It only takes about half a lap of the Millbrook Proving Grounds for me to become convinced that Infiniti must build this car.
The sedan I am piloting around the English circuit is a working prototype of the Q50 Eau Rouge Concept that made its world debut at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show earlier this year. As a refresher, the exquisitely painted, burgundy metallic, four-door show car is based on the production Q50, enhanced with Infiniti Red Bull Racing-inspired carbon-fiber bodywork, aerodynamic upgrades and – as we would come to learn at the Geneva Motor Show a few months later – fitted with a beastly twin-turbocharged engine shared with the parent company's spectacular Nissan GT-R.
Despite lacking the concept's gorgeously expensive paint, the vinyl-wrapped red prototype seen here is much more appealing than the static concept, as it is mechanically complete – it can be driven – thus explaining why I have traveled one-third of the way around the world to test this enthusiast-tuned, one-of-a-kind machine at one of Europe's premier testing facilities.
The Q50 Eau Rouge, named after the signature high-speed corner at Belgium's famed Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, is an intriguing program for a number of reasons. First, the Japanese luxury brand has never offered a flagship sport sedan of this magnitude. Second, the push came from Johan de Nysschen – the man tasked with turning Infiniti around who recently announced his departure from the company at the end of the month. Lastly, the working prototype was built by a small team in England, thousands of miles from Infiniti's Hong Kong headquarters, which allowed the program to move unimpeded by coagulating corporate culture. While launching the Eau Rouge program isn't as extreme as renaming all of its models, it would be easy to argue that this is a very radical move for the often-conservative Japanese automaker.
Over the past decade, I have driven a half-dozen or so near-priceless handcrafted prototypes. In every case, the manufacturer has put a warm body in the passenger seat to protect its investment. This time was different, as Infiniti did nothing more than take me for a few familiarization laps of Millbrook in a Q50S Hybrid before setting me free in its Eau Rouge prototype. With the exception of a GoPro camera, which I had requested for the video portion of this story, mine were the only eyes inside the cabin. With a dozen people watching from the tent, and me inside the only of these vehicles in existence, I'll admit I was more than a bit nervous.
With a dozen people watching from the tent, and me inside the only of these vehicles in existence, I'll admit I was more than a bit nervous.
The small team tasked with building this prototype were handed a silver metallic US-spec Infiniti Q50S as a donor car last December (even though the concept was still a month from its Detroit debut, the automaker was confident it had something special on its hands, so a working prototype was given an early go-ahead). To initiate the transformation into the Eau Rouge, the sedan's complete powertrain, including its naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6, rated at 328 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, was pulled. But that was just a portion of the undertaking, as the stock suspension, brakes, bumpers and front seats were all removed, too.
Cosmetically, and with the exception of the aforementioned color, the prototype nearly matches the concept in terms of visual stimulation. The new F1-inspired aero kit is both attractive and functional, but a production version would have a more aggressive decklid spoiler to reduce lift and a slightly different front fascia to allow more cooling air into the engine compartment. The stunning forged alloys fill their fenders very well (it helps that the prototype rides about three-quarters of an inch lower than a stock Q50S). Each wheel is custom made for the prototype, with a black finish and bright machined accents, and each is wrapped in ultra-sticky 255/35ZR20 Pirelli PZero Corsa rubber.
While the exterior boasts an enhanced appearance, the cabin appears mostly stock. From the cockpit, the only noticeable changes are the two very comfortable and supportive bucket racing seats and striking carbon-fiber trim woven with rouge thread. The instrumentation and primary controls are untouched. Infiniti officials hinted that if the vehicle makes it into production, the interior would have unique badging and special trim – and a meatier sport steering wheel.
Early in the program, the team discussed three possible engine choices for the Eau Rouge. The easy answer was a retuned 3.7-liter V6, or VQ37VHR, bumped in output, which was already fitted to the Q50 platform – it was axed because it couldn't meet the program's required power output. The next candidate, the burly 5.6-liter V8, or VK56VD, from the Q70 met some horsepower requirements – yet it was dismissed because its truck-based architecture lacked a sports car soul. The last choice, and perhaps the most obvious to an enthusiast, was the perfect candidate – the twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V6, or VR38DETT, currently shoehorned under the hood of the Nissan GT-R.
It wasn't until after the Detroit Auto Show that Nissan was confident the GT-R engine could be properly packaged to fit within the confines of the Q50.
The decision may seem like a no-brainer, but fitting it under the hood of a Q50 proved to be a complex task. Although the team had been working on the Eau Rouge from late 2013, it wasn't until after the Detroit Auto Show that they were confident the VR38DETT could be properly packaged to fit within the confines of the sedan, as the GT-R coupe has a slightly longer engine compartment to accommodate the various radiators and intercoolers that the turbocharged V6 requires. (Interesting fact: the Eau Rouge concept displayed at the January NAIAS didn't have an engine at all, which explains why de Nysschen hinted at a power output at the time but didn't reveal a specific powerplant until March's Geneva Motor Show.)
Seated comfortably behind the steering wheel within the Q50's roomy cabin, the engine fires quickly with the press of the start/stop button. Unlike many engine transplants that reveal themselves with rough idles, misfires or other idiosyncrasies, the GT-R's wondrous heart takes direction from an Infiniti performance ECU and purrs smoothly at a standstill. It also arrives with its own unique soundtrack, thanks to an emissions-legal exhaust system that eliminates the GT-R's crossover in favor of two separate exhaust pipes, each of which serve a bank of cylinders before exiting through custom tips in the rear carbon-fiber fascia.
Redesigning the exhaust was a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of finding a suitable transmission. As you may recall, the two-seat GT-R is fit with a seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle that resides beneath the cabin aft of the passengers. From the outset, it was obvious that the transaxle would not fit in the chassis of the Q50. With that gearbox out of the question, the team bolted a seven-speed torque-converter automatic, borrowed from the Q70 5.6, directly to the back of the VR38DETT – the first time a transmission has been bolted directly to this engine, says Infiniti.
Redesigning the exhaust was a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of finding a suitable transmission.
Mounting this transmission from a luxury sedan wasn't the only packaging-forced compromise, as the GT-R's celebrated performance-oriented mechanical ATESSA E-TS all-wheel-drive system was also eliminated and replaced with Infiniti's Intelligent AWD from the Q70. The team admits that this is a temporary solution – we can expect a different transmission and a performance-oriented AWD solution if the Eau Rouge makes it into production. The prototype's turbocharged 3.8-liter is tuned to 560 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, a level of power that understandably puts a lot of stress on the gearbox. To extend its life, shifts have been electronically slowed to reduce driveline shock, and I have been asked to shift with the column-mounted paddle shifters. No problem.
Millbrook's "Hill Route" is best described as an undulating strip of two-lane road that rolls up and down (some grades exceed 20 percent) through the English hills at the proving grounds. The pavement is not particularly smooth, there is no runoff and the steel guardrails are uncomfortably close to the edge of the road (if given the opportunity, I'd much prefer to run Southern California's public Mulholland Highway, which is wider, smoother, and lacks the intimidating, paint-marring barriers).
With the gearbox in manual mode and the Infiniti team taking shelter in their air-conditioned tent, I turn onto the test course and goose the accelerator. Despite a curb weight of 4,023 pounds (about 150 pounds more than the heavyweight GT-R), the Eau Rouge blasts forward with the sort of accelerative force that would leave every single model in Infiniti's 24-year history staring dumbfounded at its rapidly disappearing LED taillights. (When prodded for numbers, the on-site engineers estimate a 0-60 blast of "high three seconds" and a top speed "in excess of 180 miles per hour.")
The Eau Rouge blasts forward with accelerative force that would leave every model in Infiniti's history staring dumbfounded at its rapidly disappearing LED taillights.
Seconds later, I enter the first corner. The Eau Rouge has a new electric power steering rack, another adjustment to accommodate the engine, with software that still needs a bit of tweaking (it feels a bit light at high speeds). Regardless, initial turn-in is quick, and the sedan hunkers down as its front tires bite tenaciously.
Mid-corner stability is very good, with much of credit going to the prototype's adjustable KW coilover suspension, which does its work accompanied by thick upgraded anti-roll bars. The pair do a commendable job keeping the chassis composed and body roll nearly imperceptible. At least for circuit use, the suspension tuning is nearly spot-on, with the prototype never bottoming out or having a tire rub on a fender. (Don't get too excited about the race-ready coilovers, however, as they will likely get replaced by an adaptive system if the vehicle is produced.)
Thanks to all-wheel drive, all that power can be put down early. But doing so also shows the limitations of the Infiniti's inclement weather AWD system, which has been tuned in the Eau Rouge for a 50/50 torque distribution (most performance vehicles have a 40/60 torque split for rear-biased driving dynamics). The prototype pulls cleanly out of the corners, but there are several instances where I want the front tires to do less pulling and more steering. The overworked rubber under the nose would lose grip on some of the most challenging sections, resulting in understeer that made the stability control system very, very nervous.
The overworked rubber under the nose would lose grip on some of the most challenging sections.
The Millbrook course has plenty of steep hills, and what goes up must come down. But nothing is more reassuring than knowing the Eau Rouge is fitted with the GT-R's standard brake package, which includes six-piston monobloc front calipers and four-piston monobloc rear calipers over large ventilated and drilled steel rotors. At the bottom of each grade, I slammed the brake pedal in anger, and the system showed no sign of protest whether from noise or heat-induced fade. The concept's stoppers are, quite simply, unflappable.
Lap after lap, the Eau Rouge flew up and down over Millbrook's Hill Route. I was constantly reminded – audibly and physically – of the power packaged under its hood that completely transforms this Q50S donor. An additional 232 horsepower and gobs more torque will do that. While many will compare the "four-door GT-R" prototype to a BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG or an Audi S4, those cars are somewhat smaller in stature and wheelbase, factors that make them a bit more agile and tossable than the still-compact Infiniti. Based on my drive of the Eau Rouge concept, I'd argue that a properly sorted production model would drive more like a fierce – and worthy – competitor to the slightly larger M5, E63 AMG, S6 and upcoming CTS-V.
The Eau Rouge prototype circled the British proving grounds until I was tired and dizzy. Earlier in the day, I had made it a point to not leave the course until the Eau Rouge had proven itself to me, and it had, superbly. The concept's best attributes are its chassis, engine, brakes, tires and suspension. Areas that still need a bit of work include the transmission and steering, shortcomings Infiniti acknowledges and is madly engineering and tuning to get right. Despite a few rough edges that still need a bit of polishing, I really enjoyed driving the prototype.
The sport sedan will be a very competitive athlete – if it's given the opportunity..
I flew to England expecting to pamper a fragile kit-based vehicle with a laundry list of restrictions and a babysitter beside me. Instead, I was tossed the key and offered carte blanche opportunity to test on a challenging track without a minder in the passenger seat. The unrestricted access to the work-in-progress convinced me that Infiniti's Eau Rouge program has solid legs. The sport sedan will be a very competitive athlete – if it's given the opportunity.
As of now, the program's future is undecided and the Eau Rouge's strongest supporter, Johan de Nysschen, has one foot out the door. Yet the team insists there is plenty of internal momentum to see it through to production as a possible 2016 model (likely arriving with a different name). Without question, the Infiniti model range needs a production version of the Eau Rouge. Greenlighting the program would give the automaker a technically advanced halo model capable of challenging the world's best sedans. A low-volume production version would add character to a model lineup in need of more visual excitement and technical innovation, all while setting performance benchmarks that would keep the company in the public eye.
Infiniti has struggled for nearly a quarter century looking for an identity – a production version of the Eau Rouge could be a big, tangible step towards finding itself.
New Car Test Drive
All-new sedan and hybrid replace Infiniti G.
Sporting a fresh design, new technology and a new name, the all-new 2014 Infiniti Q50 is a rear-wheel-drive compact luxury four-door that replaces the Infiniti G37 sedan.
The new nomenclature is the brainchild of erstwhile Infiniti president Johan De Nysschen, the former Audi executive who stuck around just long enough to shake up the company's naming scheme before heading out the door to Cadillac. While the concept of using a single letter across the brand is logical on paper, the change has left some confused. When you tell someone you're driving a Q50, expect the response to be, “Is that an SUV?”
Name aside, the Infiniti Q50 sedan has much to offer someone looking for a unique alternative to usual German suspects: Sophisticated design, a powerful V6 engine and plentiful technology features. And while it might not perform like a BMW 3 Series sedan, the Q50 is more engaging to drive than its Mercedes-Benz C-Class counterpart.
Two powertrains are available: the standard Q50 uses a 3.7-liter, 328-horsepower V6 and comes in base, Premium and performance-oriented S variants. The Q50 Hybrid pairs a 3.5-liter V6 with a 50-kw electric motor, along with a lithium-ion battery pack for a net output of 354 hp. Both standard and hybrid Q50s are available with all-wheel drive, and all models come with a 7-speed automatic transmission.
Driving characteristics are mixed. Acceleration is plenty fast (especially in sport mode with the Q50S), brakes are confident, and handling rivals that of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Lexus IS, particularly around town. But steering is perhaps the Q50's biggest shortcoming; it lacks feedback and feels numb, especially for those used to the BMW steering feel. The car goes where you point it, but has a hollow characteristic like a USB-powered steering wheel hooked up to a home video game console. When pushed hard around corners, the Q50 starts to show its weaknesses in the form of slipping tires and body roll, so we'd say the Q50 is a better freeway cruiser than a track-day star.
Fuel economy for the base gasoline-powered Infiniti Q50 with rear-wheel drive is EPA-rated at 20/30 mpg City/Highway for and 20/29 mpg City/Highway for Q50 Premium and Q50 S models, which is within a mile per gallon or two of most competitors' V6 engines. Gas mileage drops to 19/27 mpg City/Highway on all models with all-wheel drive. Hybrid Q50 Premium models achieve 29/26 mpg City/Highway, while Q50 S hybrids get 28/34 mpg City/Highway. Fuel economy also drops on hybrids to an EPA-estimated 28/35 mpg for Q50 Hybrid AWD and 27/31 mpg for Q50S Hybrid AWD.
Interior execution is well done, with a simple and elegant cabin design. It's cleaner than a BMW 3 Series interior, and feels more inviting than the Audi A4's stark, Bauhaus-style cabin. Seats, however, are large, good for large males but won't fit an average-size female.
The Infiniti InTouch infotainment system uses two large screens in the center stack: one that displays the map, and another that controls audio, navigation, phone, apps and vehicle settings. We like this setup, which allows users to access other information while still being able to see where they are on the road. The interface is a combination of touchscreen, hard buttons, and a round control knob on the center console, like a mini version of iDrive. The redundancy aims to pacify both screen-touchers and button-pushers, and for the most part is easy to use. However, we found some functions laborious to access, and we found the voice recognition was mediocre at best.
Competitors to the Infiniti Q50 include the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The 2014 Infiniti Q50 is available with a 3.7-liter, 328-horsepower V6 and comes in base, Premium and performance-oriented S variants. The Q50 Hybrid pairs a 3.5-liter V6 with a 50-kw electric motor, along with a lithium-ion battery pack for a net output of 354 hp. Rear-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is available for both powerplants, and all models come with a 7-speed automatic transmission.
Q50 3.7 ($37,150) includes dual-zone automatic climate control, vinyl upholstery, eight-way power front seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel (with heated function on AWD models), cruise control, pushbutton start, the Infiniti InTouch user interface with two color screens, a six-speaker audio system with CD player and satellite radio capability, two USB ports, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, rearview camera, automatic LED headlights, LED foglights and 17-inch allow wheels. A sunroof is optional.
Q50 Premium ($40,000) adds heated front seats, a sunroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and upgrades to a 14-speaker Bose audio system.
Q50S ($43,650) adds leather upholstery, a sport driver's seat with power lumbar, aluminum pedals, paddle shifters, a sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires.
Q50 Hybrid models are available in Premium ($44,400) and S ($46,800) models and are equipped nearly identically to their gasoline-powered counterparts, but with standard leather seating, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel and Infiniti's Direct Adaptive Steering, which offers four adjustable settings.
Options for Premium and S models include a Deluxe Touring package with power tilt-and telescoping steering wheel, driver memory for seat, mirrors and steering wheel position, maple wood interior trim, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat with center pass-through, a rain-sensing windshield wiper, auto-dimming outside mirrors, 360-degree camera with moving object detection and Direct Adaptive Steering. The Technology Package adds adaptive front lighting with auto-leveling headlights, automatic high beams, distance control, blind spot warning, back-up collision warning, forward emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with full-speed range (can brake or completely stop the car if a collision is deemed imminent), lane departure warning and prevention and an upgraded climate control filtration system with air purifier.
Safety features on all models include front side airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, stability control, traction control, rearview camera. Optional safety features in addition to all-wheel drive include front and rear parking sensors, a 360-degree camera system, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, lane departure warning, forward and back-up collision warning (which will automatically apply the brakes if a collision is deemed imminent) and Active Lane Control, which can automatically make minor steering corrections if a driver swerves out of his or her lane.
Though it technically competes in the compact luxury segment, the base 2014 Infiniti Q50 is larger than most of its competitors; it measures about six inches longer than the BMW 3 Series, and about five inches longer than the Lexus IS. The Q50 falls short of the larger BMW 5 Series by only about 3 inches. Q50S and hybrid models are even longer than the standard Q50, by about an inch.
Compared with its predecessor, the 2014 Infiniti Q50 has subtle styling changes. The front end is redesigned with a wider front grill opening that's more upright, beset in black mesh instead of the G's horizontal metal lines. Headlight housings are sleeker, and foglamp housings are redesigned with LED accent lights.
From the side, the Q50s lines are more fluid and flowing. The hood is longer and sleeker. Unlike the G sedan, which had a character line flowing through the door handles, the Q50's distinctive crease is higher, flowing from behind the point of the wraparound headlights running above the door handles right beneath the side windows and into a softer, slighting rising rear character line that arcs from the rear door and into the deck lid. The rear window is also redesigned, with a subtle curvature that looks suspiciously like a take on BMW's signature Hofmeister kink.
The Q50 also gets a curvier, more three-dimensional rear end, with redesigned wrap-around tail lamps that blend more seamlessly into the arcing trunk lid. The rear bumper is more sculpted and sits lower, with twin exhaust pipes sitting beneath.
Inside the cabin, features and materials are tasteful. The design is simpler than the interior of the BMW 3 Series, but feels a bit more inviting than the Audi A4's stark, Bauhaus-style cabin.
Seats are supportive, especially in the Q50S which has additional side bolstering for spirited driving. But, they're quite large and feel like they're built for six-foot-four men, and won't fit an average-size female. Anyone with short legs will be driving with their feet sticking straight out, thanks to the unusually long seat cushion that prevents knees from bending.
Standard upholstery on the base and Premium models is vinyl. Leather upholstery came standard with our Q50S, but we found it feels plastic-y, not buttery soft.
Gauges look upscale and are easy to read, with white text on a black background, accented with rings of violet-blue. Between the speedometer and tachometer is a display screen that can switch between fuel economy, audio, navigation and vehicle information. Most of the functions, plus phone, voice recognition and cruise control, can be accessed by the variety of buttons on the multifunction steering wheel.
The Infiniti InTouch infotainment system uses two large screens in the center stack: one that displays the map, and another that controls audio, navigation, phone, apps and vehicle settings. We like this setup, which allows users to access other information while still being able to see where they are on the road. The interface is a combination of touchscreen, hard buttons, plus a round control knob on the center console, like a mini version of iDrive. The ability to access the same information multiple ways aims to pacify both screen-touchers and button-pushers, and for the most part is easy to use. However, we found some functions laborious to access, and we found the voice recognition was mediocre at best.
As with most vehicles in this class, the Q50 lets users tether their smartphones via USB and/or pair via Bluetooth to use phone, music and address book functions. We're fans of the Google maps mobile app over proprietary navigation systems. So we like that if your compatible smartphone is paired via Bluetooth or tethered with the USB cable (in our case, an iPhone 5s), the Google maps voice navigation will play through the car's speakers. The Q50 also offers a text message sending and reading function, but we couldn't get it to work with paired iPhone 5s, iPhone4 or Samsung smartphones.
The standard sound system is competitive with that in any luxury sedan. The upgraded Bose system on our Q50S test car sounded rich, full and crisp, even when playing MP3 files from our iPod and streaming audio at loud volumes. We think it's one of the best stereo systems in the segment.
Backseat space is average for the class, and is relatively comfortable for medium-sized adults on shorter trips. If the driver is tall, there won't be much legroom for the rear passenger. But with the front seat midway or all the way up, the space is livable. Maximum rear legroom measures 35.1 inches, the same as in the BMW 3 Series, and considerably more than the 32.2 inches in the Lexus IS.
Trunk space in the Q50 is relatively roomy at 13.5 cubic feet, slightly more than the 40 cubic feet in the BMW 3 Series and much more than the 10.8 cubic feet in the Lexus IS. Although, we wish there were some side cubbies or nets to store smaller items so they don't go flying around while driving. Premium and S models can also be equipped with a center pass-through for long items and 60/40-split folding rear seats with the optional Deluxe Touring Package.
Driving characteristics are mixed with the 2014 Infiniti Q50. Two powertrains are available: the standard Q50 uses a 3.7-liter, 328-horsepower V6 and comes in base, Premium and performance-oriented S variants. The Q50 Hybrid pairs a 3.5-liter V6 with a 50-kw electric motor, along with a lithium-ion battery pack for a net output of 354 hp. Both standard and hybrid Q50s are available with all-wheel drive.
Our test car was a Q50S, with a sport-tuned suspension and adjustable steering settings. With its 3.7-liter V6, the Q50S is plenty fast. Power is readily available and it's easy to merge and pass on the freeway, even on steep uphill climbs when everyone else around you seems to be struggling.
The throttle is a little neurotic, though; sometimes there's a split second of nothing at tip-in, then whoosh, off you go like a jackrabbit. In our Q50S test car, we could choose from three drive modes: Eco, normal and sport. Even in normal mode, it felt plenty peppy, and we were surprised at first we weren't in sport mode. Kick it into sport, and you get a more enjoyable experience. And if you give it a lot of throttle, it will give a nice satisfying exhaust growl after the kickdown. Although, predictably, fuel economy will suffer if you zoom around in Sport all the time with a heavy foot.
In eco mode, shift points are relaxed and throttle becomes less responsive, but it still feels plenty satisfying for driving around town, and not gutless like the Eco modes used by other manufacturers.
Steering is perhaps the Q50's biggest shortcoming; it lacks feedback and feels numb, especially for those used to the BMW steering feel. The car goes where you point it, but has a hollow characteristic like a USB-powered steering wheel hooked up to a home video game console. Different settings vary the steering effort, but we still felt disconnected, especially compared with the dialed-in steering feel of the BMW 3 Series.
Handling is fine, and is on par with the Lexus IS and Mercedes Benz C-Class. But when pushed hard around corners, the Q50 starts to show its weaknesses in the form of slipping tires and body roll, so we'd say the Q50 is a better freeway cruiser than a track-day star. Braking is good, thanks to ventilated discs all-around.
Fuel economy for our 2014 Infiniti Q50S is rated at 20/29 mpg City/Highway, which isn't bad for a V6 engine, though after a week of driving in mixed environments in mostly normal mode (with occasional stints in both Eco and Sport), we achieved an average of only 17.1 mpg according to our test car's onboard computer.
For those looking for a unique alternative to more popular compact luxury sedans, the 2014 Infiniti Q50 is a solid choice. It offers elegant design, many technology features, and a powerful V6 engine. However, it fails to measure up to some competitors when it comes to ride and handling.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after her drive in an Infiniti Q50S around Los Angeles.
Infiniti Q50 3.7 ($37,150); Q50 Premium ($40,000); Q50S ($43,650); Q50 Hybrid Premium ($44,400); Q50S Hybrid ($46,800).
Options As Tested
Technology Package ($3,200); Deluxe Touring Package ($3,100); Navigation ($1,400).
Infiniti Q50S ($43,200).
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