February 10, 2010 / 9:31 PM / 8 years ago

Carmakers warm to frigid Canadian city as test site

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - In the small Canadian city of Thompson, residents boast that the temperature dips below freezing for an average of 240 days a year while the ground is covered by snow for up to six months.

It’s not exactly tourism brochure material, but the more consistently cold the weather is in Manitoba’s biggest northern outpost (population 13,446), the more its cash registers ring.

A who’s who of automakers, including Ford Motor Co and Honda Motor Co, measure their engines in Thompson every year against nature’s worst conditions. This winter, the city’s cold-weather testing industry has defied the recession, attracting Mazda Motor Corp, Mitsubishi Motors Corp, a new heavy-duty equipment company and new diesel companies.

“We definitely have had more testers in this year than probably ever before,” said Roxie Binns, development co-ordinator of Thompson Unlimited, the city’s economic development arm.

Thompson, located 739 kilometers north of the provincial capital Winnipeg, gained its reputation as a premier cold-weather testing site in the 1980s when Ford arrived. The company now leases an airport hangar for annual testing.

This autumn, a jet-engine test facility will open, owned in part by aerospace engine makers Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney.

In a region of shrinking communities, the city otherwise dominated by nickel miner Vale Inco added 1.4 percent more people between 2001-06. Virtually every Thompson business benefits from the testing industry, Binns said, ranging from hotels and restaurants to retailers.

Some auto engineers arrive needing to buy winter coats, but at some point they buy “everything you can think of,” Binns said, adding that concrete blocks and peat moss (used to soak up oil) have been among the unusual requests.

Thompson counts Fairbanks, Alaska, and Timmins, Ontario, among its cold-weather competition, but its edge lies in a combination of factors, said Curtis Ross, chief executive of Thompson Regional Airport Authority.

Its average low temperature in January is a frigid -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). And Thompson is connected by a paved highway and an airport but remote enough to ensure privacy.

Hard economic times for the auto industry may actually encourage more cold-weather testing, said Ross, who leases out testing and office space and has had more inquiries this year than ever before.

“In a recession, that’s the time that you tend to test more because you’ve got to sharpen your pencil, you’ve got to have that next best vehicle that’s getting 15 miles per gallon more,” he said.

It’s unlikely auto manufacturers could afford to reduce spending on research and development in light of the move to tighter emissions regulations, said David Adams, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers of Canada.

“The challenge is always ensuring you’ve got compliance in all areas. (And) companies are constantly trying to look at the horizon (to see) where the world is going.”

In Thompson, research and development involves a battery of tests that include abandoning vehicles overnight to the cold or packing their engines with snow, then measuring performance. Often, vehicle prototypes undergo the testing, but auto companies hide them under cladding to prevent the competition from getting a sneak peek.

“You wouldn’t have a clue what’s underneath,” Binns said. “(But) residents all know when they see it come in -- now the testers are coming.”

Editing by Frank McGurty

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