Climbing aboard is relatively easy for those practiced at getting into sports cars. The door feels as light as a feather – and it probably is. For as with the Infiniti Red Bull Racing Formula One car, the entire body of the Infiniti EMERG-E is made of carbon fiber, stretched here over a chassis of extruded aluminum, to which are attached the high-quality chassis components. And concealed somewhere in its midst are the lithium-ion batteries.
But then – what’s this? A three-cylinder unit. Not one that will see much action today. Since the batteries of the Infiniti EMERG-E have been fully charged for my drive, the two electric motors – responsible only for the drive system – will have sufficient power to catapult both car and driver along the tarmac at an impressive rate. Pure torque. Delivered immediately. And constantly. Zero to one hundred in 4.0 seconds. Don’t hold back, says the engineer on hand to brief me about the car. This is the real stuff! A prototype, sure, but more importantly a technology carrier designed to test for real the concept of a mid-engined sports car with electric drive and range extender.
And the reality is this: the Millbrook Proving Ground, the kind of facility that offers everything a tester could wish for when it comes to putting a vehicle through its paces: narrow, winding hill roads; fast corners; a high-speed banked oval; long straights. And the Infiniti EMERG-E is fun to drive. Enormous fun! Although not exactly light for such a compact vehicle, with a curb weight of around 1.6 metric tons, the freedom opened up by the innovative drive system has enabled engineers to distribute the weight in such a way as to have little negative impact on vehicle dynamics. The Infiniti EMERG-E handles precisely, feels firm and solid. Even if a tap on the bodywork occasionally suggests the opposite, returning the hollow ring of carbon-fiber components. But this is Formula One technology, and it works exactly the same.
The Infiniti EMERG-E is such fun on the road that I forget to turn my attention to the battery status display, which has dipped dramatically after a few kilometers of committed driving. So imagine my surprise when, directly behind me, as I remove my foot from the accelerator, the three-cylinder engine of the range extender kicks in. Immediately it gets up to maximum revs, although this has nothing to do with the position of my foot on the pedal. The three-cylinder’s role is simply to recharge the batteries – quite independently of how I’m currently handling the car. And that is what really feels unfamiliar. No doubt it will take time to adjust to such ideas. Or perhaps it is simply an issue the engineers would rather leave until last.
The Infiniti EMERG-E is an experimental vehicle – the first Infiniti completely developed in Europe – a prototype that probably, unfortunately, will never reach the production stage. It came about as a result of a UK government initiative aimed at accelerating the introduction of vehicles with low CO2 emissions. Infiniti collaborated on this initiative with universities and innovative suppliers, pooling their knowledge and Infiniti’s own expertise in the design of hybrid production vehicles and its Formula One experience with the Infiniti Red Bull Racing Formula One Team to create a fully functioning technology carrier. The Technology Strategy Board, as the initiative is called, stipulated a focus on technologies that have never been combined in this form before. And, more importantly, which are close to potential commercial realization.
After a few committed laps of the test track, I climb out of the Infiniti EMERG-E with sweaty palms and listen to the engineer telling me about the development costs and monetary value of the unique vehicle I have just unwittingly and unrestrainedly pushed to its limits round the circuit. Now it rolls back into its hangar, silently, as if nothing had happened. No last bark, no puff of blue exhaust smoke from a final stamp on the throttle. No, the future is all quiet.