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Driving The Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge Prototype

Through a security gate, past tattooed guards who put stickers across the camera lens of our smartphone, we're finally within the Millbrook Proving Ground, 700 acres of hilly countryside some 45 miles north of London devoted to the development of automotive technology. Usually it's expressly off-limits to people like us. Not today.

Over the course of several weeks, Infiniti invited a handful of people from around the world to this secretive proving ground to see a working prototype of the Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge. It is the only one in the world, and it's our turn for a test drive. This is more than just an Infiniti Q50 named after the famous Eau Rouge corner at the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit in Belgium. Indeed, this car is a signpost pointed toward the future of Nissan's underdog luxury brand, a supersedan that could spawn an entire division of high-performance Infiniti vehicles to rival cars from the likes of Audi Quattro, BMW M, and Mercedes-Benz AMG. That is, if Infiniti ever decides to build it.

"There are still many questions about the business case," says Jerry Hardcastle, vice president of vehicle design and development at Nissan, who helped hatch the idea of the Eau Rouge late in 2013. "Are we ready for it yet in terms of the brand? And have we got the engineering resources to overcome the problems? It's still very much a work in progress."

As we caravan across the former General Motors proving ground, a silver car shoots by on a steeply banked oval track like the ball on a roulette wheel. Finally we emerge into a small valley from which radiate three road courses as twisty as the Nürburgring. There's a white tent, and the Eau Rouge sits quietly underneath it, a gladiator waiting to enter Circus Maximus. Instead of the impeccable paint job of the Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge show car unveiled in January at the 2014 Detroit auto show, this car wears a vinyl wrap of matte red, as if someone had flayed the concept car's shiny skin to expose the flesh beneath.

"If we're going to do this, then there needs to be some provocation," Hardcastle says.

The wrap is both striking and practical. Scrapes inflicted during testing can be fixed with a rewrap, rather than a trip to the body shop. "It's another way of speeding things up a bit," says Tom Snowball, the fresh-faced lead development engineer from RML Group, the racing outfit that developed the Nissan Juke-R and the Nissan ZEOD RC race car. "Speeding things up a bit" has been a priority since day one of the project, which has gone from concept to running prototype in a matter of months.

This car is quite the Frankenstein. Basically, it's a 2014 Infiniti Q50S with the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 from the Nissan GT-R crammed under the hood, intercoolers and all. The VR38DETT V-6 puts out 560 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. The seven-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive system come straight from the V-8-powered Infiniti Q70 sedan, while the limited-slip rear differential is a custom piece. RML considered simply dropping a Q50 sedan body onto a Nissan GT-R, as well as using a supercharged V-6 or even Nissan's 5.6-liter V-8, but in the end, nothing proved more provocative than a Godzilla-powered Infiniti Q50. "If we're going to do this, then there needs to be some provocation," Hardcastle says. "I know a 'me-too' BMW M3 or a 'me-too' Audi RS 4 is interesting, but it doesn't do anything for the brand."

Snowball gives us a walk around the car before we climb into the driver's seat. The Q50S' drive-by-wire Direct Adaptive Steering has been replaced by a more conventional electric-assist setup. "We're evaluating which steering system might work best with this car and give the driver the most feedback," Snowball says. The suspension uses three-way adjustable K&W coil-over dampers and adjustable anti-roll bars. The stopgap prototype transmission is kind of a mess and it's not really up to the task, so a Motec electronic control unit dials back the engine power and tweaks the speed of the shifts to preserve the hardware during testing. We're instructed to always run the transmission in manual mode and use the shift paddles behind the steering wheel.

We open the Q50 Eau Rouge's door and slide into the deeply bolstered driver's seat. All right then, here we go. Nothing about the pre-flight sequence is remarkable, not even firing up the engine, as too little of its lovely rasp filters into the interior. As the super Infiniti begins to roll, we hear the metallic brake pads brush against the rotors, just as they do in the Nissan GT-R Nismo.

Above 4000 rpm, the boost comes on with a bang, and your body gets buried into the seat as if you were an astronaut in the space shuttle on blastoff.

We get into the accelerator with some force. It's like poking Godzilla, and the car lunges forward with brutal acceleration. You can hear the turbos spooling, sucking air like a black hole drawing the universe to its center. The VR38 V-6 sounds like nothing else, halfway between a Porsche flat-six and a BMW inline-six. There should be less road and wind noise to better hear both the V-6 and its exhaust note. Time to slow down before we hit the weeds. The brake pedal could be firmer, but the Eau Rouge does not want for stopping power. It feels as if the brakes might take you back in time if you mash the pedal hard enough. The sense of speed inside the car is intense, partly because so much road and wind noise is roaring through the cabin.

The two-lane test loop quickly narrows into a gantlet of speed bumps and nasty potholes. The steering feels alive, much less video-game-like than the drive-by-wire system in the Q50S. We snake up through small hills into heavily forested bumpy switchbacks that recall the remote mountain route to the Spa circuit. The suspension is supple, absorbing surface irregularities and undulations perfectly, and the Eau Rouge feels neither light nor heavy, though it weighs nearly 4000 pounds. It bites into turns aggressively, and the all-wheel-drive system just pulls the car through without plowing understeer.

The tail doesn't rotate much when the car is flung around tight turns, which Snowball later tells us is due to the 50/50 front-to-rear torque split of the all-wheel-drive system. "We feel as though the car's tendency to understeer happens too soon, and that's only a feature of the mapping of the transfer box in the transmission," he says. "So what we would like ideally is the torque split to be slightly more rear biased for a longer duration in the corner."

The last in the trio of interconnected hill routes at Millbrook is the most extreme. It dives down precipitously into a valley, then rolls back up the other side at an angle steeper than the incline at Spa's Eau Rouge corner. The Eau Rouge really shines on this stretch. The supple suspension never bottoms out, even under pretty aggressive acceleration down into the valley. The power is omnipresent, never leaving you wanting more, no matter how steep the grade.

You can hear the turbos spooling, sucking air like a black hole drawing the universe to its center.

It's interesting that the car exhibits a split personality of sorts. There is so much torque that the test track could be driven entirely in third gear. Below 3000 rpm, the power delivery is smooth and builds progressively as the turbos spool up. But above 4000 rpm, the boost comes on with a bang, and your body gets buried into the seat as if you were an astronaut in the space shuttle on blastoff. This is a very cool dynamic.

There is much development work yet to be done. Engine cooling remains an issue. The car has been tested in the wind tunnel, and the shark fins behind the front wheels will get some attention to enhance air extraction and keep stones from being flicked up by the tires. It's unclear whether the faux inlet low in the rocker panel just in front of the rear wheels will be used to funnel air somewhere useful, such as the transmission. The rear spoiler bonded to the trunklid could also grow a bit taller to further balance out the aerodynamics.

Actually, all of the technical stuff seems like the easy part. For us, the most difficult challenge comes back to that idea of provocation. How do you create an Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge that will set itself apart from the German supersedans? In its current state, this car still feels too much like an ordinary Q50. It's not just about dressing up the interior or muffling the road noise and enhancing the engine note. It's about creating an X-factor that no other automaker has. But no one knows what this is yet. We've seen a $100,000 figure thrown about for this car if it were to be produced, and that strikes us as entirely too much, especially given that all manner of competing German Bahnstormers can be had for many thousands less.

"The feeling you want to create is one of control, composure," RML's Snowball tells us. "Certainly, you'd want it to be like that over a GT-R. We're not looking to create Infiniti's version of the Nissan GT-R."

At the end of our day with the Eau Rouge, there is no discussion of production dates and pricing. Nissan's Hardcastle tells us that everything is still too up in the air. "The last drive for this car is on Wednesday and I don't know whether I will ever get to touch the Eau Rouge again," he says. "That is where I'm at."

Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge Specifications

  • On Sale: TBD
  • Price: $100,000 (est. )
  • Engine: 3.8L twin-turbo V-6, 560 hp, 443 lb-ft
  • Drive: All-wheel