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Driven: Xtreme Toyotas built for the desert

  • If you've got a spectacular memory and/or Dave, you'll know that Jeremy and James once drove to the magnetic north pole to prove that arctic exploration needn't be tough. Their vehicle? A Toyota Hilux modified by snowists and Icelanders, Arctic Trucks.

    So when we caught word that the very same off-road specialist has now decided to conquer the world's other extremity - desert - we wanted to know more... Their weapons of choice? A triumvirate of vowel-deficient "Xtreme" Toyotas artfully manipulated to tackle the torrid Arabian dunes. So on a recent trip to the Dubai 24 Hour Race, took an extra day and diverted into the sandy stuff...

    Words: Matthew Jones

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle

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  • A few phone calls later, we're dropped into the broiling heat of the Sharjah desert, UAE, with the keys to AC's three-car lineup for a world-exclusive triple test. Our instructions? To drive the 80km to Dubai, on the least tarmaced route known to lunacy...

  • Fortuitously, we have help. Namely Arctic Trucks' Hjalti Hjaltason, the man who helped Jeremy and James navigate to the Pole. And he's really quite handy off-road. Which is nice, because we're not.

    Hjalti's given us the FJ (the one you can't buy in the UK that looks like it should have a giant steering wheel on the roof). Of the three - which includes a Land Cruiser and a Hilux - it's the lightest at 1948kgs, and the 4.0-litre V6 offers the keenest power to weight ratio (138bhp per tonne).

    "You need power out here, not torque," says Hjalti. "You've got to maintain speed, not dig into the desert. This is a good learner car if you're a bit... not so good."

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  • We are, resolutely, very not so good. But we can't help notice that, unlike Jeremy's ‘Lux, the little FJ looks rather un-hardcore. And we like hardcore.

    Hjalti says: "Getting in to - and showing off at - the shopping mall's just as important as driving up sand dunes here. But the cars have to be good at both, which is why we put as many of the upgrades out of view as we can."

  • While Hjalti's dropping tyre pressures to 10PSI to give the cars a wider footprint and better floatation, he shows us where the £7000-on-top-of-purchase-price (more in the EU) is hiding. Levering the plastic inner arch cover to one side he shows us a vein of weld running along the metalwork underneath - the tub's been extended upwards by four inches to accommodate fatter 33-inch tyres.

    "We also fit stiffened dampers. They hold more fluid and help keep the taller 40mm lift springs from making the ride too unstable. Time for you to see now - we don't want to be here after dark. Very easy to get lost. Getting lost sucks."

    We engage the diff locks, low-ratio box, press every button with a cactus on and lead a cautious coffle forth.

  • Even with over 48 inches of tyre on the sand, cornering remains a peculiar experience. You turn in and, for ten yards at least, travel in much the same direction and at much the same speed as you did with the steering wheel straight. Then the tyres start gathering a wall of sand in front of them that eventually becomes large enough to support the car's mass. Without warning or consistency you're eventually flung in the direction you asked for about 30 yards ago.

  • With the idiosyncrasies of sand cornering understood if not strictly mastered, we're promoted to the heavier Hilux. In terms of modifications, it's almost identical to the FJ - there's a set of big 285/70/17 33-inch tyres on Arctic Truck's own 10x17-inchers (with a more aggressive, poked-out offset), 40mm suspension lift all-round and beefy dampers.

    But making progress requires a slight mental recalibration. The wheelbase is considerably longer, so you need more speed to scrape it over crests. There's virtually no weight over the back wheels either, which has the uncanny effect of burying you axle-deep in the sand.

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  • "Stuck again?" says Hjalti. "Jeremy was much better..." Despite three attempts - and the pokier grey-market 158bhp 2.7-litre four-pot petrol engine, diff locks and low-ratio ‘box - we've categorically failed to slither over a dune.

    With some deft manoeuvres, our guide wriggles the Hilux free, defining our limits, not the car's. Eventually its belly scuffs the peak and we're released onto less spiky sand.

  • "This is the probably the best off-road vehicle, but it takes the longest to learn how to get the most from it. The big storage means this is a great expedition car, and it's built with one purpose - to be tough."

    Thankfully, the dunes' spines melt into bowls. On the flatter stuff, our Hilux isn't anywhere near as yielding as the FJ. But there's enough kit to distract from its functional parentage - leather seats, USB ports, air-con, sat-nav - but a calming sense of solidity from the scrub-clean dashboard plastic and upright windscreen. You get the feeling that if you were to tumble wheel over roof down a dune, you may well survive.

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  • In the Land Cruiser, however, you feel like you'd definitely survive. It's the extremest of the Xtremes - there are 17x10-inch alloys, 35-inch-tall by 12-inch-wide tyres, flared fenders, tubbed arches, side protection bar, huge dampers and a 40mm suspension lift.

    Hjalti says: "It takes us a week to build a Land Cruiser - the differences don't sound like they'd take that much time, but there are hundreds of small changes to make. Instead of modifying parts, we source them from other models - the longer bump stops are from a Toyota Prado with air suspension, for example. The cars travel as well, so Toyota dealerships worldwide have to be able to service it; you can't go into Pimp My Ride territory."

  • Pimped? No. Different? Positively. Ridges and knolls are absorbed with much less fuss than the FJ, and power from the grey-market 4.0-litre 240bhp V6 leaves the Hilux floundering behind. The extra mass and tyre width suits the dunes, smoothing them out like a massive butter knife - of the three, it's the most likely to make the desert do things its way.

  • We're promptly given an inkling that civilization's approaching; dromedaries in a cage. Then the sand gets coarser, ordinary steering reaction makes a welcome if partial return (our tyres are still at 10PSI) then, unceremoniously, we're roadside.

    We get back into the FJ for the first road leg back to Dubai. When we were thrumming up shifting, deadly dunes, it made a lot more sense than it does on the road - heaving its centre of gravity up 40mm's added a drunken sway through corners. The tyre roar's also a constant, hissing intrusion above 40mph. Next, the Hilux. The standard car feels like it views road noise, wobbly cornering and a choppy ride as objectives not shortcomings, and this is much the same.

  • And finally, the Land Cruiser for our closing drive into Dubai. There's no meaningful difference in road noise between the standard and modified car and through the outer city's roundabouts and slip roads, the pitch and wallow of the other two's strikingly absent.

  • You feel less ridiculous driving it, too. Its big tyres are dragged into far less stark relief by gently swollen arches. The chrome side step protection bars, while serving as a useful sacrificial barrier between underbelly and dune, afford it just the right amount of urbane bling in the city (well, this city).

    Drawing up outside a hotel entirely out of our price range drives the point home; the Land Cruiser's duality adds up on far more rational grounds. It's a standard luxo-SUV on the road, it's got the minerals to take on sand dunes and it's ability's hidden under a convincing shawl of civility. If there's a vehicle that proves desert exploration needn't be tough, the Land Cruiser is it.

    Thanks to Dubai's Al-Futtaim motors, the suppliers of the Arctic Truck Xtreme range, for their help

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