x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The offroad-capable Wildcat delivers a velvet fist in an iron glove

The Dakar veteran is all muscle on the outside but, as Tom Payne finds, inside lies the luxury.

The street-friendly Wildcat 300 STR GS has a zero-to-100kph time of under five seconds. Amy Leang / The National
The street-friendly Wildcat 300 STR GS has a zero-to-100kph time of under five seconds. Amy Leang / The National

As you approach the QT Services Wildcat, you know straight away that it is something quite different. The squat, wide stance, the large, knobbly tyres and the waist-high ground clearance all speak of a machine built solely for taking on the planet's toughest terrain. Stood alongside this, a Land Cruiser or a Nissan Patrol would look like a big, soft, posing pouch in comparison.

And so they should, seeing as the Wildcat has been lauded as one of the most capable off-road cars that money can buy. About 45 have taken part in the Dakar Rally, gaining Top 20 results year on year, with each model built exactly to a particular racer's specification. Currently there is a Wildcat competing in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge with the Mebar Rally Team.

But this 300STR variant is special in that it's built for the road, even though it would still be quite tasty for the desert. Look past the exterior and you'll find leather trim, brushed aluminium and air-conditioning vents. There's a centre console sporting an Alpine touch-screen entertainment system connected to two powerful speakers behind the headrests. And the body-hugging sports seats are padded to provide comfort in the face of the car's ultra-stiff chassis. It's like thinking you've entered a hardware shop only to find it's actually a Harvey Nichols.

But given the asking price of this car - Dh560,000 - it's no wonder that some luxurious touches have been added to what started out as the ultimate off-road toy. QT Services is looking to expand from Europe into the GCC Market with its Wildcat, and the small company is all too aware of what Middle East customers expect from cars in this price bracket.

"We had a lot of discussions about what the specifications of the car needed to be, if we were going to bring it to this region," says the QT Services founder and managing director, Dave Marsh. "And we're fairly happy that we've achieved a level that fits the market in many ways. You can cruise around in this in a civilised way, and when you really want it to perform, it does that as well."

This is a bold claim, given that established supercar manufacturers are constantly juggling luxury with saving weight. But Marsh explains that his car is actually lighter than many competitor cars because it doesn't sport the heavy off-road machinery needed for a five-day trek across the desert.

And the engine certainly seems to support the claim. Marsh fires it up by pressing the aluminium start button, and, once we're strapped in place by the four-point harnesses, we're away like a shot. Whenever Marsh puts his foot down, the front rears and the car surges forward to the soundtrack of the classic 4.6L Rover V8's snorts and growls. It's almost worrying when a man not used to the roads of Dubai weaves into Al Quoz traffic, but the noise and excitement are enough to quell any reservations.

Marsh claims a zero-to-100kph time of under five seconds, if the most powerful engine is specked with a sequential gearbox. However, even this 282hp version with a manual gearbox is enough to give your stomach a significant shove into the back of your seat. Yes, the car features big tyres, but the constant four-wheel drive ensures that there's enough traction to get the most out of the engine's power on the road. But you can immediately tell that off road is the QT's natural environment - Marsh claims to have driven one over a dune at 145kph, which "tends to focus the mind a bit", he says.

The on-road handling is equally impressive. The interior feels a lot smaller than its muscular bodywork would suggest. The cockpit cocoons us, making us feel like we're in more of a sports car than an SUV. And the lack of body roll through the corners, thanks to the car's low centre of gravity, adds even more to the illusion. Marsh takes the long curve of a Sheikh Zayed Road flyover at the kind of speed one wouldn't try in a reasonably good sedan, but the Wildcat holds its line beautifully, hardly flinching despite the wheels.

"It's easy to forget that this car is running on big, off-road tyres," he says, smiling. "But equally, we can fit it with low-profile tyres on 19-inch rims, which give it a tremendous amount of traction."

More impressive than any of this, though, is the reaction it provokes from other road users. The bright-red monster attracts stares from everyone around it. At one point, a Lamborghini driver slows as he overtakes, looking the Wildcat up and down with an approving expression.

"We got pulled over in Abu Dhabi on the way back from Big Boys Toys," says Marsh. "And all the police wanted to do was see the car and have a chat."

This is likely because the Wildcat is so exclusive - there are only 81 in the world. And, as opposed to the car's off-road abilities, Marsh expects its rarity to become the unique selling point in this country. He points out that no two Wildcats are the same, explaining that almost anything can be ordered on the cars his company builds. He describes the Wildcat as "a Savile Row suit of the car world".

"Ultimately, it's the client that keeps us in business," he says. "And if you fail to look after them, you pay for that in the long run."

The Wildcat that we've been driving hasn't been tailor-built to a client's needs; it's been built as a demonstration of what QT Services can do, should a GCC buyer take interest. However, he politely declines to take the car off-road, as he's confident that he might have sold it, simply off the back of its being so unique.

But it hardly seems to matter whether or not this Wildcat can follow in the footsteps of its rally-going siblings. This is a car that turns heads wherever it goes, and, for many, that trait alone is worth a lot more than Dh560,000. And that makes it a bargain.