Normally we pull in rumours and pics of camouflaged cars from all over the world, but this week we are mostly focusing on Upington. Yes, Upington, the town in the Northern Cape that is a long way from the testing regions of Nevada, the Arctic Circle or even Munich.
Upington is a big town on the map of global vehicle testing. The Volkswagen Group has a massive testing facility there, hidden miles away from the road with no visible entrance or signage. In fact, until a couple of years ago the facility was blacked out on Google Earth — that’s how secret it is. At any one time there are about 150 future models on test there — and we are talking VW Group cars.
That means everything from the VW Up to the Bugatti Chiron and all sorts in between from Porsche and Seat to Skoda, Lamborghini and Bentley.
We have never been to the facility. As far as we know, no-one outside of those who need to know have been there. Certainly no member of the motoring media. Rumour has it that if you try, you will be met by armoured vehicles and men in suits that bulge — but that’s just a rumour.
However, strangely, our rumours this week are not to do with VW products (we do have the inside line on the 2019 Porsche 911, but you will have to wait until next week for that). Instead, testing teams from BMW, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Mercedes (which has a test facility in Namibia) all descended on the town and we were fortunate to be bombarded by pics from Leon Potgieter. Some vehicles then moved further afield with camouflaged vehicles spotted in Joburg and Cape Town.
The big reveal unfortunately is the hardest one to see. Sat in a side street in the darkness is the Mercedes-Benz C-Class facelift, due in SA early in 2018. Prior to this we had only seen spy pics of the C43 AMG facelift, but this is the first regular model. The pics might show few changes, but this is because there are few changes, at least externally.
The facelift will take a few cues from the new E-Class, with LED headlights up front, more chrome — especially at the rear — and a new grille and bumper treatments. It all aims to give the C a more executive look. The biggest changes are those you cannot see, with the interior likely to receive a new dual screen digital display, again similar to the larger E and S-Class models.
While the facelift C might be the big news, the company has been seen testing the next generation of the A-Class in the area too.
BMW is also in town, although not with a car that we are scheduled to get in SA, at least not for now anyway. The company is testing the new 1 Series sedan. Currently it is only planned for the Chinese market, but the car is a response to the Audi A3 sedan and Mercedes CLA, both of which are available here so we will not be surprised if the model eventually finds its way to this country.
Then there is Fiat Chrysler, which had a huge fleet in town. Vehicles included the Maserati Levante, which is being launched in SA this week. Nothing new as far as we can tell, but the company was conducting high speed testing to see how quickly it can tow a trailer carrying a Honda CR-V. As someone suggested to us, it is probably the fastest a CR-V has ever gone.
Still in the upper echelons of the Group, the new Alfa Romeo Stelvio was spotted. Alfa will launch its Giulia here next month, but its first ever SUV, the Stelvio, will arrive in the fourth quarter of the year.
Around the same time, Jeep will launch its new Compass, which goes from being something that looked like it was made from leftover body panels to something to be taken far more seriously.
The new model features a blend of urban and adventure Jeep styling and is likely to be far more of a hit than the previous generation.
Then there were a bunch of Fiats. Last year the company announced its collaboration with luxury motor yacht builder Riva, including the unveiling of the 124 Spyder Riva model. Far from Lake Como, the company was testing the Fiat 500 Riva which went on sale in Europe last year and which is set to be launched in SA in April. It boasts genuine mahogany and maple wood inserts as well as handcrafted leather and other Riva-inspired luxuries. A limited edition model, expect pricing to be around 30 grand more than the Lounge version.
The Tipo sedan, hatch and station wagon are also being tested here, although the estate version is not planned for our market. Nor is the next generation of the 500L, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
So there you have it — it’s all going on in Upington. – Mark Smyth (Pics: Leon Potgieter)