The parking valet at the prestigious Al Badia Golf Club looks confused. Judging by the car park, he’s used to taking the keys of Range Rovers, Mercedes S-Classes and the occasional Lexus. But faced with a bright red rally car, its sputtering exhaust echoing off the sandstone walls, he seems unsure whether to ask for the key or call the police. Relief spreads across his face when he’s assured that we have permission to be there, and he doesn’t need to park it.
In fairness, the QT Wildcat we’ve just rocked up in doesn’t look the most approachable of vehicles. Crouched on its huge shock absorbers and chunky all-terrain tyres, it’s bred for the brutal world of rally raid and built to withstand a battering from whatever the elements can throw at it.
So why have we got one at a golf club? Well, this isn’t just a regular Wildcat; it’s one designed to be used on the roads, to have more creature comforts than a machine designed solely for motorsport. And if you check the options list, you can even specify it with a golf bag holder.
More on that in a second, but first, a brief history of the Wildcat. It was originally created by UK firm Bowler Offroad as an evolution of the Tomcat; a rough and ready rally car based on the Land Rover Defender. After gaining some serious credibility, Bowler developed a new car, the Nemesis, and sold the rights to the Wildcat design to another UK firm, QT Services, so that it could continue to look after existing customers and develop and manufacture the vehicle.
And develop it has. The version looking rather out of place at the golf club is the 300STR version, and we’ve just picked it up from the Dubai HQ of Saluki Motorsport, QT’s Middle East point of contact and Land Rover specialist. It’s a response to requests from customers for a more comfortable road-going experience. Although the rally cars were road-legal, they weren’t designed with creature comforts in mind. Only raw speed.
The 300STR, of which this particular car is the first example, is therefore annointed with a range of features to make everyday life in a Wildcat a bit less, well, wild. Each one is built to the personal specifications of the customer. Think of it as My Fair Lady, but with a V8-powered 4×4 playing the part of Eliza Doolittle (a 4.6-litre Rover affair, in this particular car). Can this rough and ready racer cut it in the refined world of a top-class golf club?
Only one way to find out. I gingerly edge the Wildcat away from the still-baffled valet, gently ease it round the back of the clubhouse to the driving range and open up the back. No powered tailgate here – it’s all clips and panel hefting. In the rally version, this space is where a plethora of spare wheels and tools reside. In the 300STR you can specify a golf bag holder. (It’s only when we arrive at the club, after several weeks of golf-themed planning, that Mark reveals this particular vehicle doesn’t have said option fitted. So you’ll have to use your imagination somewhat.)
Despite it being the height of the Arabian summer, there are golfers on the range, practicing their swing. As I burble the Wildcat up behind them a few eyebrows are raised, but once they see me swinging a golf bag out of the back, they’re more interested. The men particularly seem particularly keen, but a glance inside shows that, despite the improvements, levels of luxury are not even on the same page as the likes of Lexus or Land Rover. Many comment that their respective other halves would never allow such a thing, but they’re envious nonetheless. A blonde lady called Anna spends a while poking around it before getting exasperated at my obvious lack of golfing talent. After a few pointers I’m delighted to finally smack the ball a hundred yards into the distance. Afterwards, Anna asks if she can have a copy of the pictures taken of her with the car. A fan won.
With some practice under my belt, and at least a partial mark of respect from the Al Badia patrons, its time to take the Wildcat back to its natural habitat. We’re joined by Luca Cima – Evo Fast Fleet contributor and an excellent golfer. He’s here to give me some tips as we take golf to the QT’s natural back yard; the desert.
We chuck Luca’s golf bag in the back, leave Al Badia and head out of Dubai. This is the first time I’ve tried the Wildcat on the road (Mark drove it to the golf club) and it’s not nearly as daunting as I feared. In fact, it’s remarkably easy to drive. It’s quite agricultural, very noisy and very mechanical in its feel, with a definite motorsport vibe. The wheel is a small Alcantara-trimmed three-spoke affair, sans airbag, and I’m attached to the bucket seat with four-point harnesses. I’m struggling to reach the plumbed in AC controls thanks to the big red belts, but otherwise I’m rather comfortable.
The noise is the main experience. At 120kph the engine runs at 3200rpm and I can hear everything – the rush of the wind outside, the rumble of the road beneath the big tyres, the whine of the transmission, and clunks as I shift gears manually. The wheels are wrapped in big, chunky off-road tyres and on some of the cobbled streets around neighbourhoods in Dubai I can hear and feel the tread blocks ping of the surface.
The five-speed manual R380 gearbox has a long throw and although it snicks into place nicely, there’s no rushing it. You have to take your time; take it out of gear, let it settle, push it into its new place and release the not-too-heavy clutch. Thankfully, with a wide power band and plenty of torque, it’s easy to keep changes to a minimum. At this point I’ve only taken the V8 up to about 5000rpm, and while the Wildcat isn’t slow it’s not the rocket I expected after piloting a Range Rover Sport Supercharged (our long termer, doing its duty as a camera car today). But I have a feeling that when we go off road, that’s when the QT will show its cards.
The creature comforts are pretty nominal. There’s leather glued to the dashboard, some carbon fibre parts for effect. The air conditioning struggles in the Middle Eastern summer, but would likely be fine for the winter. There’s a stereo and a reversing camera (much needed), but that’s about it. No power windows, just sliding glass, no power mirrors. It’s a very raw piece of kit, and while I wouldn’t want to do a cross-country cruise in it, I’m very much enjoying the simplicity it offers.
But now comes the real test. In the desert outside Dubai is Big Red, a monstrous, rust-coloured dune that‘s a favourite for local off-roaders. It’s an ideal playground for the Wildcat. Luca and I load up on clubs and a handful of old balls taken from Al Badia and start thumping them up the dune while Mark runs through some pre-thrash checks on the Wildcat. They go on for longer than I expect. In fact, I start to fancy that I’m getting the hang of this ball-thwacking lark, helped by Luca’s tutelage. But my smugness is shattered when Mark admits that there’s a problem in the form of coolant dripping out of the engine. The Arabian summer heat has taken its toll on a hand-made car that isn’t really intended for use in these extremes. No one rallies in 50-degree heat.
A handy tap at a nearby abandoned shop provides a temporary top up and gets us a run in the sand, but I’m under strict orders to take it easy. I tighten the harness and switch off the AC, which really isn’t coping too well. Instead, I open the window to get a cool breeze, dip the clutch, engage first and move away. We’ve already deflated the off-road BF Goodrich tyres and they spread themselves over the grains below, giving just as much traction as on the road.
There’s enough torque to cruise around at low revs but I venture higher towards the redline, all the while conscious of the coolant trying to make its escape. As the tacho needle rises the pull from all four wheels grows as power takes over from twist. A rough, industrial roar emanates from the V8 with a high pitched whine at the top; a cross between a whistle and a supercharger, and it gets louder as the revs rise. The noise is only interrupted by the lengthy gear change, which resolutely refuses to be rushed.
I’m already travelling at the same speeds as I’d achieved on the road, and with the same minimal effort. Blasting up Big Red presents no obstacle at all and I skim towards the smaller dunes below to play, feedback tickling my hands through Alcantara. A tug of the wheel right and the fronts bite into the sand like slicks into asphalt, but despite the high centre of gravity there’s no roll or pitch from the body. It’s a strange experience, a sense of gliding in amongst the ruckus; sort of like a stiffly sprung race car but much softer, the big Fox dampers soaking up the uneven surface better than any Land Cruiser, but at three times the speed. As the front grips I keep my foot on the throttle, waiting for the back end to slide out, but it remains remarkably neutral despite the loose surface. Carving runs into the side of big dunes result in a shower of sand across the side of the car and a hurried shutting of the window as the grains stick to my increasingly sweaty skin.
My off-road experience is largely limited to big, powerful SUVs; our Range Rover Sport has more than 500bhp to power out of turns, but not so in the Wildcat, which has around 260bhp. My tight turns kill the momentum and even having downshifted to third the engine wallows as I try to power out. Despite being immensely capable, this is a proper car for proper drivers, rewarding smoothness and precision and discouraging cack-handed buffoonery like mine.
I’m beginning to plan my lines a bit more, keeping the momentum going through corners and anticipating my gear changes, but then I notice the digital gauge behind the wheel warning once again of overheating. It’s a disappointingly premature end to the Wildcat experience, but it’s been enough to give me a good flavour.
That taste confirms several things. Despite its new accoutrements, the Wildcat is still a rally car. It’s not a replacement for a Land Cruiser; it’s an (expensive) winter weekend toy that you can drive to and from the dunes while retaining a touch of the luxury of a road car. Off road is where it comes alive; I barely scratched the surface of what I know it can do from TV clips and visits to rallies in the past. I’m unsure whether the Middle East has an appetite for such an uncompromising bit of kit – those that buy one for a Thursday night corniche cruise will find it far too hardcore – but the wealthy few that take the plunge will have one hell of a time. It’s nice to know the the golf clubs can fit in the back, but as a Wildcat owner, my clubs would be back in the wardrobe and the membership cancelled. This is the only drive I’m interested in.
>> Thanks to Al Badia Golf Club (www.albadiagolfclub.ae, +971 4601 0102)
>> Thanks to EVO Middle East Magazine
QT Wildcat 300STR
Rover V8, 4552cc
282bhp @ 5400rpm
289lb ft @ 4700rpm
R380 five-speed manual gearbox with two speed transfer box, four-wheel drive (four-speed auto and six-speed sequential also available)
Beam axle, radius arms, Panhard rod
Beam axle, radius arms, Watts linkage
$120,000-$150,000 depending on spec