In Sweden's Frigid North, Car Testing Is Hot

The roar of the BMW breaks the silence of the frozen lake. The V8-powered M5 punches the glistening snow as its tires find their grip on the icy track. The driver, BMW chassis engineer Bernd Limmer, emerges wearing a thick jacket and a big smile. It's a common scene in Arjeplog, a region in northern Sweden that swells every winter with secretive engineers speaking German, French, English, Japanese, and Korean. BMW, the leading luxury carmaker, tests cars in this remote location 60 kilometers (38 miles) south of the Arctic Circle alongside Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen's Audi, Toyota Motor (TM), General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F), Fiat, Peugeot, Saab, and Hyundai Motor.

While Arjeplog is increasingly important to carmakers eager to optimize their vehicles for driving in extreme weather, the auto industry is a lifesaver for Arjeplog's 3,161 residents. The area struggled after the lumber industry dwindled in the 1980s and the local lead mine closed in 2001. "The car testing industry is absolutely vital to us," says Britta Flinkfeldt Jansson, Arjeplog's mayor. "Without it we'd probably starve to death, like our neighboring municipalities."

The Arjeplog region, slightly bigger than Connecticut, has 8,727 lakes—that's 2.8 per resident—filled with water said to be clean enough to drink. The public bulletin boards carry ads for "moose safari." What has attracted the car industry since the early 1970s is the area's reliable chilliness. This winter, temperatures have hovered around -20C (-4F) most days, making ice on the local lakes consistently thick enough for driving. "The climate conditions are perfect, and when you drive around you don't meet many people—maybe some reindeer," says Wilhelm Cordes, manager of BMW's testing facility. About 180 engineers convened at the test center at one point this season to work on making cars more fuel-efficient in cold weather and to optimize their anti-spin function.

While Arjeplog is the world's largest winter testing area, rival locations include Ivalo, Finland; West Yellowstone, Mont.; Carson City, Nev.; and Millbrook, England. Francisco Carvalho, an analyst at IHS Automotive, says such tracks provide automakers with "the ultimate test for the little things they can't detect or predict in a lab."

Almost 9,000 car industry officials visit Arjeplog each winter, with about 2,800 engineers working on any given day. They create about 500 local jobs, counted on an annual basis, and pump 700 million kronor ($110 million) into the region's economy, more than triple Arjeplog's entire municipal budget of 190 million kronor. Tjintokk, Arjeplog's biggest private employer, has one customer: Volkswagen. The company provides tracks, repair services, housing, and some 180 test drivers for Europe's No. 1 carmaker. Volkswagen last year extended the contract 12 years, says Tjintokk Chief Executive Officer Karl-Erik Soderberg.

Arjeplog traces its car testing history to 1973, when German auto parts maker Robert Bosch tested an antilock brake system and got permission to use a landing strip for planes on Lake Hornavan. Opel, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Porsche were the first carmakers to join Bosch, which still fine-tunes ABS systems in the area.

Arjeplog's 760 hotel rooms aren't enough to host all visitors, so locals rent out their homes. Mayor Jansson says Bosch engineers used her house for three weeks this winter while the family stayed in their summer cottage. "Virtually every local citizen derives incomes from the auto industry," says Stefan Oscarsen, head of Argentis, a company that promotes the local economy. "I never hear anyone complaining about it."

Arjeplog stands out in a battered region. The proportion of people under 30 in Norrbotten County in Sweden's northernmost quarter dropped to one-third last year from half in 1968 as young people left for jobs and life in bigger cities, according to Statistics Sweden. While Arjeplog's population has dropped 50 percent since the 1960s, it has gained in the last three years.

The carmakers attract another group to Arjeplog: photographers trying to snap pictures of unreleased models that can be sold to car magazines. Achtung Paparazzi warns a sign on the security booth at BMW's fenced-in facility. "One time they staged a fake accident with warning blinkers and reflective vests to get the test cars to slow down," Anders Lindberg, a driver for Tjintokk, says. "You just call and warn your colleagues."

The bottom line: Sweden's Arjeplog region, just below the Arctic Circle, has become the cold weather testing site for more than a dozen automakers.

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