Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge prototype first drive
A benchmark in the making
Bedfordshire, England – Your name is Johan de Nysschen and the first thing you realize upon being hired as the (then new) global head of Infiniti is that it is a luxury marque in search of a flagship. It is a luxury marque with no halo, a premium brand without a performance car, and all its cars — the new Qs — are named after a sedan (the aforementioned Q45) that it has not manufactured for almost a decade In a nutshell, it is an automaker struggling for a direction
When hyper-aggressive former (and seemingly restless as Mr. de Nysschen has already moved on to head Cadillac worldwide) head of Audi of America came on board two years ago, he quickly realized that a luxury brand without an aspirational model is like a summer blockbuster without Hugh Jackman, all the character development in the world isn't going to get you an audience that demands an overt excuse to open their wallets.
Looked at logically, de Nysschen had two simple choices; he could either build a replacement for the Q45 übersedan to compete with the likes of BMW's 7 Series or he could build a loud and proud super sports sedan like the BMW M5. The former — ostensibly a revival of the Q45 but who knows what in Infiniti's new naming structure (Q100?) — would require much investment and development; an entirely new luxury platform would have to be developed, possibly a new engine (at the very least hybrid electrification would have to be added to the existing V8 for any semblance of unique identity) and a styling direction finalized, this last no mean feat since, if a car is indeed a flagship, all its little siblings underneath must reflect its design. Much head scratching would be needed, much spending of cash required.
Or, he could have gone with option two. His engineers could simply plop the Nissan GT-R's powerful engine (Infiniti's 5.6L V8 and a breathed on version of the company's 3.7L V6 were also considered) into a Q50, add a few styling flourishes here, a few fender flares there and faster than you can say “I saved a billion dollars in R & D costs!” you'd have an über-sporty Q50. In other words, he could wait four years for a 7 Series competitor that North American consumers have had a history of rejecting or he could have an M5, powered by one of the truly legendary engines in sportscardom, ready in 18 months.
Guess which one he chose.
The decision was made easier — at least for de Nysschen; his engineers will tell you that he took the most difficult route technically — when you have something as potent as the Nissan GT-R's 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6 rocketship at your disposal. Plunk one in a Q50's engine bay and voila, instant flagship.
OK, not quite instant. The GT-R's 3.8-litre V6, for instance, sports twin intercoolers (for, of course, its twin turbocharger) which seriously crowd things in the engine bay. Much crowding of intercooler, radiator and transmission coolers was required before it would all fit inside the Q's silhouette. Look under the hood and the engine bay is packed tighter than sardines in a can and still chief engineer Tom Bradley is looking to squeeze more in so he can improve air flow under the hood (the twin-turbo GT-R is one of the hottest running engines in the biz).
Other bits liberated from the GT-R are the Brembo 390-millimetre discs and six-piston front brake calipers as well as the front differential. Actually, it's just the GT-R's internal gears in an Infiniti Q70 front diff housing (as well as the rear gearset), mated to a seven-speed automatic from the same car.
If it sounds like a bit of a parts bin special — a normally derogatory sobriquet, though quite how you can gain insult by being given a GT-R engine —you've hit the nail right on the head. You see, the one mandate that Jerry Hardcastle, Infiniti's chief marketability engineer, was given, as the Eau Rouge had to be a parts-bin special. All its components had to be sourced from within the Nissan/Renault empire.
Making do with what they have
It did, however, lead to the Eau Rouge's one serious handicap: said Q70's transmission. Hardcastle first tried shoehorning the GT-R's transaxle — a six-speed double clutch affair mounted to the rear axle that would have been perfect — into the Q50 chassis, but unfortunately that would have meant forgoing the rear seats, largely negating the four-door Eau Rouge's entire raison d'etre. The only other thing even remotely capable of harnessing the GT-R's might within the Nissan empire was the seven-speed automatic that sees yeoman duty in the 5.6-litre V8-powered Q70. Problem is — besides the obvious that anything remotely GT-R like deserves more than a squishy-shifting slushbox — the Q70 box is rated for an absolute maximum of 442 lb.-ft. The GT-R pumps out 466.
So, in order to make the gearbox live, Hardcastle's engineering team first installed a heavy-duty transmission cooler. Then they retarded the ignition timing in the VR38's mid-range. And then as a final sacrifice to what they hoped was reliability (Infiniti did bring along a spare transmission for the test!), they also slowed down the shift speed -- the shock of banging up gears at 466 lb.-ft. deemed too much for the Q70's gearbox.
Unfortunately, it compromises the prototype's performance. Slightly. Oh, you won't know it for the Eau Rouge's top speed which is just the side I'm-going-to-pee-my-pants scary: Infiniti, despite having reduced said maximum torque managed to squeeze another 15 peak horsepower from Nissan's already-formidable 545-hp supercar.
What's missing, though, is a little of that mid-range grunt that makes the GT-R the terror of corner exits. What's truly special about the GT-R isn't its 300+ km/h top speed or even, truth be told, its three-second zero-to-100 km/h acceleration, but it's incredible 3,500 rpm grunt that sees the twice turbo'ed Nissan squirt out of corners faster than anything this side of a McLaren P1.
And so what's so very, very captivating about this transmogrification is that the Eau Rouge is but a transmission away from replicating the GT-R's incredible performance (at 1,826 kilograms it's only about 80 kg more than the supercar but a whopping 150 kilos lighter than BMW's porky M5) and devastating the rest of the super saloon segment. Suggestions for a worthy transmission are the MCT SpeedShift seven-speed that powers some AMG'd Mercedes (now a partner so still qualify for that aforementioned parts bin designation) or sourcing a double clutch ‘box (a far superior solution that would, however, be more expensive).
Otherwise, the Eau Rouge's powertrain is darn near perfect. Viewed in isolation, it's a potent affair, its 560 horsepower making driving all four of the meaty 255/35ZR20 Pirelli P Zeros absolutely necessary lest all that fancy Italian rubber go up in smoke. Zero to 100 km/h is rated only as “less than four seconds,” though I suspect this is really closer to the GT-R's three, especially if Infiniti ever finds a worthy transmission.
What's remarkable about all of this, however, is that despite all this talk of horsepower and torque, the real surprise is that that GT-R engine is only the Eau Rouge's second-best attribute. More amazing is that nothing in the segment — not Audi's fearsome RS7, not Mercedes' elegant E 63 AMG or even BMW's much-lauded M5 — can replicate the lightness of steering and sheer unflappability that was the Eau Rouge prototype around Millbrook's Hill Circuit. It’s full of blind, decreasing radii bends and drop offs steep enough to make Laguna Seca's famed Corkscrew look like a bunny hill. The flat-red Infiniti — it's a wrap, not paint, so don't go judging the Eau Rouge's looks harshly — hustled round like Infiniti had bred the Q50 all along for these racetrack shenanigans, when, in fact, this final iteration of the sleek red sports saloon is barely a week old.
Ready for the street
That's not a typo. We tested the Eau Rouge on a Friday and only the Tuesday before Infiniti engineers had been neck deep in steering racks yet again modifying the Q50's power steering system (after having dumped the Q50's computational-intensive Direct Adaptive System for the simpler, and more communicative, E-PAS system just two weeks before). The result is a delicacy of direction that is superior to any I have ever experienced in a Japanese sports sedan, even trumping the mighty M5 that usually serves as the segment's sports sedan benchmark.
The rest of the chassis is up to snuff as well. The suspension has been upgraded, the prototype incorporating three-stage damping to allow engineers more leeway in testing (it's not certain the production version will need the adjustability). Though the rear differential is lifted from the Q70, Infiniti's engineers have managed to cram a limited-slip gearset in there to prevent the GT-R V6 from shredding rear tires in a puff of excess torque. In its current guise, the Eau Rouge's torque split favours the front, a heresy in a segment that almost demands a rearward bias. Nonetheless, if reverting to a traditional sports car configuration is going to futz with the current combination of steering and grip, I'll happily admit myself a heretic and implore Infiniti's engineers to leave well enough alone.
And now Infiniti has its flagship (if, of course, the company is not so stupid as to cancel the program just as it reaches fruition), even if Mr. de Nysschen isn't around to garner the accolades for his inspiration. The only question remaining is whether or not Infiniti will commit to building it.
Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge
Price: Not available
Type of vehicle: AWD midsize performance luxury sedan
Engine: 3.8-litre 24-valve DOHC V6 twin-turbo
Power/torque: 560 hp / 466 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100 km/h (est.): Less than four seconds
Fuel consumption: Not available
Competition: Audi RS7, BMW M5, Cadillac CTS-V, Dodge Charger SRT, Jaguar XFR-S, Maserati Ghibli S Q4, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG S Model 4Matic
Needs the GT-R’s double-clutch ‘box
Now that de Nysschen is gone, will it come to market?
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