Top Gear’s Top 9: off-roading sports cars
Super-SUVs are *not* sports cars that can cut it up off-road. These are the real deal
This isn’t just an off-roading sports car. The Porsche 959 was arguably the world’s first modern hypercar. Yes, it looked like a 911 that’d been sandwiched by two double mattresses, but it was a tech tour-de-force for its day, thanks to sequential turbocharging, adaptive four-wheel drive, and even hollow-spoked lightweight wheels with tyre pressure monitoring.
It was developed as Porsche's Group B rally car, but when that series was cancelled, Porsche didn’t just consign the 959 to a life of range-topping road car duty: it sent it rallying. After early teething issues, the 959 dominated the infamous Paris-Dakar rally in 1986, taking a 1-2 finish and cementing its pedigree as one of the greatest supercars of all time.Advertisement - Page continues below
Porsche 911 Dakar
And it’s that heritage that Porsche is tapping into with its new 473bhp 911 GTS-based special edition: the 911 Dakar.
With up to 80mm of additional ride height, a hooligan ‘Rallye’ mode that sends most of the power to the back wheels and the coolest factory-fit roof rack since Koenigsegg offered an aerodynamic roofbox (really), there’s only one question really: still want that GT3 RS?
Lamborghini Huracán Sterrato
2023 looks like it might well be the year of the off-roading sports car. Porsche’s building the safari-spec 911 at last, and Lamborghini is sending the V10 Huracán out on a literal high with this jacked-up rufty-tufty version called Sterrato, or ‘dirt road’ in Italian.
True to its name, the Sterrato wears tough-guy bolted-on arches, knobbly tyres and it’s sprouted spotlights at the front. Think of it as a Huracán STO’s dirt-loving, sand-spilling, green-laning cousin.Advertisement - Page continues below
One of the all-time greatest car names is also one of the early efforts at a true off-roading supercar: the Aixam Mega Track. Launched in 1995, this French mutant teamed air suspension with over 330mm of ground clearance with a 6.0-litre Mercedes-borrowed V12.
Thing is, it only made 390bhp, and with 2.2 tonnes of car to shift, you’d be lucky not to sink into the terrain you’d set out to conquer. Still, as ambitious supercars go the Mega Track is one of the finest follies of the Nineties.
The renaissance of the off-road sports car was touted by ItalDesign almost a decade ago.
In 2013, Fabrizio Giugiaro set out to reinvent the idea with the Parcour: a mid-engined, all-wheel drive 5.2-litre V10-powered crossover thing. Motorsport-spec pushrod suspension with adjustable ride height provided the ‘where we’re going we don’t need roads’ smarts, but the car remained a one-off. However, that wasn’t the end of the story.
Audi Nanuk Quattro
Because after the ItalDesign faded from memory, up popped this bizarre Audi R8 evolution: the Nanuk Quattro. Revealed later in 2013, the Nanuk used carbon body panels to save weight, air suspension to adapt itself to its surroundings, and weirdly, a diesel engine. Yep, this was back in the days when diesel was not the enemy of lungs.
So obviously this supercar-gone-rogue used a 5.0-litre V10 turbodiesel good for 544bhp, 737lb ft and 190mph.
Apparently there was interest in putting the car into limited production, but Audi decided the R8 e-tron was a better bet. Seen one lately? No, us neither…
Perhaps the OG off-roading sports car was Lancia’s iconic Stratos – a car designed with a stupidly short wheelbase not (just) because it looked pretty, but because in the world of rallying, that meant agile handling, and plenty of oversteer. Which sent the fans wild, if nothing else.
Only 492 Stratoses were ever built, which makes it rarer than a Lamborghini Miura, but because of back-to-back World Rally Championship titles from 1974 to 1976, its legend is just as assured.Advertisement - Page continues below
Britain has two ideas of a high-performance off-roader. One is a Range Rover, kitted out with some form of V8. The other is this: the sensational Ariel Nomad, which is a draughty cross between an Ariel Atom, a dune buggy, a Tamiya remote control car and a fairground ride.
With its unburstable 2.4-litre Honda engine bearing down on the rear wheels yet providing ample poke to unstick the tyres, the Nomad is a less-is-more hero for the ages.
Campbell-Railton Blue Bird
Okay we’re stretching the rules a bit here, but land speed record cars of the 1930s were completely outrageous. And we make the rules here.
The 1935 version of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird concealed a 36.7-litre supercharged Rolls-Royce aircraft V12 generating – get this – 2,300bhp. All of that was sent to the rear tyres, which looked like they came from a bus.
So where was the record speed attempted? Not on a nice smooth race track, or even a motorway, but the shifting sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. Campbell became the first man past 300mph on 3 September 1935, when he wheelslipped his way to a verified 301.3mph in his four-and-three-quarter tonne speed machine before the tide came in.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to…Advertisement - Page continues below