First Drive: 2023 Porsche 911 Dakar

First Drive: 2023 Porsche 911 Dakar

Story and photos by Dan Heyman, additional photos courtesy of Porsche

The Porsche 911 Dakar is one of those beautiful things in the car world – well, as we’ll see in a minute, “beautiful” is somewhat relative – whose very existence proves that still, even today, OEMs can put all the talk of autonomy and EV aside and just focus on what a car’s like to drive. Sure; you could make the argument that the 911 and others like it already make that point, but this here’s another level.

Make no mistake about it – the point of this 911’s existence is, believe it or not, to ride sand dunes and fast gravel roads; after all, the car is so named for the famous Paris-Dakar off-road endurance race that Porsche conquered in 1984 and 1986. In fact if you wanted to, you can even have your Dakar look like those winners with one of four optional graphics packages including the Martini and Rothmans stand-ins seen here, so tweaked for licensing reasons.

It rides 50 mm higher than the 911 Carrera 4 GTS plus a further 30 mm – that’s 80 mm total – if you raise it up via a button press or by selecting the Offroad drive mode, and it will stay at that height all the way up to 170 km/h. Which, according to Porsche, it should have no problem doing on rough roads. Unlike other 911 models that only get front lift, this gets both front and rear lift. Rallye mode joins Offroad as the two Dakar-specific modes this new 911 gets.

Even without the fancy graphics (or the optional roof rack, spotlights or…tent) it doesn’t take long to see how the Dakar is something different. It rides higher on chunky off-road tires developed specifically by Pirelli for the Dakar and it gets wider fenders and skidplates both front and rear. This does add extra weight, but that’s countered by rear seat delete, lightweight glass and carbon bucket seats, frunk lid and rear spoiler so it only weighs 10 kilos more than a GTS. There’s also further optional underbody protection if you want it, but it isn’t fully necessary.

“The rear axle is protected,” said Achim Lamparter, chassis manager for the 911 Dakar. “And we have double-stiff GT3 engine mounts…for (when) the car is jumping.” Jumping! In a showroom-spec 911!

Power-wise, the Dakar is unchanged from the GTS – that’s 473 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque fed to all four wheels via an eight-speed dual-clutch ‘box. There is no manual option. Rear-wheel steering also comes standard and they have tweaked the Porsche Stability and Traction Management (PSM/PTM) systems to work with the new drive modes; Offroad gives you a 50/50 power distribution, while Rallye gives you more rear bias meant for faster gravel work. Power can always be shuffled around if need be.

Indeed, we’d need all the help we could get considering some of the certifiably bonkers terrain we’d be traversing – think 250 metre-high sand dunes.

Even though we were in the middle of the Moroccan desert, we did have to drive to the dunes which meant our drive started out on the kind of surface most 911 models are accustomed to: tarmac. Here, other than the noise from the tires (which is a little louder than what’s emitted by winter rubber), it’s all 911. Sure, you sit a little higher but the 911 already has a pretty upright seating position and windshield, so lifting it up 50 mm doesn’t really tell a tale. Even if the Dakar doesn’t equal the performance of the GTS in more “911” conditions, it doesn’t matter so much because anyone who owns one of the 2,500 they’re building for ’23 (at about $250,000 a pop) probably also has a GTS or Boxster. Or both.

Through the few turns we did have, the Dakar felt planted and communicative, as anything with “911” on its bootlid should feel. It sure doesn’t feel more “Macan” than “911”, and that’s crucial.

Off road, the feeling is almost eerie. You look down at the familiar gauge cluster and interior details and think “what’s the big deal?” but then you look at the road ahead – well, the path ahead, anyway, and the camels currently traversing it – and you’re like “oh, now I see” because what you’re looking at is a terrain no sports car should be on.

It gets eerier still as you start to push forward over loose gravel and softball-sized rocks and feel, well, almost nothing. The suspension and heavy tires are so well tuned that everything is swallowed up with gumption. You’re doing about 70 km/h on this stuff like it’s cotton candy. It’s uncanny – but just wait.

Then you hit the dunes. Like deep snow, the goal here is to not stop because if you do, you will sink into that ultra-fine sand and have to be hauled out by one of the gamely Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUVs that were tagging along. You have to keep those tires spinning to stay atop the sand, which we had no problem doing. Make use of the paddles, keep it in gears 1-3 and mash the throttle, focusing on your steering inputs. There is little I’ve done in the world of performance car driving or off roading that can prepare you for the feeling of drifting a 911 through sand, the front wheels flinging the stuff across your windscreen as your counter-steer your way to the top.

The route chosen didn’t feature that many precipitous ledges to tumble off of, so we were able to contently push forth, pulling off bigger and bigger drift angles and using the mass slung out over the rear wheels to whip our tails from turn to turn. All done with nary a complaint from the chassis or steering; you can tell the Dakar was made for this.

As cool as this all is, though, it begs the question: why? How many are going to be bashing through sand dunes in their Dakar? Well, for starters you can swap “bashing through sand dunes” to “sliding through winter” and for many, that makes more sense.

Secondly – it doesn’t really matter. This is a “because they can” or a “because I can” type of vehicle, executed to perfection. People like to know they have something special, even if they never put it fully to use – how many Pagani Huayra owners are ever going to come close to its claimed 238 mph top speed? How many Dodge Demon owners are going to slap on the skinny tires and regularly go drag racing? Well, perhaps a few more than those that will test their Pagani’s V-max but that’s just it; they know they can, and that’s enough. The Dakar, with its liveries and high ride height and rear seat delete is an event, and that’s what matters.