In one respect at least, the Porsche 911 Dakar is a ludicrous car: at near enough double the price of a standard Carrera, it is wincingly expensive. Its new Pirelli tyres create significant levels of road noise, compromising its refinement, the missing rear seats doing the same for its people carrying ability.
It’s less accelerative than the Carrera 4 GTS from which it is derived and Porsche is not even going to publish a Nürburgring lap time because it would likely be unflattering to say the least, and not just because its top speed is limited to 149mph. Which, by the way, makes it the slowest 911 since, well, I’m not sure but certainly in the last 40 years.
But worse than all that, you might think, is that it is a car designed for a purpose to which it will never be put. Tell me, if you had just spent an absolute bare minimum of £173,000 on a Porsche 911 (financially this is GT3 RS territory), would you go and fling it along a gravel path, stones spraying in all directions or, should you be lucky enough to live in such a part of the world, launch it over the top of some mighty sand dune? Me neither.
There will be some, some for whom their Dakar is their fifth, sixth, or seventh car, to whom the money is entirely inconsequential who might drive it the way its maker intends and designed it to be driven, but if it’s more than five per cent of the 2500 units that will be built…well it just won’t be.
What will owners do with them? Well it’s obvious even before you learn that 70 per cent of customers have ordered theirs with £18,434-worth of Rallye Design Package which pays homage to the livery of the original 1984 Paris-Dakar winning Porsche 911 (technically a 953), with ‘Roughroads’ replacing the Rothmans tobacco advertising it is no longer politic to run. These will be statement cars, cars whose primary purpose in life will be not to advertise what I always thought a rather coarse-tasting cigarette, but the street cred of its owner. It’s a car in which to be seen, because if you wanted a 911 to actually drive, there are plenty far better in that regard and a lot less expensive you could have instead.
Which leads us to a scratchy philosophical question. Can Porsche be blamed for making a car designed to do something it will never do? And the answer is that of course it can’t, any more than you can blame Land Rover for making the Range Rover excellent off-road or Ferrari and McLaren for making hypercars that will never even be driven. You make the cars your customers want, and that’s it. Why they want them is none of your business and probably a question best not asked.
And Porsche’s customers really, really want the Dakar. The only region of the world in which it is not already sold out is China, and that’s because the order book has yet to open there. All gone, without a single review being published until today.
Now that I’ve spent a couple of days roaming around the Sahara in one, I should tell you what it’s like – though there were times when I wondered whether a more relevant test would be to take it to a Sunday Scramble at Bicester Heritage.
In essence it’s that Carrera 4 GTS, but with its ride height raised 50mm with another 30mm available on the press of a button or the twist of a dial, allowing it to be driven at up to 110mph on stilts. The absolute top speed is limited to 149mph by its bespoke double carcass Pirelli Scorpion all-terrain tyres. Unlike the GTS where manual gears remain an option, sadly the Dakar is PDK only. The price walk from one to the other is over £50,000.
But it does come with some fairly choice goodies as standard, including a GT3 CFRP bonnet and a rear wing made from the same ultra-light material. It has GT3 engine mounts too, plus four-wheel steering and active anti-roll bars. Full underbody protection is fitted as well as wheel arch covers and side sills to protect the body from at least some of the stuff that might (but probably won’t) get thrown at it; and if you want to go mad with the accessories, Porsche will sell you everything from a roof tent to sand ladders and a carbon fibre spade to help dig you out.
Less visible is suspension and steering retuned to suit the unique characteristics of the tyre and two new driving modes called ‘Offroad’ and ‘Rallye’. The former tries to apportion the torque equally between the axles to maximise traction, while the latter defaults to a 75 per cent rear torque bias, so it’s easier to drift. A massive rear roll cage can be yours for just over £2000 but you will lose all access to the stowage area where the rear seats once were. But if you want to know how serious Porsche is about making this car so much more than an exercise in cosmetics, consider that it has removed the central front radiator, and enlarged the smaller rads either side just so it can maximise the car’s approach angle.
One option you can’t fit is Porsche’s ceramic brake system. Because of the extra side wall of the Pirelli tyres, Porsche has had to knock back the wheel size at both front and rear, now fitted with 19in and 20in rims respectively. This means that not only will ceramic discs not fit, nor will standard GTS discs, so those from the lower S model are used instead which, says Porsche, are more than up to the job thanks to the car’s drastically reduced top speed. Which I’m sure they are.
I drove it, as you do, in the Sahara, in deepest southern Morocco near the Algerian border where vast expanses of featureless rocky desert suddenly give way to mountain ranges of endlessly shifting sand. If Porsche’s point in introducing us to the car that way was to prove that, regardless of what customers may actually do, it is more than fit for Porsche’s intended purpose, it was certainly spectacularly well made.
There is a certain uncomfortable incongruity about off-roading in a 911. It’s like the first time you strap on an aqualung, stick your head underwater and breathe in. Whatever you think you might know to the contrary, there is a determined, persistent, nagging voice in your head quietly pointing out that you should not be doing this, and that if you insist on staying in this environment, bad stuff will happen. Probably quite soon.
Despite the raised ride height – its breakover angle is similar to that of a Cayenne – you’re still far closer to the ground than in any conventional SUV. Porsche says the spring rate has been halved relative to the standard Carrera 4 GTS but it doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps because of those stiff walled Scorpions, the ride on the road is determinedly firm while the moment you step off it, there’s so much less, well, stuff between your backside in that slim bucket seat, you feel it all the more.
But the car appears not to. When Porsche was developing this car it looked long and hard at whether it would be necessary to brace the structure so that it might better withstand the pounding it received off-road. But after 100,000km of testing in some fairly brutal environments, it was decided not to bother: the existing structure was plenty stiff enough. So while those on board may at times have let out the odd squeak or groan as they banged into another deep rut or bounced off another rock-hard tussock of camel grass, the car came out of the desert as shake and rattle free as it had entered it two days previously.
In the sand and gravel, its abilities were little short of sensational and it’s not hard to see why. At 1605kg the car is wildly lighter than most SUVs that do more than play at going off-road, which means there’s less car to push and pull across the terrain so less traction is needed. And with the engine slung out behind the rear axle traction is a commodity that’s never in short supply. Then factor in a brand new tyre developed for this car alone, not to mention the 473bhp under your right training shoe and it’s easy to see the potency of the recipe.
There was so much traction indeed I rarely even bothered with its ‘Offroad’ mode, preferring to stay in ‘Rallye’ for no reason other than it made the car’s movements much more expressive and gave me more work to do and therefore more fun to have. And where the sand wasn’t too deep, or had become nicely compacted, you could race along at dizzying speeds with the car gently oversteering this way and that the entire time. This was top drawer entertainment.
When the time came to get serious, when your movement alone was the only thing keeping you from sinking up to your axles in sand, a different approach was required. Here, momentum is all. Which is where it’s handy to have Mr Flat Six and all his little helpers to hand. Now you do need the off-road mode, manual gear selection and the first two ratios alone. You cannot allow anything even to get in the way, let alone slow you down. Whenever you doubt if you’re using enough power, without exception the answer is to use more power still until you fear that, in this regard if no other, you’re turning into Jeremy Clarkson.
But go fast enough and you get to a place where it feels like it’s skimming across the top of the sand, like a speedboat starting to plane. No other off-roader I’ve driven offers so much power for so little mass and, coupled with all that traction, it creates an experience of unrivalled dynamism out here in the desert. And while it’s true it lacks the ultimate approach and departure angles of a hardcore, purpose-built SUV, I’d trade all of that for the sense of security you get when traversing dunes at the kind of crazy bank angles that make you fear any normal off-roader might fall over. Realistically, unless you’re insane, that’s never going to happen with this car.
Soon, far too soon, you have to return to reality, get back on the road and head for the airport. The Scorpions are quite noisy, though Porsche reckons no noisier than the winter tyre that’s also been developed for it. There’s a summer tyre too: three bespoke tyres, developed just for this car, of which there will only ever be 2500 units. That’s some level of commitment.
But as that reality bites, you have to ask yourself whether this car has a point, given I dished out more punishment in two days than almost all will see in their entire lifetimes. And at first I thought not, or at least not beyond something that someone can use to demonstrate their wealth and particular taste to the outside world. I’d just rather save the money and have a rear-wheel drive Carrera GTS coupé.
Or would I? What if you didn’t bother with the Rothmans or Martini paint scheme? What if, oh the shame of it, you didn’t bother with the Scorpions either? And then I started thinking of it not as a toy, a trivial extravagance as that fifth, sixth or seventh car, but as something else. Your only car. Have it in some sober, subtle yet beautiful colour, debadge it, run it on summer and winter tyres according to season.
What you have then is the ultimate all-purpose, all-season, all-reason 911, the most versatile version yet of the world’s most versatile sports car. And out there in the real world, that sounds to me like one of the most compelling reasons to buy a 911 seen to date. Shame they’ve all gone, really.
Porsche 911 Dakar
Engine: 2981cc, 6-cyl, twin-turbo
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch, 4WD
Power: 473bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque: 420lb ft @ 2300-5000rpm
Power-to-weight ratio: 295bhp/tonne
0-62mph: 3.4 seconds
Top speed: 149mph
Ti rating: 9/10