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Magneto drives mad Porsche 911 Dakar off-roader

WORDS: GLEN WADDINGTON | PHOTOS: PORSCHE

Madly powerful SUV ‘coupés’ and jacked-up estate cars with body cladding are nothing new. But what about taking a sports car and giving it go-anywhere capability? Heresy, or A Good Idea?

The Porsche 911 has long been successful in rallying. And back in the 1980s, Porsche dominated the Dakar Rally, probably the most gruelling driving event on the planet, proving in the process that the 959 supercar was just as super on sand, dunes, gravel, rocks… you name it. It’s taken a while to celebrate that fact, but here we have the 911 Dakar, a somewhat niche off-road sports car that takes the Carrera 4 GTS as its base, and adds a lift kit, rear-wheel steering and extra driving modes to the standard 475bhp, four-wheel-drive package.

Porsche is not alone in exploiting this niche – witness the Morgan CX-T, Lamborghini Huracán Sterrato and even the Ariel Nomad – but it has possibly taken a bigger risk in terms of the 911’s image among its purist fan-base. Thing is, though, the brand has avoided the weight gain many crossovers suffer, by deleting active aerodynamics and the rear seating, and fitting the GT3’s lightweight bonnet as well as slimmed-down front bucket seats, thinner glass and a lithium-ion battery. So the Dakar remains focused on being a 911, just one with a broader spread of abilities.

Still it feels like a 911, and quite a trick one, of the kind that lets you hear the rattle and fizz of road grit being pinged into the rear wheelarches

Still it feels like a 911, and quite a trick one, of the kind that lets you hear the rattle and fizz of road grit being pinged into the rear wheelarches

To that end, and taking their share of the (minimal) 10kg net gain over a GTS, there are towing eyes (potentially useful if you overdo the wadi-bashing), chunky-treaded Pirelli Scorpion tyres, inevitable wheelarch extensions, a carbon spoiler and stainless underbody protection. The standard ride height is raised by 50mm over that of the GTS; you can boost it by a further 30mm, to which it defaults in Offroad mode.

On Tarmac, particularly the rougher Tarmac we’re used to on some of the more interesting British roads, you’ll enjoy Sport or Rallye modes. The former sharpens throttle response as well as damping, in the usual fashion; Rallye goes further, and diverts 80 percent of torque to the rear wheels. The spring rates are decreased and, in the interests of both comfort and keeping tyres in contact with the road, it’s prudent to back off the damper setting to Comfort.

Our test route takes in the North Pennines and Scottish borders: spectacular scenery and brilliant roads, shared more with errant sheep than other traffic. And the Dakar is an absolute hoot. Of course, many a 911 would be in these parts, but Rallye mode adds an extra dimension in corners, while the bespoke suspension settings transform the 911’s ability to skim the worst of ravaged surfaces. This Porsche is not only fast, it’s fast and absorbent, so bumps are much less of a distraction – exactly how you might expect a rally car to feel in rural extremes. It also – crucially – reacts more forgivingly to driving peccadillos, so you can play fast and loose in a way that others of its ilk might punish.

Yet it still feels like a 911, and quite a trick one, of the kind that lets you hear the rattle and fizz of road grit being pinged into the rear wheelarches. It’s taut, in spite of the spring rates, more supple yet still with superb body control, and the steering remains among the finest of any you’ll experience in a current production car.

The Dakar is huge fun, brilliantly conceived and engineered, and utterly convincing. At around £180,000, it’s £50k or so more than a GTS – and if it’s not your bag, fine, they’re all sold out already. Porsche will build only 2500 and, clearly, the model has been a sure-fire hit with collectors and enthusiasts alike. Its newfound ability over speed humps is just a bonus.