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Driving through the desert in Morocco in the Porsche 911 Dakar. About two of every three buyers have opted for the Rallye Design package that mimics the paintwork of the 1984 car.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Porsche didn’t have to toughen up its legendary sports car. There are already two dozen variations of the 911 available in Canada, ranging from 379 to 640 horsepower, which cost anywhere from $125,800 to more than $300,000. So what’s with the new Dakar?

It’s intended as a high-performance rally car, and an homage to the 911 that won the gruelling Paris-to-Dakar Rally back in 1984. Think of it as a gravel-roads racer that you can also drive to work on a Monday morning, but don’t expect to ask the boss for a raise when you get there. What am I saying? If you own one of these, you probably are the boss.

The 911 Dakar is not cheap. It starts at $251,800, and so far, about two of every three buyers have opted for the $32,490 Rallye Design package that mimics the paintwork of the 1984 car. Their partners are probably planning to buy them birthday gifts of the $24,000 titanium carbide watch that comes as an option with each vehicle, too, or perhaps the $8,795 roof tent. The point is, for actual buyers of this car, it’s not about the money, so stop being hung up on the exorbitant cost of entry and let yourself just appreciate this car for what it is.

I flew here to Morocco to find out for myself, where Porsche gave me a Dakar to drive into the desert in search of the sand dunes near the Algerian border. There was just one rule: A Porsche instructor would always be driving in a car ahead of me, and I could not overtake. This was partly to ensure I wouldn’t get any speeding tickets on the road, but mostly to be certain I wouldn’t get lost in the desert and find myself turtled on an Algerian dune.

Starting at $251,800, the 911 Dakar is not cheap. The list of options and add-ons includes a $8,795 roof tent.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Even so, the 911 Dakar is not exactly subtle and we were soon stopped leaving town at a police checkpoint. The young officer was clear what he wanted. “Speed! Speed!” he said, grinning and rolling his hands around each other. The 473-horsepower Dakar will hit 100 kilometres an hour in about 3.4 seconds and I was probably close to that on the dusty road. The car has standard launch control, which lets you accelerate fast without losing control, and in either of its two exclusive off-road drive modes, it will allow the wheels to slip up to 20 per cent on a loose surface. I’m sure it all looked impressive to the local patrolman.

After a while, I followed the instructor off the paved highway and we set out along a rough and rocky trail. The 911 Dakar is raised 50 millimetres higher than the Carrera 4 GTS it’s based on, letting it ride unblemished over the ruts and ridges of the track. Press a button and the chassis will rise an extra 30 millimetres (the pump that does this takes up too much space at the rear to allow seats back there) but this lowers its top speed to 170 kilometres an hour from 240. That’s okay – we were driving at a third of that so we wouldn’t inadvertently hit any large boulders hidden in the sand. As well, we had a Toyota Land Cruiser following behind, carrying a photographer and a tow rope, just in case.

The ride, as you’d expect, was stiff and jarring along the rocky trail. The Dakar comes standard with a pair of narrow sport seats that only adjust fore and aft, but you can order more comfortable seats for no extra charge if you want – or need to. On the rocky road, we looked good for the photographer, but the sensible side of me envied his cushy ride in the spacious Land Cruiser.

The desert sand dunes near the Morocco-Algerian border is an ideal place to put a Porsche 911 Dakar through its paces.Handout

A little farther on, the track became sandier and visibility was an issue in the dust raised by the instructor’s car. Small drifts began to cross the trail and my radio started to crackle with instructions from ahead: “Keep the power on when you climb the sand, and whatever you do, don’t stop on the top. Make sure to always keep moving.”

By the fifth or sixth drift, I could see nothing for the dust and let off the power while climbing the sand. The car came to a stop on the top of the dune and that was that. Unlike in snow, where you can often rock your vehicle back and forth to get traction on the ice beneath, there’s nothing like that with sand. Your quarter-million-dollar supercar is just another 1,605-kilogram rock in the desert. The options were to dig it out with a shovel (Porsche will sell you one for $315) or ask for a tow, and I chose the latter.

“Don’t worry,” said the instructor. “Everybody does it.” I think he was just being kind.

Even so, it was good practice for a little later when we reached the deeper dunes. We deflated the pressure in the specially developed Pirelli tires to about 16 pounds per square inch and I set off for a much faster follow of the lead car. I kept the revs high and kept moving, and the 911 Dakar swung back and forth, sliding sideways up and down the sand, spinning plumes of red from all four wheels as we raced around the desert like manic sand worms.

They filmed Dune and Star Wars in Morocco, and it truly felt like another world.

Porsche had originally planned a more ambitious course, but cars kept getting stuck. I got the impression, however, that it was the drivers getting stuck, not so much the vehicles. Good luck even thinking about driving like that in a Land Cruiser.

The Dakar comes standard with narrow sport seats that only adjust fore and aft, but more comfortable seats can be ordered for no extra charge.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

So, what’s the point? Do we really need a rally-ready Porsche 911?

Of course not, but we don’t really need to study a fine painting or wear fashionable clothes or even eat delicious food. We do it because it enriches our lives, and the limited-edition Porsche 911 Dakar will inevitably enrich the lives of the 2,500 people who buy one. It’s too cramped to be an SUV alternative and will surely be a third or fourth, or most likely 10th car for people with too much money, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

You’ll have as much fun in the dunes in a side-by-side Polaris RZR, or on gravel roads in a Subaru STI, but when you leave to drive home in those considerably less-expensive vehicles, you won’t be driving a Porsche 911. And you definitely won’t have a cop grin at you and implore you to indulge his boyhood fantasy and “Speed! Speed!”

Tech specs

  • Base price: $247,200, plus $2,750 dealer fee, plus $1,750 destination charge, plus taxes
  • Engine: Three-litre bi-turbo six-cylinder with 473 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic PDK/all-wheel drive

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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