Mo­tor­ing

Gau­tam Sharma drives the only 560bhp In­finiti Q 50 Eau Rouge in ex­is­tence, onone of the most chal­leng­ing bits of road in the world

Friday - - Contents -

Our wheels col­league tests a protype for a su­per sa­loon, and has his fin­gers crossed that In­fin­ity will give it the go-ahead.

This is begin­ning to feel more than a lit­tle sur­real. I’m sit­ting be­hind the wheel of the In­finiti Q50 Eau Rouge pro­to­type – the only ex­am­ple in ex­is­tence – and I’ve just been told by the com­pany ex­ecs that I can have my way with the car for the next two hours.

In fact, I’ve been en­cour­aged to wring its neck. Nor­mally the drill with pro­to­types – es­pe­cially when it’s a one-off – is that you get to poo­tle around a bor­ing stretch of road at dawdling speeds, usu­ally with a min­der in the pas­sen­ger seat to rein you in the mo­ment you even be­gin to en­ter­tain thoughts of press­ing on a lit­tle.

But to­day it’s open slather, and my play­ground for the next cou­ple of hours is the dip­ping, div­ing Millbrook Hill Route in Bed­ford­shire in the UK. It’s a supremely tech­ni­cal and chal­leng­ing strip of tar­mac with an as­sort­ment of blind crests, off-cam­ber cor­ners and a va­ri­ety of road sur­faces adding to the de­gree of dif­fi­culty.

There’s also a nice ‘yump’ to­wards the end of the cir­cuit where you can catch a bit of air if you’re brave enough. Just to make it even more in­ter­est­ing, there’s no run off on most cor­ners… just guardrails and fo­liage. If you make a mis­take here, chances are it won’t be pretty.

I’ve just been taken around the snaking rib­bon of tar­mac for a cou­ple of recce laps by one of the Millbrook staffers, and then I’m left to my own with the matte red pro­to­type.

Some quick back­ground about the Q50 Eau Rouge, which gets its evoca­tive suf­fix from the ul­tra-fast left-right-left cor­ner at the Spa-Fran­cor­champs cir­cuit in Bel­gium. Taken flat out in a For­mula 1 car at around 320kph, this rapid roller coaster kinks left, com­press­ing the car’s sus­pen­sion – and the driver’s body – at its base, then twists right as it fires steeply up­hill be­fore coil­ing left again to a blind crest that de­mands per­fect car place­ment and more than a lit­tle brav­ery to take flat out.

It’s an ap­pro­pri­ate so­bri­quet for this par­tic­u­lar Q50, be­cause stuffed be­neath its aero-en­hanced snout is a 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6 sourced from Nis­san’s GT-R halo car. It’s been re­cal­i­brated via a Motec ECU to pro­vide a more re­fined power de­liv­ery be­fit­ting an In­finiti, but it still belts out a sub­stan­tial 560bhp and 600Nm, which puts it in the same ball­park as the BMWM5 and Mercedes E 63 AMG.

To en­sure the car can wipe off mas­sive speeds as quickly as it can rack them up, it packs the same mas­sive Brembo stop­pers as the GT-R, with 390mm discs at the front and 380mm an­chors at the rear.

Fur­ther mir­ror­ing the GT-R, the pro­to­type sa­loon sends drive to all four wheels – split 50:50 front and rear – but it for­goes the rear­mounted six-speed dual-clutch gear­box of the for­mer as it would have meant ditch­ing the Q50’s back seat and re­lo­cat­ing the fuel tank. In­stead, the Eau Rouge uses a seven-speed auto bor­rowed from the V8-pow­ered Q70.

Engi­neer­ing work for the Eau Rouge is the hand­i­work of UK-based mo­tor­sport engi­neer­ing firm RML – the same mob who pro­duced the bonkers Nis­san Juke R that we sam­pled at the Dubai Au­to­drome a cou­ple of years ago. What’s par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive is that the project was fast-tracked from con­cept to work­ing pro­to­type stage in just four months but, as I’m about to find out, the car feels sur­pris­ingly well sorted con­sid­er­ing its ul­tra-brief

ges­ta­tion pe­riod. For the time be­ing, this project is purely for eval­u­a­tion, as the In­finiti top brass needs to first work out if the busi­ness case ex­ists for a circa-Dh400,000 model in its line-up, even if the ve­hi­cle in ques­tion would be ca­pa­ble of serv­ing up M5-match­ing per­for­mance and dy­nam­ics. Se­condly, they’ll need to sort out pro­duc­tion lo­gis­tics for the Eau Rouge and sub­ject it to dura­bil­ity and hot-weather test­ing if it’s to be a mass-mar­ket of­fer­ing.

Shoe­horn­ing the GT-R’s V6 with its twin turbos, in­ter­cooler, twin oil cool­ers and heavy-duty ra­di­a­tor in the Q50 was a chal­lenge and the boffins’ ini­tial thoughts were that the car’s front over­hang would need to be stretched, but RML some­how found a way to make it all fit with­out any di­men­sional in­creases.

That said, al­most ev­ery ex­te­rior panel is unique to the Eau Rouge, with only the front doors and roof car­ry­ing over from the stan­dard car. New front and rear fend­ers broaden the Q50’s stance by 20mm, and there’s a car­bon-fi­bre front spoiler/ split­ter that min­imises lift and sends suf­fi­cient cool­ing to the brakes and en­gine. In ad­di­tion there are NACA ducts in the bon­net, car­bon-fi­bre side skirts, a larger rear lip spoiler and be­spoke rear dif­fuser with a cen­tral brake light from the Red Bull RB9 For­mula 1 car. Pro­trud­ing through the dif­fuser is a huge pair of tailpipes to dis­pense spent gases from the twin-turbo V6.

The Eau Rouge sits 20mm lower than the stan­dard Q50 via be­spoke springs and three-way ad­justable dampers, and it also scores beefed-up front and rear anti-roll bars and a tasty set of 20in forged al­loys shod with 255/35ZR20 Pirelli P-Zero Cor­sas.

It’s an in­trigu­ing recipe, but what I’m here to find out is whether it all comes to­gether as a co­he­sive pack­age, or whether the Eau Rouge feels like some other half-baked pro­to­types I’ve driven over the years.

The first im­pres­sion is how de­cep­tively ‘nor­mal’ the car ap­pears from the in­side. Aside from the ex­cel­lent leather/suede Re­caro ap­par­ent as soon as I pull away from stand­still and dis­cover it takes a huge ef­fort to wind on any steer­ing lock. The rea­son for this is that the steer-by-wire sys­tem of the stan­dard Q50 has been binned in favour of a con­ven­tional elec­tri­cally as­sisted set-up, but since it’s not been cal­i­brated for this car, the steer­ing is mas­sively weighty at park­ing speeds.

No mat­ter though, be­cause it feels great when you’re punt­ing the Eau Rouge at its lim­its – and this is much more than can be said for the stan­dard Q50’s steer-by-wire sys­tem, which feels highly un­nat­u­ral as soon as you start press­ing on a bit.

I start up­ping the pace once I’ve had a cou­ple of laps to fig­ure out the ba­sic lay­out of the Millbrook Hill Route, and a few things be­come im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent.

Firstly, the be­spoke springs, dampers and anti-roll bars have seem­ingly worked a mir­a­cle, be­cause the Eau Rouge barely shows any hint of body roll, even when I’m ab­so­lutely hurl­ing it at cor­ners. Se­condly, the 20in Pirellis cling to the tar­mac with bull­dog-like tenac­ity, even through some of the Hill Route’s off-cam­ber bends. RML devel­op­ment engi­neer Tom Snow­ball says the car tips the scales at 1,826kg, but my seat-ofthe-pants im­pres­sion is that the

The Eau Rouge barely shows any hint of body roll, even when I’m hurl­ing it at cor­ners

sports seats, the cabin pro­vides no ob­vi­ous give­aways to the car’s hugely en­hanced per­for­mance ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The im­pres­sion of nor­malcy doesn’t change even af­ter rous­ing the twin-turbo V6 into life, as it sounds re­mark­ably docile and ticks over un­ob­tru­sively.

I’m told to work the trans­mis­sion man­u­ally – which is nor­mal pro­ce­dure for me any­way – rather than rely on it to up­shift and down­shift on its own as the ap­pro­pri­ate shift points haven’t been cal­i­brated for this car. The most no­tice­able change be­comes

pro­to­type feels at least a cou­ple of hun­dred ki­los lighter.

Another eye-opener is how ef­fec­tively the car con­verts its 560bhp and 600Nm to for­ward mo­tion. Sure, the two hair­pin cor­ners on the Hill Route re­quire throt­tle mod­u­la­tion to pre­vent the Eau Rouge from push­ing its nose straight on, but I find I can stand on the gas much ear­lier than an­tic­i­pated through the other bends. What’s more, the GT-Rpow­ered sa­loon makes mince­meat of any straights, as re­flected by an es­ti­mated sub-4.0sec 0-100kph sprint and 300kph top whack. But while the en­gine and chas­sis dy­nam­ics ap­pear pretty well sorted, there’s still work to do on the car, and much of this needs to be fo­cused on the trans­mis­sion.

To en­sure the pro­to­type’s seven-speed auto doesn’t end up an ex­pen­sive pile of scrap metal (given the en­gine’s mas­sive power and torque out­puts), RML’s en­gi­neers have slightly re­tarded its shift speed to lessen driv­e­line shock. This means the trans­mis­sion doesn’t have the whip-crack im­me­di­acy of, say, the ex­cel­lent M-DCT gear­box that comes in the M5. Not only are up­shifts slightly tardy, the trans­mis­sion oc­ca­sion­ally seems re­luc­tant to re­spond to com­mands is­sued via the flappy pad­dles. But the trans­mis­sion in its cur­rent state is only a stop-gap ar­range­ment and it will be fi­nessed if the car gets the pro­duc­tion green light.

The same goes for the ex­haust sys­tem, which doesn’t de­liver the fruity note one might ex­pect of a high-per­for­mance sa­loon. It doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s a tad char­ac­ter­less com­pared to an M5… and plain unin­spir­ing ver­sus the thun­der­ous Mercedes E 63 AMG.

An in­ter­est­ing fun fact about the Eau Rouge’s ex­hausts is that they ex­pand ap­pre­cia­bly when they’re hot, to the ex­tent that they were pro­trud­ing about an inch be­yond the rear bumper when I brought the car in af­ter an ex­tended ses­sion of hot-lap­pery. But all it took was one cool-down lap for them to shrink to nor­mal size and sit flush with the rear bumper.

Other ar­eas that will need to be ad­dressed if the car is to be de­vel­oped fur­ther is the afore­men­tioned steer­ing sys­tem, which in its cur­rent state re­quires Sch­warzeneg­ger-es­que fore­arms to heave the car around at park­ing speeds. There’s also a bit more bump-thump and driv­e­line noise than ideal, but that’s only to be ex­pected in a largely hand-built pro­to­type.

These short­com­ings aside, the Q50 Eau Rouge pro­to­type stacks up as a far more im­pres­sive de­vice than I had imag­ined, par­tic­u­larly as In­finiti and RML have re­tained the ba­sic ar­chi­tec­ture of the stan­dard car.

Apart from be­ing stunningly quick around the Millbrook Hill Route – I reckon it would at least match an M5 or E 63 AMG around this snaking rib­bon of road – the Eau Rouge also rides with an agree­able level of com­pli­ancy, doesn’t over­heat even af­ter sus­tained can­ing and its five-seat ca­pac­ity and large boot are, of course, un­changed from the donor car. If you were to eval­u­ate its raw de­liv­er­ables, the Q50 Eau Rouge ap­pears to have great po­ten­tial.

How­ever, even if the go-faster Q50 were to get the green light, it would take another 14 to 18 months to de­velop the car to pro­duc­tion-ready stage, ac­cord­ing to In­finiti global com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Stefan Wein­mann. Will it re­tain the ‘Eau Rouge’ suf­fix in pro­duc­tion form? Yet to be de­cided, says Wein­mann.

The petrol­head in me would love to see In­finiti build and sell this car at a sub-Dh400k price, but in order for this to hap­pen, the com­pany’s top brass will need to be con­vinced there’s a profit to be made by do­ing so, and also that the ve­hi­cle would pro­vide the de­sired halo ef­fect for the other mod­els in the brand’s line-up.

Given that the Q50 and Q70 are com­pe­tent, yet by no means ex­cep­tional cars, plus the fact that the In­finiti mar­que cur­rently lacks the as­pi­ra­tional sta­tus of the Ger­man luxo brands, I reckon there’s only one cor­rect course of ac­tion here. Go ahead and hit that green light, In­finiti. It’s time the Teu­tonic bri­gade didn’t have it all its own way in the su­per-sa­loon arena.

Al­most ev­ery ex­te­rior panel is unique to the Eau Rouge

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