Of course, November in Noyabrsk town of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District does not last the year round. It is always January there. At least, from October to May. That is why winter tests of Aurus Senate vehicles were carried out here, in Noyabrsk. I joined the testers for a couple of days.
Who do not know Aurus? The automotive newswire has been flooded with this brand for several months. Aurus was demonstrated at the Geneva Salon, Aurus disputes regarding the name rights with Toyota and Lamborghini, Aurus named the first dealers, Aurus signed a contract with a new investor, Aurus accompanies the President during a regular visit, Aurus will participate in the Le Mans race, Aurus is developing a convertible...
Now, Aurus exists in two dimensions. The first one is fabricated of sensitive matters of marketing, image-making and brand-building. Here, Aurus as if has already entered into a coterie of automakers of the luxury segment and observes the elite club rules: a booth in Geneva, the logo at a La Mans race car's air cowl, advertising photo shoots in luxury estates, a line of souvenir products and a showroom prepared for opening in the centre of Moscow.
The second dimension is more prosaic, and there Aurus is still a project of the NAMI Institute named UMF, i.e. the Unified Module Platform. This dimension consists of thousand kilometers passed in the Astrakhan Region, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District and Dmitrov Testing Area, hundreds kilos of measurements equipment and wires loaded into luxury cabs of the limousines. Generally, it consists of things that you will not see in the glamorous Instagram account @aurus_russia.
The glitzy front of the project and its content will exist in parallel for a certain time — and will not cross until Aurus is launched in serial production. It is a rather typical approach for the current automotive industry: for both U.S. and Japanese companies, a pause between the first show of a new model and the start of its production often lasts a year.
Frost and batteries
The Moscow - Noyabrsk flight is overcrowded: a half of the passengers flies to accept shift, the second half — to supervise the first one. Over 70% of the Noyabrsk economy is oil and gas mining by Gazprom subsidiaries. It is even symbolic that Aurus is tested among derricks, pipes and flares — just in the place where the force, which gave birth to it, stems from.
The secrecy mode is cancelled. The NAMI team leased a service center on the outskirts of the town and arranged a camp for Aurus there. Certainly, with security, but the vehicles are already without camouflage — and the cavalcade of two 'short' Senates and one armoured limousine has immediately hit all newscasts. And disappeared in the same quick manner. Auruses became a usual part of the local traffic.
Nine o'clock in the morning. Cold start. It is a special challenge for Aurus, as it is started by a 42 kV motor generator that is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Meanwhile, an innate peculiarity of such batteries is that in freezing temperatures the output power (as well as the capacity to receive a charge from the generator) falls, so in temperatures below -25 degrees the electronics will not allow starting the motor immediately. Instead, pressing the starter button will turn on an electric heater embedded in the liquid cooling system of the battery and when the batteries 'warm' to minus 25 degrees, the ICE will start. However, the delay will hardly trouble the owner: Aurus has a remote start system, and the 'usual' 1.5 kV pre-start ICE heater will work simultaneously with heating of the lithium-ion battery.
Alas, there were no severe frosts during my visit to Noyabrsk — just minus eight, almost a spring according to local standards. Auruses revived almost immediately— and I first heard the awakened bi-turbine engine V8 4.4. It was impressing. However, the strong roar was accompanied by other sound — something like a hydraulic booster creates with fully turned out wheels. Its source is KATE nine-speed automatic gearbox, a focus of the cold tests.
As a rule, automakers implement new units by turn — say, a new engine is launched together with a proven transmission or vice versa. However, the thing is that the engine and the automatic gearbox and the hybrid system of Aurus are developed from scratch and applied for the first time — and it would be naive to expect that this trinity will work ideally at once. The chances are as for a jackpot from the first attempt.
Certainly, the vehicles were frozen many times in special climatic chambers of the Dmitrov Testing Area, but only real roads and real frosts can properly check correctness of the selected solutions.
The challenge number one for Aurus is the cold start from the halt and driving with the unheated gearbox. I'd like to remind that KATE transmission has no traditional hydraulic transformer and instead of this it has a set of wet frictions which must connect very smoothly so that the vehicle moves without jerk. However, oil thickens at a severe frost — and this complicates the pressure control in the control hydraulic contours. In addition, switches should also be smooth, but oil heats and changes its properties so quickly that, for example, at the temperature of –5ºС and –2ºС the transmission behaviour will strongly differ.
So, fighting against jerks is just the top of an iceberg for tasks of the testers who really need to fine-tune several strategies of the transmission operation: the strategy of fastest heating, the strategy of usual switching and the process of transition between them as the oil heats.
Seemingly, the task of driving off could be transferred to the electric motor, all the more so that it is ready to generate 400 Nm from the first revolutions, however the lithium-ion battery is small here, just for 6 kWh, and the designers had other plans for this power. In addition, there is a continuous rigid link between the ICE and the electric motor, so the latter would have not only to set in motion the vehicle, which is not very light, but also to turn the eight cylinder crankshaft. Yes, such fallback scenario is provided for the case of emergency when the electric motor ensures mobility of Aurus with the damaged ICE, but standard functions of the hydride part of the power unit are starting the engine and helping it with torque, for example, during extreme speeding up or to smooth turbo lags, i.e. torque low points because of the turbine inertia.
To find the best settings for a smooth start, every morning NAMI guys got into the frozen vehicles, connected their computers, started the engines, drove off and recorded what accelerations and their pulsations accompany the starts and gear shifts. In the evening, they analysed the data, made adjustments to the transmission control software, downloaded it into the vehicles and checked results in the morning. Even the transmissions overloaded with resource tests learnt to drive off without jerks, although sometimes there were small pushes when switching from the second to the third gear. By the way, the 'extra' sound during cold start was caused by incorrect operation of a valve in the frozen transmission hydraulic line, but this problem has already been solved in gearboxes of the new series.
In addition to the cold setting of the transmission, the November testing programme included verification of the engine cooling system and its pump performance in the conditions when the anti-freezing liquid almost transforms into a gel. The breaking system also had difficulties due to high viscosity of the breaking fluid, but the testers noticed this fact earlier in the freezing chamber and satisfied that the problem was reliably solved in Noyabrsk.
The climatic system was verified too. It is more difficult to serve Aurus than other vehicles. First, due to a huge volume of the cab, especially in the limousine. Second, there are armoured glasses that have a very high temperature inertia: it is impossible to cool or heat them quickly, and this is a double load on the four-zone climate control. But any Aurus has two air conditioners — for the front and rear parts of the cab separately. In addition, the climate automatics was taught to regulate the temperature of the upper and lower cab layers and the blowing speed separately in each of the four zones.
Certainly, the resource tests were continued in Noyabrsk: for three weeks, the vehicles covered around ten thousand kilometers along streets of the town and northern roads. I also dragged these tracks with the 20" Aurus wheels.
How Aurus drives? Like Zmey Gorynych. An indelible impression, first of all, visual and sound. Senate is both higher and louder than all cars in the flow, but the main thing in speeding up is power. Maximum capabilities of the power unit surprise even in the armoured limousine which weigh seven tonnes. At a small speed, the accelerator delights with rapid responses — this is an effect from the hybrid unit assistance. As to nuances connected with the speeding up control...
The main thing that I continuously reminded to myself is that the Noyabrsk vehicles are absolutely not the samples to judge driving properties of future serial Senate. These Auruses are assembled using 'prototype' technologies and they have too many pitiless months and kilometers of testing behind. You should not, for example, pay attention to joints of the body panels or defects of the noise insulation. Saying nothing of the interior wear: plastic, veneer and leather are hardly intended to bear heavy boxes with measurement equipment from day to day. Suspensions, especially of the armoured limousine, suffered more than others during the resource tests, so let's leave assessing the energy capacity and smooth running until better days.
Senate impressed me with the rear cab part arrangement in the very good sense. Especially the limousine. Just imagine — there is no glazing at all in the huge side sections between the front and rear doors of the limousine, there is a blank metal of the armoured capsule there. But you don't feel like in a bunker there, as from the internal part this surface is almost entirely occupied by large monitors to broadcast an image from the external cameras facing the world around as if with the passenger's eyes. The third screen can be lifted from the foundation of the partition behind the driver — a huge display as in a cinema also rather truly transfers landscapes outside the window, but with the eyes of the front camera in this case. As a result, the main passenger has a panoramic view without excessive troubles.
The space is more than enough even in the sedan with a usual wheel base. Perhaps, the only missing thing is remote control of the front passenger seat to move it ahead as much as possible, lift the leg support from the back side and unfold your chair as a semi-sleeping lodgment.
The approach to the internal comfort of Aurus is arranged in another manner than in first-class sections of airlines or other luxury sedans. Instead of an insulated cocoon that one usually try to create around a passenger, Aurus offers a throne room environment. High position, a lot of space in shoulders and somewhere ahead — strapontins for fellow travellers from the immediate circle. Absolutely other mode of the state of mind and body. By the way, in the limousine the leg support is mounted right in the strapontins, so you can adopt a relaxed pose here too. Generally, the long-base Aurus is hardly behind the class standards in terms of the placement comfort.
The steering wheel is convenient, but I'd like to pull it towards myself and lift down a little bit more. The automated gearbox selector is located unusually close to the right hip and generally to the seat: to switch from parking to drive, you have to draw your arm far back and the movement efforts are high.
The devices look perfectly and the small print of the trip computer can be still made larger. Add smart functions to the interactive climate control handles. They reminded me handles in Range Rover Velar crossover: if you pull the rim, the 'roller' switches to the manual fan speed selection mode, but returns back to the temperature selection mode as soon as you leave the rim. So, it is impossible to fix the handle in the fan regulation mode and its speed should be set by a difficult hand movement — pulling with simultaneous turning. It is more logical to add the programme delay: you pull the rim, the handle switches to the fan mode and remains there for five seconds even if you leave the rim. This is enough to set the blowing speed comfortably and then the handle will automatically return to the temperature mode.
The multimedia system menu sections are arranged in accordance with the carousel principle, but the system is not looped, so you cannot go from the last section again to the first section in one step. In general, the multimedia system design is intricate, with very beautiful screensavers, although they look lonely on the black screen.
Noyabrsk — Sweden, further everywhere
After Noyabrsk, Auruses have already tried revamped transmissions and visited a winter testing area in Sweden where operation of the stabilisation system and all-wheel drive was tested. Ahead, there is another stage of 'hot' testing in the south of Russia — here the special focus will be on noise and vibration insulation and in highlands — operation of the engine in rarefaction conditions. And — permanent resource runs in the Dmitrov Testing Area.
Today, NAMI produced couple dozen of usual 'short' sedans and fifteen such armoured vehicles, four limousines and ten buses. These are the vehicles that participate in testing, while the number of Auruses transferred to the Special Purpose Garage is a secret. Besides, NAMI is developing a ceremonial cabriolet Aurus with a fully fabric roof — it will likely be the largest folding top among all vehicles that to any extent can be called 'serial'.
The time when really serial Auruses appear will depend on the readiness of Sollers to produce them in Yelabuga. The own capacity of NAMI allows producing just two hundred vehicles per year and this volume will hardly satisfy even the needs of the top state officials. If the dealers have really received hundreds of preliminary orders (the deposit is RUB 1.5 mln), Aurus should move to the new factory as soon as possible. Meanwhile, this is another story.