April 16, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:02 pm

Vehicles get a workout at East Haddam test facility | Consumer Reports staff in East Haddam giving new cars, tires a rigorous exercise

An aerial view, above, shows the test track, once the Connecticut International Dragway. Below, an SUV tackles the steep rock hill.

There's an automotive nirvana located 21 miles east of Hartford off of Route 2. It's packed with the latest vehicles, technology, road surfaces and testing equipment.

Unfortunately it's not open to the public. It's the East Haddam headquarters for automotive product testing for Consumer Reports.

While the rest of the testing for Consumer Reports takes place in Yonkers, N.Y., this is where the automobiles are put through their paces, their headlights are checked, the tires evaluated and the trunks packed with suitcases. That's right. No detail is too small to be measured, including suitcase capacity.

Overseeing this operation of more than 20 staff members, including automotive engineers, technicians, and support staff, is David Champion, senior auto test director. This affable Englishman is the lord of a 327-acre manor that would make any auto enthusiast's mouth water.

The facilities include a:

• Vehicle handling circuit;

• 4,100-foot-long main straight; an office and workshop;

• Rock hill and off-road course for testing SUVs and pickup trucks;

• Specially-prepared surfaces for testing vehicle noise, anti-lock brakes, and tires;

• 1.5-mile ride evaluation course;

• Two skid pads;

• More-than-100,000-square-foot vehicle dynamics area for wet and dry handling test for cars and tires;

• Tire-test building;

• And a headlight-test building.

Each year Consumers Reports buys more than 80 brand-new vehicles anonymously so the manufacturers can't curry favorable reviews by delivering cream puffs. The cars are sold when testing is done. In total, Consumer Reports spends about $3 million annually on vehicles and then recoups about $2 million after selling them.

The vehicles are then driven anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 miles before undergoing 50 tests and evaluations. For example, each vehicle will be treated to a standardized brake test over a three-day period under various conditions. Other things that will be tested include handling, interior noise, fit and finish.

The electronic stability control test is fun to observe. Each vehicle will be put through six to eight runs. Starting at 40 mph, they weave through orange pylons to simulate an emergency condition. The testers then increase the speeds to test the reaction of the stability systems.

Champion is, well, a champion of electronic stability control systems. He said any car with a teen behind the wheel should have the equipment. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires all 2012 models and newer to have the systems.) Champion said more than 3,000 teen lives could be saved a year if all cars had the technology.

Fuel economy also gets measured under precise conditions. Consumer Reports buys its gasoline in bulk with the same 10 percent ethanol mix so there is no variation between summer and winter fuels. Each vehicle is then taken for five 30-mile loops over mixed roads including Route 2. "The EPA (test) is fairly close to where we are now. We do a 65 mph test that is much more realistic," said Champion, adding that the EPA numbers prior to 2008 were "wildly optimistic."

An important part of the Consumer Reports' rating system is consumer input. In 2010, subscribers reported input on 1.3 million vehicles that date back up to 10 years. When revealing that factoid, Champion chimed in that its research shows a 10-year old Toyota to be as reliable as a four-year-old Chrysler. He also said Subarus get worse as they hit the seven-year mark (which means now may be the time to trade in your 2005 Subaru Impreza).

Earning a top rating from Consumer Reports is powerful in the marketplace. A USAA Auto Circle survey of 1,000 consumers found that Consumer Reports was the third most-influential factor in buying a new vehicle after brand loyalty and recommendations from family and friends. (Auto-related websites were fourth.)

A further demonstration of Consumer Reports' thoroughness is its test of headlights. The results aren't part of a vehicle's overall results because the publication can't guarantee four days of consistent outdoor testing at night but low-beam and high-beam effectiveness are still measured at 900 feet. Points will be deducted for sharp drop off in lighting, an inconsistent pattern, or strong oncoming glare.

The testing facility even includes its own boulder climb for testing the capability of off-road vehicles. It is made up of 300 tons of boulders and poses a challenging 33 percent incline. Recognizing that most off-road vehicles are actually light-duty crossovers, the publication will eventually soften the automotive equivalent of a rock wall.

Another hefty part of the magazine's auto budget is spent on tire testing. Champion said more than $600,000 is spent annually with no means for recouping the costs. "We don't sell them. We don't know what they would be like," he said.

That may seem like a lot to invest in tires but it has its benefits for the publication. Tire research and vacuum research are the most read sections at Consumer Reports.

Not all of the testing is done in-house. Some tires will be tested for grip at a local ice rink. Other tread testing is done in San Antonio, Texas. Tires are tested up to 16,000 miles for wear, which is double the government standard.

In spite of being a popular research topic, most consumers (56 percent according to Consumer Reports) will do no research prior to shopping for new tires. Low price rules with most consumers when an initial higher layout of money could result in longer lasting tires.

All of the magazine's model photography is done in-house at what Consumer Reports bills as the best equipped automotive photo studio on the East Coast. The vehicles spin on a built-in carousel and can be shot from various angles. The publication does its own photography so it does not have to rely on the manufacturers.

While Consumer Reports does not get cars from manufacturers for testing, it will occasionally borrow vehicles for comparison testing and familiarity. On the day of our tour around the facilities, Subaru engineers and public relations executives were on hand to show off a new vehicle. A new Hyundai Azera (most likely pre-production) sat behind a building — out of sight — because its global debut to the public was still six weeks away.


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