The recent unveiling of Porsche’s 911 Dakar and the announcement of the Lamborghini Huracán Sterrato have served as reminders of how appealing an off-road vehicle can be, particularly when it’s something out of the ordinary. We can see why someone would want a properly outfitted Jeep to take them on an extreme adventure, and we can also appreciate how a truck like the Raptor R can turn the wilderness into a playground.
That’s not even considering the very reasonable desire for a daily driver that provides peace of mind during bad weather. Whatever the reason, we like the idea of vehicles that can keep rolling even when the road ahead becomes difficult, or simply go off the grid.
Sports automobiles are… That is not the case. They are delicate, sensitive, high-maintenance vehicles capable of extraordinary feats if the conditions are favorable. But suppose they weren’t? This is the question addressed by the many “Safari” builds of cars that only “off-road” when parked on a Concourse lawn. It’s an age-old appeal, and this factory builds show that it’s stronger than ever.
Performance cars are amusing in that, no matter how cool they are, they lose it when subjected to suboptimal conditions. Even if I exclude all “tumbling out into the street from under a gullwing door” moments, it’s happened to me many times during my years on the job. One notable instance occurred during the first drive of the Lamborghini Huracán in 2014. Lambo had driven the car to Spain’s Ascari track, an idyllic circuit in a private resort nestled in the hills of Málaga. We were there recently for our first McLaren Artura drive. It’s purposefully tucked away from any major towns or cities, so getting back to our hotel would only take a couple of hours, which was just right.
The weather couldn’t have been better: Sleek, brand-new Lamborghini, sun-baked Spanish highways, and an endless number of tourists and locals cheering as we passed them by. It was a literal dream come true until a road closure on our route forced us to take a scenic detour. You’d think a little back road detour would be welcome, and it was, but our GPS routed us through increasingly rural areas connected by paths rarely traveled, especially by a car like our Lambo.
The pavement eventually gave way to uneven pebbly roads, which pelted the gleaming sports car as we drove along. We couldn’t go faster than 18 mph because of the unpredictable dips that slammed the car’s wheel well down onto the rolling rubber because of the tight sport suspension. It was agony, wincing as the car took its lumps and feeling even more humiliated when a ragged Suzuki Jimny became impatient and overtook us. The Lamborghini was indeed too slow.
That lengthy story is an extreme version of what supercar owners “struggle” with regularly, whether it’s bad weather, a steep speed bump or driveway, or an unruly parking lot. A nose-lift function gives them some relief, which is why the performance SUV has become a way to have it both ways.
We can’t deny that the driving world has a thing for SUVs. It’s a catch-all solution for many drivers who need utility but want sportiness, and it’s a proven money printer for automakers all over the world. The glut is tiresome for most people who would prefer a coupe or sedan, regardless of how much easier an SUV would make things. The increased interest in Safari builds — a catch-all term for off-road conversions of street cars — can’t help but feel defiant in the face of the SUV’s dominance. The thrill is in having a sports car designed for utility rather than making a utility car sporty.
Though we’re leaning toward the sportier side of things, the move away from SUVs has also been practical. The Volvo V60 and V90 Cross Country, lifted versions of the automaker’s wagon that provide utility without crossing into full SUV territory, are examples of this. These models also carry on the legacy of the limited-edition S60 Cross Country, a sedan similarly outfitted for rougher terrain. What it lacked in utility, it now has unicorn status, which emphasizes consumers’ desire for car-shaped cars with a smidge more capability.
What’s worth noting is that this is essentially old news. We’ve always wanted to take high-performance cars around the world, which is why we have Rally racing. Rally, or off-road/cross-country rally to be specific, has existed for as long as there have been cars and indeed longer than what we would now consider a standard road. More prestigious forms of motorsport often overshadow it such as Formula 1 and endurance racing.
This is a broad chapter in motorsport history, but the existence of the World Rally Championship alone shows its significance to the automotive world. Audi, Peugeot, and Subaru have all built their foundational ethos on their participation in the sport for decades. We could argue that WRC is more of a proving ground for a car’s capability than most existing top-tier motorsport series, owing to how much more the vehicles must endure while remaining close to the cars they sell to the public.
Safari builds seem to harken back to a time when this type of motorsport was more celebrated: when events weren’t limited to grand venues or cities but explored the areas between major population centers. As a result, it became more accessible to people who enjoy cars but live outside of areas where traditional sports cars make sense. Underneath it all, these builds, whether factory-made, speak to the part of us that yearns for adventure.
Amazing events like the Rebelle Rally exist because people want to see what drivers and cars can achieve when they break free from the confines of the transit grid. So much of the world remains unpaved for the time being, and this trend of performance off-roaders is one way of expressing our desire to explore it. Companies such as Porsche and Lamborghini are embracing it, showing that this is a growing trend; otherwise, they would not have bothered. It’s possible that car buyers are becoming more aware that an SUV may not be the best solution to their automotive needs and desires, and automakers are preparing for this possibility.
It’s also worth noting that increased manufacturer participation means increased reliability and support for such vehicles, which third-party tuners can’t match in terms of resources and are far safer than DIY builds. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a factory warranty on a Safari build?
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Whatever the reason, our little automotive world continues to expand in fascinating ways, and it will be exciting to see what comes next, now that we’re realizing that there are even fewer limits to what cars can do.