This is not your normal car review. Unlike every drive program I’ve done where the focus has been solely about the car — which you could argue is how it should be — this was a case where driving the new Infiniti QX50 was a means to an end.
Instead of driving around the back roads of a strange country, clocking up miles on a loop from the hotel via a lunch stop en route to an airport, we put the new QX50 to use for something very meaningful — hunting dinosaurs!
Yep, our time driving the new QX50 across the Gobi desert in central Mongolia was in co-operation with the Hong Kong Explorers Club and the Institute of Paleontology and Geology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and our task was to search for dinosaur fossils and dinosaur eggs.
Nearly a century ago, explorer Roy Chapman Andrews who was funded by wealthy American businessmen, decided to cross the Gobi not by horse but with the latest technology available, the motorcar. In 1922 at an area he named the Flaming Cliffs, Andrews discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs and is widely believed to be the person George Lucas based the character of Indiana Jones on. So in keeping with the theme to adopt the latest technology, almost a century later we revisited the site in the QX50 that introduces the first real breakthrough in combustion engine development in decades with variable compression ratio technology in its turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine.
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Despite innovations such as fuel injection, turbocharging and variable valve timing, the internal combustion engine has barely changed since it was created until Infiniti spent two decades re-inventing the core part of its operation, the combustion process.
Debuting in the QX50, the VC-Turbo engine features a truly revolutionary variable compression ratio that slides from 8:1 to 14:1 on the move to achieve both maximum power and torque but also the best fuel economy at the same time.
The is a complex engine with 300 patents applied from Infiniti and is designed to give the same power as the 3.5-litre V6 from the previous QX50 but with more torque and nearly 30 per cent better fuel economy. The company also claims that it returns 10 to 15 per cent better economy than its competitors.
In the middle of the Gobi desert, where there are no petrol stations, it meant that we had the torque of a much larger engine to lug through heavy, soft sand, deep ruts and spongy earth after torrential rains, yet returned to the camp at night with a welcome amount of fuel still in the tank.
The QX50 is not a hardcore offroader, slotting between the QX30 and the QX60, it competes against the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC in the competitive, premium mid-sized, SUV segment.
In the UAE this sector is the third largest and is expected account for the biggest slice of the car market within five years, while in both China and the US it represented over half a million sales per market last year, so it’s a crucial model in Infiniti’s range.
Oddly when we drove the QX50 through the urban environment of Los Angeles a few months earlier, its constant variable transmission (CVT), felt underwhelming as the constant ratio box dulled the connection a driver normally has with the engine, but in the wilds of outer Mongolia it was not an issue.
Maybe because we were focusing on other things like navigating the terrain or perhaps we were over analyzing the car on our initial drive, but either way, the power being delivered to all four wheels through the CVT was compliant and always ensured there was torque when needed and at the correct wheel.
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Over three days in the Gobi, we covered a lot of territory and not one metre of it was on a track or road. With no navigation, we were in the hands of our local guides, following their wheel tracks across the empty plains.
Our successful mission uncovered literally dozens of random dinosaur bones, egg fragments, ribs, teeth, spine, skull, toes and more from what were mostly the Protoceratops dinosaur, a herbivore that lived over 70 million years ago.
Our job was to mark any finds and if really significant, as two of our finds were, to alert our guides who marked their position so that they could return to make plaster casts of them to display at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
Roland Krueger, Infiniti President, is an avid explorer and a member of the Hong Kong Chapter of the Explorer’s Club that was formed in New York in 1904. Aside from helping Andrews on that initial 1922 discovery, the Club has assisted on treks to the North and South Poles, Mount Everest and even by NASA Astronauts into space.
So with such a significant expedition so close to the only car manufacturer based in Hong Kong, it seemed like a perfect match for member Krueger to partner up and supply his Infiniti cars. We were lucky enough to go along for the drive and experience the QX50 in a proper off-road environment at the same time.
It was a brave move by Infiniti and showed confidence in their product as these were nearly all unchartered “roads” and with a back-up crew consisting of QX60 and QX80 models, the little QX50 literally ventured off into the unknown.
Parking on the edge of some particularly soft sand and under the guidance of Chinzorig “Chinzo” Tsogtbaatar, a PhD fellow at the Institute as our leader, we carefully walked around what we were told was quick sand, not able to walk on let alone drive on which was indiscernible to the untrained eye.
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It had the consistency of a gooey, sand covered water balloon that should you put a foot into it, would certainly take the shoe right off you. It’s these conditions that trapped the dinosaurs and also here where we found the first significant find, a pair of juvenile Velociraptor twins discovered by Infiniti’s Global Comms chief, Trevor Hale which were tagged and covered back over for further examination later.
The other major find during our brief time was the near full rib of a Protoceratops only partially exposed but will also get the plaster cast treatment for the museum.
The work that Infiniti is doing through the Explorers Club is far from over but it was a fascinating glimpse to see how the car industry uses its resources for such worthy ventures.
At the same time, it showed that while the new QX50 is more suited to the valet carparks of five star hotels and shopping malls on Shaikh Zayed Road, it’s also capable enough to tackle the landscape and help us find prehistoric dinosaurs in the middle of a Mongolian desert.