It takes as long as seven years to create a new car, from the first drawing to the clay model to the final product rolling off the assembly line. No small part of that process is making sure whatever ends up getting built doesn’t fall apart the moment a customer tries to drive up Pikes Peak or through a blizzard on the way to the mall.
That’s why big carmakers like Fiat Chrysler have giant labs dedicated to testing cars, where they shake down new designs and put them through literal torture tests—everything from the worst roads imaginable to seemingly-endless simulated hillclimbs. Cars are crashed—for real and on computers. They’re flogged at top speed around monstrous ovals.
A key part of the testing process is time on the dynamometer, or rolling road. It’s basically a machine that simulates miles and miles of driving, using rollers to spin the tires without having the car actually go anywhere, along with a giant wind machine to simulate what a car feels at 60 mph. They’re handy for measuring horsepower and torque without burning any rubber.
With brands like Dodge and Jeep to its name, Chrysler builds cars with a lot of power and capability—which is why it just dropped $2.5 million on a revamped dynamometer, one that can properly test all-wheel drive and 4×4 vehicles packing up to 650 horsepower.
The new dyno is built into Chrysler’s climactic test cell. The Auburn Hills, Michigan lab is designed to test cars in extreme weather—engineers can adjust the temperature from -40 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or make it extraordinarily dry or humid. They can make it rain, adjusting everything from the amount of precipitation to the size of the raindrops. They can make it snow, from a light dusting to a full-on blizzard.
“We’ll have wiper guys in there, shoot rain at the vehicle and make sure the wipers are clearing the windshield,” says Fiat Chrysler Drive Cell Supervisor Tony Kroll. “We can make sure that snow doesn’t block the air intake.”
Because the old dyno in the climactic cell could only handle front- and rear-wheel drive cars, teams would tear apart all-wheel drive cars so they’d only spin one axle—which the engine management computers on many modern cars didn’t like so much, causing trouble with the simulations. The dyno could handle only 200 horsepower, far short of what even the base model Dodge Charger churns out.
The new equipment can handle 350 horsepower on the front axle and up to 650 on the rear. For really powerful cars like the 707-hp Dodge Charger Hellcat, it freewheels after passing its design limits, preventing any damage.
The key here is the Chrysler’s engineering folks can now do that testing in any kind of weather conditions they like, so they make sure when you take your new 4×4 out in the midst of El Niño, you’ll get where you’re going.