Fire and ice: flat out in the wild new Porsche 911 Dakar
Off-road supercars are for show not go, right? We put Porsche’s ‘tough’ new 911 Dakar through the wringer on two continents to find out
I fully expected to encounter a selection of snakes, scorpions and flubber-lipped camels in Errachidia – a dusty outcrop where sand meets lush oasis, sandwiched between the Atlas Mountains and the Algerian border. What I wasn’t expecting was bumping into a two-time world rally champion called Walter, a man who is quite open about Morocco being his least favourite driving destination. “Rallying here in Morocco, in the dunes, it’s Russian roulette. I didn’t like it. I want a smooth road where the fastest man wins, not the luckiest one,” Mr Röhrl tells me over a thimble of mint tea. “Me, going fast here? You must be crazy.”
He’s got a point; the landscape Porsche has parachuted us into is fairly... unforgiving. We’re staying in a bivouac-style camp at the foot of the dunes – heaps of pillowy candy floss as the pinkish first light drips down them, but venture in and they rise and fall like a storm surge, a rolling mass of deep powder intent on burying you, sprinkled with shrubs that seem innocuous, but are hard as granite beneath... desert landmines lying in wait. Fair play to Porsche for green-lighting this location – if you’re going to launch a new rough and tumble 911, lean on your rally heritage and name it after the most gruelling race in the world – best to prove it can do what it says on the bootlid. So we’re here to test the new 911 Dakar in a place no 911 has any right to play in. Later we’ll take it to another, equally inhospitable environment, just to be sure. But this is a Porsche, it still needs to do the meaty bit in the middle – to be tactile to drive, rudely rapid and take care of the daily stuff. Not everyone has dunes on their doorstep.
Photography: Olgun Kordal & John Wycherley
Back to Walter: “I remember in 1996 I drove the 996 GT3 at the Nürburgring, the first production car under eight minutes – 7mins 56secs. You can do the same with this car, on this tyre.” That’s just extraordinary, because the tyres he refers to are bespoke to the Dakar, standard fit Pirelli Scorpions with their Lego brick block tread and high sidewalls. They’re a key part of why the Dakar looks so damn good, why it can pull grip from soft, sugary sand and why the top speed is limited to 149mph to avoid the rubber ripping itself apart... a fact that makes Röhrl’s speed claim all the more bewildering. Walter’s bought one too, in dark green, mainly because it’s more comfortable and easier to get in and out of than any other 911. To be fair, he is 75.
Before we get to what the 911 Dakar can do, let’s deal with the why. There was a time when Porsche bossed the Dakar rally – first conquering it in 1984 with the 953 and then in 1986 with the 959 supercar, and up until this point it hasn’t properly leveraged that success. Now it’s bleeding it for all its worth, hence our £18.5k Rallye Design package with its two-tone paintjob and go faster stripes that pay tribute to the Dakar winning Rothmans 953... although no fag adverts are allowed these days, so it says Roughroads instead. Right. There are other, more affordable retro wraps too, including a swirly Martini tribute – a nod to a livery used in the East African Safari Rally in 1978... yours for a smidge over £4k. Block colours are also available – Farrow and Ball fans, you’re going to love Shade Green. Porsche’s message is clear; customers are growing tired of aimless extra horsepower, brutal downforce and speed you can’t use in 99 per cent of situations. What we want is versatility, plain and simple fun and stories we can connect to. Amen to that.
And it looks fantastic, no? There’s been plenty of chatter about Porsche not going far enough, that it’s merely a 911 given the Audi Allroad treatment, and to that I say... nonsense. With its arch extensions, towing eyes, those tyres, stainless steel underbody cladding, unique carbon spoiler, the GT3’s nostrilled carbon bonnet, suspension raised 50mm over a standard 911 on sports suspension (plus a lift system that can raise it another 30mm for “ambitious off-roading” up to speeds of 105mph) it looks subtly spectacular. And that’s before you’ve taken a brave/stupid pill and played with the paint, added the roof rack with spotlights embedded in the leading edge, and the official roof tent. Word of caution, those last two accessories look wonderful out here in the desert... probably a bit much around Brentford.
The headlines, then. The Dakar’s basis is the 911 Carrera 4 GTS, which means a 3.0 twin-turbo flat-six with 475bhp, an 8spd PDK gearbox and 0–62mph in 3.4 seconds on a dry flat surface, although a new Rallye launch mode lets you live out your WRC fantasies in low grip conditions by allowing 20 per cent more slip. You get rear wheel steering and two new driving modes: Rallye, which sends 80 per cent of the power to the back wheels (and where we shall spend most of our time) and Offroad, which prioritises a more even torque split for maximum traction and a fully jacked ride height. While the lift kit, tyres and rear steering add weight over a GTS, the deletion of any active aero, GT3 engine mounts and bonnet, carbon bucket seats, no rear seats, thinner glass and a lithium-ion battery all trim things down to a respectable 1,605kg – just 10kg more than a GTS. Long story short, this isn’t a Friday afternoon job, Porsche has put the work in to justify the price. Only 2,500 will be built costing £173k before options.
We collect cars at the airport and travel in convoy through strict speed limits, endless police checkpoints and villages full of cheering kids and nonplussed donkeys. It’s an exercise in willpower, but fascinating too because already it feels every inch a 911. I was concerned it might float and wobble, but despite spring rates slackened by 50 per cent there’s still a tautness to the body control, underpinned by an unfamiliar suppleness. The steering still chatters, the tyres are no noisier than winters, the exhaust seems a little raspier – that could just be in my head. If you already rate non-GT 911s as comfortable conveyances this is, predictably, even better.
First stop: The Playground. A vast dusty plain sitting in the shadow of the dunes – photography and hooning heaven, and the perfect place to start uncorking potential. Rallye mode, everything off, raise the suspension and go nuts. We pick a cluster of bushes to give us something to aim for and live out every rally/Dakar/drift fantasy I’ve ever had.
Sideways has never been so easy, simply pick an arbitrary point and keep your foot in to keep sliding. Back it in with a bit of speed and four wheel drift your way around, kicking up great rooster tails of dirt, the engine pinballing off the limiter in second, then third. Would sir like more angle? Take a tighter radius, give it a flick and you can hold it on the lock stops to your heart’s content. It’s pure video game stuff – silly, pointless but utterly joyous and addictive. Once the deeper sections start to cut up and the ruts get bigger, you’re slamming into them sideways, wheels bouncing into the air, but we keep going, keep lobbing, keep abusing this magnificent Frankenstein-fettled sports car that isn’t just absorbing the punishment, but revelling in it. At first it feels all sorts of wrong, but several hours later I’ve made peace – there’s nothing I can do to break it.
Could you use more power? Of course, but you don’t need it. Speed out here is momentum, linking your slides, keeping it clean and out of trouble and, crucially, having confidence in your car. It’s encouraging me to throw new and interesting shapes. This is entertainment in its purest form, you’re not rewarded for accuracy and smoothness, the more liberties you take, the more the car responds. It’s my kind of driving: fast, loose and driving talent is nice to have, not a prerequisite.
The next morning we emerge from our tents (reader, this is not camping as we know it. Tents with flushing ensuite toilets? Where does it all go?) and watch as the sun reaches its fiery fingers across the sky and empties the honey pot over everything. Sheesh, this is beautiful. I look at our photographer Olgun and he’s vibrating with excitement. We grab our unwashed car and head out for an explore and a play. Driving in the dunes versus The Playground is a different ballgame entirely. The key is not to turn too sharply, keep your momentum up and, ideally, don’t stop. If you do, don’t do so on an upslope and don’t brake too hard or sand will build up in front of the tyres. Follow all the above and there’s a chance you won’t get beached. But you probably will.
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I take back what I said yesterday, this is driving nirvana. Because the adrenaline is cranked up, because the topography makes it so much more extreme, there’s increased satisfaction in getting it right. Offroad mode, everything off and four-fifths aggression is your friend here, you want to surf the surface, not burrow into it, and carve out languid arcs. How can a Porsche 911, the same car capable of morphing into the downforce obsessed, track hugging GT3 RS, be capable of this? The breadth of its abilities are just mad. It’s genuinely unstoppable... until we pop a tyre off the rim, and limp to a flat area with a horrible banging noise from the right rear. Well, that’s what you get with tyres deflated down to 1.2 bar for grip when you’re smashing around with all the sympathy of an Alcatraz prison guard. Fortunately, it’s no biggie: bit of air, quick jiggle, and it pings backs on.
Clearly, there are cars that are tougher and can go further in the dunes (hat tip to the Land Cruisers picking stricken journalists out like buried Hot Wheels models in a sandpit), but are any of them more fun? Not sure they are. Definitely a stage win for the 911 Dakar in Morocco, then, but before we give it the TG seal of approval, and in the interests of thorough product testing, we need to make sure it works everywhere. What we need now is somewhere extremely cold, and some normal roads...
Cut to Porsche’s Zuffenhausen factory, a few days later, and we have ourselves a new 911 Dakar identical in every way to the car we drove in Morocco (I’d like to say this was meticulous planning rather than blind luck, but clearly it was the latter), except for winter tyres instead of Pirelli Scorpions (a legal requirement in Germany this time of year), I’ve had a haircut and we’re on the hunt for snow not sand. Found it! On the grass, next to a bin in the car park. Yeah, it wasn’t supposed to be quite that easy, a lack of precipitation and high temps in Europe have closed a swathe of ski resorts recently and caused the GP Ice Race in Zell am See, Austria, to be canned. So we’re taking no chances and pointing ourselves towards one of the highest passes in Germany – the Rossfeld Panoramastrasse. But first... some normality.
Well, normal for Germans, Neverland for the rest of us. Maxing out on the autobahn, how original, I hear you yawn. But wait! There’s science afoot. I shall call this a demonstration of the fact being limited to 149mph isn’t a serious handicap. We clock 154mph indicated before bumping into the limiter, while it’s snowing lightly, and nobody overtook us. Don’t say TopGear doesn’t do consumer advice. And while we’re here, a moment to appreciate these seats that are not just lightweight, but lock you in place when you’re pinging around off-road and are relentlessly comfortable. I settle in, stick a podcast on and arrive at the hotel several hours later as fresh as the foot-deep powder that’s piled up around us. More pro planning/blind luck as Europe’s snow drought comes to an end precisely when we need it to.
Up before sunrise and the snow’s sheeting down as we approach the Panoramastrasse barrier, pay the €7, and enter our own winter wonderland. Not sure how much panorama we’re going to see today with thick clouds engulfing the mountain, but the strasse is good. Coiling its way up the mountain through dense trees, a mix of well-sighted straights and hairpins, then wide open at the top. The Dakar’s all over it, slithering the entire way up, tiptoeing on the way down, the winter tyres performing tiny miracles at each turn.
Grip is this car’s enemy... sliding is its friend. Once again I’m in Rallye mode, everything switched off, and because there’s far less traction here than in the sand, I’m getting similar sensations but in slow motion. And because the speeds are lower, the stakes are reduced, and the lower the risks the more outrageous the angles. Must be honest, on reviewing the pictures I didn’t realise I was quite so close to kissing the barrier with the rear bumper, but this car eggs you on to push yourself a little harder and then responds to whatever you ask of it with crisp, predictable moves. Could I be doing this in a standard Carrera 4 GTS on winters? Probably. Ground clearance and rampover angle (19°, compared with 20-ish in a Cayenne) aren’t as important here as in the desert, but it still offers some welcome leeway and squidge, and in the Dakar, this behaviour just feels right. This is what it was born for.
The joy of gliding about in the snow is that – for any European buyers at least – it’s an attainable target. Shipping your car to the nearest desert might be financially ruinous, but pointing it towards some altitude and ice isn’t. But then again, there’s fun to be had in the mud, on gravel and I’ve got a suspicion it’ll be hilarious on a wet racetrack, too. It’s a car that actively seeks out terrible conditions and turns them into opportunities. It encourages you to go places, to use your purchase properly, and even if you don’t you’re left with a hipster-spec Porsche that’s a joy to use every day.
You might recall in 2020 Porsche released a coffee table book Unseen that showcased a series of projects and ideas that never made it through boot camp to production. In 2012 it built a ‘Safari’ version of the 991, but it fell on deaf ears in the boardroom. Quite why it’s taken until now to realise this is a slam dunk of an idea is beyond me, because besides a £50k hike over the Carrera 4 GTS it’s based on, it’s a 911 without downsides. If you want to smash lap records then sure, a GT3 RS is going to fit that bill better, but for everything else, the Dakar’s got you covered, including unlocking the sort of fun formerly reserved for tricked out trucks, SUVs and desert racers. It’s also the perfect car for 75-year-old retired rallying legends. Just ask Walter.