The scene at the Millbrook Proving Ground was beginning to feel like something out of a James Bond film. Our cellphones had been confiscated at the edge of the track. The only camera among us now hung from the neck of a single, vetted photographer. Those in attendance were all highly selected, the elite of the automotive world. Of course, when you’re offered a glimpse of the future, certain precautions must be observed.
The car we had come to see was the Infiniti Emerg-E, Nissan’s bold foray into the world of electrical supercars. Hand assembled, this prototype would never be bought or sold, never enter production. It would afford us our glimpse of the world to come, then disappear, whisked off to a museum showcase to live on forever as the first of its kind. And what a first it was.
Giving ‘green’ a supercar sheen
The Emerg-E is no hybrid. It is 100 percent electric, with a range-extender power train that kicks in only when needed. At the vanguard of an emerging class, it paves the way for a new generation of supercars. The moment has been ripe for some time. Despite the growing popularity of gas-electric hybrids — sales of Honda’s Insight, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt all remained strong throughout the fall — supercar makers have remained at the outskirts of the revolution, delving into carbon fiber to cut weight but always relying on the basic principals of thermal combustion to give their cars a surge of power. And while a few other makers, like Ferrari and Audi, have dabbled in concepts, none have ever entered the demonstration phase. In part, it’s a problem of mechanics; for acceleration and sustained speed, there is no substance yet known to man that can compete with liquid fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel cells remain uneconomical; battery storage capacity has bottlenecked. Yet these limitations have not stopped the commercial segment of electric vehicles from doing a clipping trade, thanks in part to the stubbornly high gas prices of the past decade.
The more intractable problem, rather, is that supercar makers face a roadblock in terms of branding and image. The problem, in large part, is that green vehicles are seen as “sensible” — they’re smart rather than sexy, designed to save money on fuel and lighten your carbon footprint. They’re small, urban, economical. In the high school academy of cars, the eco-car is the skinny kid with the coke bottle glasses and the pocket protector. Sure, he can help you with your physics homework, but he’s never going to get a date.
And let’s face it: the people who can shell out $2.5 million for a Bugatti Vitesse are not worried about the cost of gasoline at the pump. They’re looking for speed, for power, for prestige. They’re looking for sex appeal, not sensibility. If a car can embody those qualities and still lighten its load on the planet, great, but first and foremost it has got to meet the basic criteria of the supercar style.
No compromise — it is still a supercar
Which is exactly why the Emerg-E is such an exciting prospect. Here, at last, is a vehicle that achieves ecological responsibility without compromising the car’s basic charisma. With acceleration of zero to 100 kilometers per hour (km/h)in under four seconds, this eco-car would keep pace in a drag race with any in its segment.
Power is delivered through its 402 boiler horsepower twin electric motors, one for each of the rear wheels. A third, range-extending engine is also on hand.
Visually, the Emerg-E would feel at home in a episode of Star Trek. Tapered and sleek, with seamless contours along its 4.5 meter frame, the car is both elegant and edgy in design. It ripples silver, its shell glittering with LED lights.
Inside, the dashboard flickers with dials and OBD diagnostics. Everything is mapped, everything controlled.
At the wheel, the supercar experience is emulated, but not duplicated, and you never entirely forget that you are driving the technology of the coming age. Turn it on, and you notice the noise immediately — not the throaty growl of a thermal engine, but something higher-pitched, a drone, a whine. It’s much quieter than a gas-fired engine, but something about it still makes your hair stand on end. It’s the sound of electrons flowing, of a charge rushing along copper wire.
Depress the accelerator, and the car flies. The acceleration is amazing; in a regular car, you would need a V8 engine to achieve this kind of pull. In the time it takes to draw two breaths, the car has reached 100 kmh.
After that, the magic flickers. The car has no gear box, meaning it tops out at 141 kmh. The engine is spinning like a table saw, singing like a Valkyrie hitting a high note. There are a few odd sounds from beneath the hood — nothing disturbing, but this is, of course, a prototype, and there are still a few kinks to iron out. In terms of performance the experience is flawless, as the car takes curves easily, its grip and steering never faltering.
The way of the future?
And all of this with zero emissions. The Emerg-E emits no more than 55 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer over a 300 mile range, and can cruise for 30 miles without ever engaging its thermal drive train.
That this should be the direction of all automobiles, supercar and sedan alike, seems now increasingly inevitable. Whether a decade or a century from now, there will come a day when the pumps creak to a halt, when the oil fields run dry and the last thermal engine chugs to a rusting halt. Perhaps ecological consciousness and the specter of climate change will bring that day sooner rather than later. But when that day comes, the automotive sector will already be well along the road to adaptation.
Rest assured, Nissan’s visionary concept will not be a momentary aberration. Experiments with liquid hydrogen and even roof-mounted solar panels have failed to produce viable vehicles in any meaningful sense. Only electric cars and gas-electric hybrids have made the gains needed to compete with traditional thermal combustion.
In time, and probably not a long time either, we will see the other supercar makers launching demonstrable prototypes of their own, driving standards even higher. But for the moment, at least, Infiniti can bask in its momentary limelight, the sole occupant of a class unto itself.