THE endless white stretches out to the horizon, pocked with stubby trees and broad, snow-covered lakes. As the twin-prop Comanche makes a sharp bank to the left, nosing steeply down toward the ground, the passengers realize they are heading in for a landing on one of those clearings, a two-mile-long patch of blue glaze.
Arvidsjaur is an outpost of civilization barely 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. Right now, local folks joke, they are having a ``heat wave'' - a balmy -20 F.
Hans Wuper says that's the perfect temperature for this automotive research facility run by Teves, a West German subsidiary of ITT Automotive.
Teves is one of the world's largest brake manufacturers, and the frigid weather of Arvidsjaur is ``something we need to see how our systems operate at the extremes of temperature they might encounter on the road,'' Mr. Wuper explains. ``If a car makes it through a winter here, it's like it has gone through a lifetime of testing in normal conditions.''
The miles of frozen lake have an additional benefit. They provide the slippery surfaces needed to develop antiskid brakes, a computer-controlled system that helps prevent skidding when a driver slams on the brakes on a wet or icy road.
Inviting a reporter to sit beside him, Wuper jumps into the driver's seat of a new Saab 9000. He shifts into gear, guns the motor, and races off down the straightaway. The speedometer climbs rapidly. When it reaches about 150 kilometers an hour (nearly 90 miles an hour), he slams on the brakes. There is an odd thumping sound from under the hood - the sound of the antiskid-brakes controller working. Despite the ice, the car holds a straight line as it comes to a stop.
Virtually every major auto manufacturer and many major component suppliers have test sites in Scandinavia or other Arctic regions.
A few kilometers away is Fiat. Ford of Europe operates a massive facility to the East in equally frozen Finland. General Motors operates several northern test bases, though most US-made vehicles are shipped to Kapuskasing, in northern Ontario. Toyota's main cold weather test site is in the farthest reaches of Hokkaido, that country's northern-most island.
``It's a difficult environment to live in,'' Wuper admits.
During the winter months there is little or no sunlight. Illness is a problem. So is homesickness. The nearby towns are small, a shock to those transplanted engineers used to life in a big city. Typically, Teves employees will work for three or four months before rotating home, and they may get leave to visit their families every two or three weeks.
The cost for the manufacturer is also high. There is a tremendous investment in buildings and equipment. Vehicles have to be shipped thousands of miles, and employees must be housed, fed, and entertained.
For that reason, many automakers and component suppliers have been seeking alternative means of testing, turning to cold weather simulators such as those built by Thermotron Industries of Holland, Mich.
``We have a big advantage,'' says Thermotron's Steve Lain. ``With our chambers, they can have it cold when they want it cold and hot when they want it hot.''
In fact, some of Thermotron's environmental chambers can go from hot to cold - or vice versa - at a rate of about 30 degrees a minute.
FORD of Europe recently invested $10 million to develop a test chamber in Britain that can simulate temperatures ranging from -40 to +125 degrees. ``But it's still not the same as testing a car in the real world,'' says Ford spokesman Jim McCraw. In Finland, he says, ``you get ice on the car and slush building up on the brakes. You can't do that in the tunnel.''
Virtually everything inside a car is put to the test in cold weather. Fluids prove especially troublesome. Brake fluid gets like margarine and oil flows like molasses.
But the component that gives carmakers the most trouble?
``That's easy,'' says Ford's McCraw. ``It's the windshield wipers. Even though we've had decades to come up with some artificial rubber compounds, performance deteriorates rather quickly when it gets real cold.''