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Going Under the Hood at Consumer Reports' Test Track

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The Consumer Reports test track in East Haddam.

Tucked away in the woods of central Connecticut is an asphalt oasis. A winding dirt road leads to an old dragstrip, for decades a theater where race cars would scream down a straightaway at breakneck speeds, now somewhat ironically repurposed as a sanctuary of safety. The Consumer Reports test track is the centerpiece of a 327-acre parcel of land in East Haddam on the Colchester line. Stability, acceleration and braking; the grip of tires, the efficacy of headlights, the compatibility of child seats — things taken for granted that we desperately need to function properly on a daily basis are tested at this facility, the only one of its kind used by Consumer Reports.

The publication had reached out to Connecticut Magazine with an invite to come check out the facilities and the work being done there. Unfortunately, the track is devoid of activity on this dreary, drizzly November morning, the rain forcing all 30 or so employees to work inside any one of a smattering of small buildings that make up a gearhead’s paradise. Jake Fisher, the head gearhead with an official title of director of auto testing, starts the tour by pointing out dozens of keys hanging on a hallway wall adjacent to the main lobby. “We’ll spend [about $2 million] every year on vehicles,” Fisher says. “Fortunately, when it comes to cars, they have pretty good resale value after a year. So we get a lot of that money back. Not quite as good as some other products. The market for used washing machines isn’t quite as good.”

But there are no washing machines on the premises. And there aren’t any kitchen appliances either; no microwaves, mixers or meat thermometers. Yes, those products are among the thousands tested by Consumer Reports at its headquarters in Yonkers, New York. But that’s not what happens in Connecticut. “We used to joke that [the public] thought the same people that tested cars tested toasters,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the auto test center. “We’ve done a lot to help that.”

The “keyboard” is impeccably organized. Vehicles are listed with the year, make and model, some with notes written neatly in marker on the whiteboard: “oil change due” and “cracked windshield.” Consumer Reports employees drive these cars, sometimes a different one each day. Fisher came to work in an Audi A8 that morning. Someone else will take it home. Vehicles are tested when the odometer sits between 2,000 and 3,000 miles, so a new car needs to get broken in like a baseball glove before it’s ready to take the field.

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A keyboard of vehicles being tested at the Consumer Reports facility in East Haddam. Some employees can take a different vehicle home from work everyday if they choose to do so.

A new car also needs to be purchased incognito to protect the integrity of the testing. “Up until the point when we’re physically handing over a check that says Consumer Reports on it, it is an anonymous deal,” Stockburger says. “So we’re going through all the angst at the dealership that a normal consumer would. We have tons of stories. They say to me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk this over with your husband?’ So we get to play-act a bit. ‘This is my money!’ ” Fisher created a backstory, as well, telling dealers he “made a lot of money on the internet” when he was purchasing luxury cars in his mid-20s. “Some of us haggle for sport.”

Consumer Reports, a nonprofit, prides itself on testing the same vehicles being sold to the general public while accepting no favors or advertising dollars, opting to operate instead on grants, donations and subscriptions. Six million people subscribe to the print and/or digital editions of the monthly publication. “Throughout the years we often get, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t like this car. All the other car magazines like it,’ ” Fisher says. “Well, that’s because they enjoyed their trip to the South of France when they got to drive it.” Other reviewers also get high-end models, “press cars,” with bells and whistles the majority of consumers are not going to purchase. “That’s what most automotive journalists are getting in their driveway, delivered,” Stockburger says.

Log books remain in Consumer’s vehicles, so whoever is behind the wheel can jot down notes when necessary. These anecdotes help give the published stories that appear in the magazine — April is the annual auto issue, hitting newsstands in late February — more of a narrative and a human touch; not everything is measurable like 0-to-60 time and fuel economy.

And not every test is planned. One of the benefits of employees using the vehicles in their personal lives is getting input from someone riding shotgun or in the backseat. Or in the trunk. In 2012, when Fisher’s two sons were 9 and 4, he took home a Lexus ES that had an emergency release in the trunk. His boys wanted to test it.

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Jake Fisher, a mechanical engineer and the Consumer Reports director of auto testing, left, and Jennifer Stockburger, also a mechanical engineer and the Consumer Reports director of operations.

“As director of auto testing I shouldn’t be putting my kid in the trunk, right? I’d have to explain this to my communications people, and they won’t like that,” Fisher says within earshot of communications director Barrie Rosen. “Anyway, [my 9-year-old son’s] argument was, ‘Well, I should know how to do it. Because if this ever happened, it’s a safety item, I should try it out.’ And he kind of had a good argument. So I threw him in the trunk, I closed the trunk. He pulls the thing and opens it up and he’s like, ‘Oh, OK, now I know how to do it.’ Now my 4-year-old is like, ‘Well, I need to know how to do it too. What if I get stuck in the trunk?’ So, anyway, he convinces me. I put my 4-year-old in the trunk, close the trunk. It doesn’t open. I hear boom, boom, boom, boom. ‘Dad!’ I open up the trunk, and that handle is in his hand. It broke off.”

This new Lexus ES was the first of its kind in Connecticut, but the same part was also in the Toyota Camry, one of the highest-volume cars on the road. “They wound up recalling about 700,000 vehicles, replacing that handle with a less-brittle handle, because they found that if you pull it in a certain direction, which my 4-year-old son did, it broke off.”

CONNECTICUT CONDITIONS

We walk through the main garage, a pristine area providing shelter to about 10 vehicles, to an outdoor lot and hop into a Lincoln Navigator to take a spin — and hopefully not a spinout — on the test track. An assumption leading up to this day was that the track was located in Connecticut in large part because of our four seasons. Not every part of the country gets 95 degrees with sweltering humidity in the summer and a few blizzards every winter. This would allow testing on vehicles in every possible condition. That assumption proved to be wholly inaccurate, as seen by the empty wet track. On a dry day, Fisher says it’s a three-ring circus.

Controlling variables is of the utmost importance when the primary objective is comparing cars. “If that Honda SUV didn’t go through the exact same snowstorm, and that exact same weather that the Subaru did, I can’t compare them,” Fisher says. Wet braking isn’t tested during a rainshower. The crew waits for a dry day and then sprays down the asphalt. We drive by an area along the edge of the track where the surface is depressed about an inch. This gets filled with water for the hydroplane test. “If you don’t have a consistent place to do your testing, you can’t compare the performance,” Fisher says.

One aspect of testing that Mother Nature actually contributes to is tire testing in the snow, but control over the conditions is still crucial. “[Testers] come at night because they don’t want the sun changing or melting the surface,” Stockburger says. Employees’ work schedules can fluctuate greatly depending on the forecast.

TRACK STARS

Connecticut Dragway, despite its location in a weather wonderland, was a natural fit for what Consumer Reports wanted in a test track when it purchased the land in 1986. The already-constructed straightaway was the main draw, but its isolation also provided secrecy during a much less transparent time. Arborvitaes lined the perimeter, obstructing the view from Hall Kilbourne Road.

Cars evolve and technology advances. Testing needs to keep up. “The facilities guys can physically move mountains,” Fisher says. The original straightaway was extended in both directions, widened, and handling roads were added. Among the four acres of asphalt on the premises is a strip of concrete. Even though we don’t drive on concrete roads here in Connecticut, Consumer Reports is still a national publication. One of the latest additions is road markings to assess some of the new automatic steering systems. And that avoidance-maneuver test with the cones that you see on so many car commercials? They have that too.

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Jennifer Stockburger is in charge of headlight testing.

Fisher, who has a background in racing both as a driver and an instructor, used to work at General Motors in Michigan. He says he had the one Toyota in the parking lot. When he moved to Connecticut, he built his MR2 into a full race car with a roll cage. Fisher would drive it to Lime Rock, run Sports Car Club of America events with it, and then drive it home. “The car was so reliable.” Naturally, we need to know what speed he’s gotten up to on the test track.

“180 miles an hour,” Fisher says after a brief pause to consider whether that should be public knowledge. He actually made the admission on a recent episode of the Talking Cars with Consumer Reports podcast. There was talk of editing it out, but it made the final cut. “It’s a closed track. It’s completely controlled; it’s completely safe.” Fisher says he’s reached that speed with a Dodge Viper, Porsche 918, and a high-performance Chevy Corvette.

Another creation of the facilities team — which is made up of four full-timers — is the 33-degree rock hill for testing vehicles with low-range gearing like SUVs and pickup trucks. The only vehicle to actually fall victim to the rock hill and break down was the Hummer H3. Finding that a little surprising, I remark that the Hummer was made just for that purpose. “Theoretically,” Fisher says. “It was marketed for it.”

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Staff photographer John Powers shoots photos of a car in one of the large studios of the photo building.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, TRACTION

In addition to offices and garages, other buildings on campus provide the setting for testing headlights, child seats and tires, and to conduct photo shoots and record videos and podcasts. Much like cars and trucks, there are roughly 30 new child seats on the market each year and anywhere from 50 to 80 tires. “There is a genuine desire in manufacturers to do well in our tests,” Stockburger says. “So they want to know all the ins and outs of how the test is run. I know they duplicate our headlight course in Michigan. I know that. They have exactly the same setup. They want to almost anticipate what our ratings on certain things are going to be. We know child seat manufacturers that have duplicated our exact test setup in their labs.”

Inside the photo and video building, a photographer is capturing images of a shiny, red Hyundai Santa Fe in an automotive studio modeled after the ones in Detroit. Nearby is a rather unique-looking vehicle, a state-of-the-art foam target car used to test automatic emergency braking systems. “It’s a $35,000 target,” says Stockburger, but the foam panels blow apart, it can be reassembled, and the car being tested avoids damage.

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A foam target car used for simulating automatic emergency braking.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

While keeping testing practices up to date with advancements in vehicle technology is just part of the job, new developments present unique obstacles. “Fred,” the dummy used for pedestrian-detection systems, used to have a plain foam head. A face had to be drawn on so newer cars would recognize him as a person.

Love it or hate it, autonomous vehicles and driverless cars are a part of the future. But as facility manager, and the longest-tenured employee on site, Erik Dill points out, “No one’s getting in the back seat yet.” Stockburger doesn’t see it happening soon either, but the advancements still help in the short term. “All of this technology — the cameras, the radar — that are allowing those cars to see are all beneficial. But they’re beneficial right now as the building blocks.”

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication is just around the corner. Stockburger explains what we might be hearing while in the driver’s seat very soon. “Crash ahead, slow down. Tight curve ahead, slow down. Eight cars ahead of you somebody’s stability control went on. You should know that, because it’s slippery up there. All of that, that’s the future. And that may have more safety potential than even this autonomous idea.”

Stockburger says there are ongoing conversations with the Connecticut Department of Transportation about a trial on the Berlin Turnpike for 2020, when the whole turnpike will be equipped for V2V and V2I communication. She also points out that autonomous vehicles can’t measure intent, and cautions about losing too much of the human element on the roads. “You could immobilize a whole city by standing in front of an autonomous car,” Stockburger says. “It’s not going anywhere.”

This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Send us your feedback on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag, or email editor@connecticutmag.com.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.