photographer swerved dangerously in front of the Kia convoy, apparently because they tried to block his view of the crossover. He says the photographer shook his fist at them. "They do their tricks. We do ours," Vespa said.

That photographer showed up at Stovepipe, still fuming about the previous day's incident. In his view, it was the Kia crew that was obnoxious in traffic. "You are a complete idiot when you act like that," said Robert Sandseth, on assignment from Bodo, Norway. He denied making any wild turns himself.

Despite such confrontations, Sandseth said he enjoys the thrill of stalking. "Some people go hunting after animals. We go hunting after cars."

All told, the car companies and photographers are reasonably well-behaved, says U.S. Park Service spokesman Terry Baldino. One problem they are attempting to solve: Engineers often drive too slowly in convoys during tests, holding up traffic behind them.

The Kia engineers say they're proud of what they accomplish during their summer desert forays. By overtaxing vehicles, they say, they help ensure customers will never have problems with them in normal service.

At the end of the day, Vespa was a little dispirited about the challenges the team still faced.

Foster was more upbeat. "We got quite a lot done. There's a lot to do, a lot of data to look at," he said. "We made a few improvements."