Safari All the Things: Why automakers are off-roading their sport cars

Safari All the Things: Why automakers are off-roading their sport cars

Everyone from Lamborghini to Porsche is looking at turning out lifted-and-lamped supercars recently, and we can explain why

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With spy shots of both a lifted Lamborghini Huracan and a production-ready, jacked-up 911 flooding in, Safari madness seems just around the corner. It’s a strange trend: up until now, every other press release touts the benefits of a lower centre of gravity; Porsche in particular is fond of gloating about a 5-mm drop in ride height imparting sporty dynamics. So what’s with the return of the flood-pants sportscar?

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First, it should be noted that these things aren’t quite for sale yet, and it’s not like we haven’t seen concepts before. A decade ago, Porsche came out with a lifted version of the previous-generation 911 called the Vision Safari. A fully-functioning prototype with a lifted suspension, light bar, and widened wheel arches, it was little more than a teaser for the possibility of an off-road-focused 911.

This time, however, things appear to be getting serious. Instead of car-show concepts, both Porsche and Lamborghini are fielding their off-road-prepped machines in the snows of Northern Italy and at the Nürburgring. The rumour mill has also churned out a couple of names for these cars: the heavy-duty Huracan will likely be called the “Sterrato”; the new lifted 911 will probably be called the “Dakar”.

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Both names give a bit of a clue to what’s going on here. For most urban Canadians, the idea of off-roading in your Porsche or Lamborghini sports car seems completely absurd. Most Porsche Cayennes and Macans barely see a pothole, and Lamborghini’s Urus is also something of a city slicker. If these companies sell off-roaders to people who don’t actually off-road them, why bother with giving their high-performance models the old Subaru Outback treatment?

The Lamborghini Huracan Sterrato concept of 2019
The Lamborghini Huracan Sterrato concept of 2019 Photo by Lamborghini

In the case of Lamborghini, it’s pragmatism; in the case of Porsche, it’s heritage. Lamborghini need only look at sales figures for its Urus to see how the game has changed. The thing might look more like a Pontiac Aztek than a Countach, but in just a few short years it’s poised to become the best-selling Lamborghini ever.

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The appeal is global. While a Huracan or Aventador might be best-suited to downtown Vancouver or Monaco, an Urus can handle the winter slush of Moscow or unpaved roads in China. Yes, the available 23-inch wheels are a bit ridiculous, but the Urus does at least have enough rough-road capacity for when the infrastructure runs out.

A lifted Huracan is just crazy enough to work in these conditions, too, and should appeal for money-is-no-object customers. Further, Lamborghini doesn’t have to sell dozens of Sterratos. It’s enough that the car showcase what is technically capable for their R&D team.

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Porsche, as usual, has a bigger effort on their hands. While the Italian marques can get away with supercar quirks, the 911 has to work pretty much everywhere and all the time. It needs to be as easy to live with as a Volkswagen GTI, just with a greater performance envelope.

Even more burdensome is the weight of history that any production lifted 911 will have to shoulder. This isn’t one-off Lamborghini nuttery, but a point back to Porsche’s motoring heritage. To Stuttgart, “Safari” is a sacred term.

A Safari-spec Porsche 911
A Safari-spec Porsche 911 Photo by Brendan McAleer

In most tellings, the story begins with the East Africa Rally, but there’s a little blurring of the lines before that. Because their cars were light and nimble, Porsche did a fair amount of rally-based motorsport in Europe early on. In 1967, for instance, soft-spoken Vic Elford won the European rally championship in a lightly-prepped 911.

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Porsche’s decision to enter a pair of 911s in the 1978 East African Safari Rally was not without precedence, but it was very ambitious. European rallies had their slippery sections, but this was nearly 6,000 km over extremely challenging terrain, on routes that were revealed only the day before each stage. Teams faced mud, boulders, and wildlife.

The two cars that took on this challenge were lifted for extra ground clearance, and fitted with auxiliary lighting and rugged front bumpers. They might have looked tougher than your average 911, but Porsche was mostly relying on the inborn durability of the 911 to go the distance. Despite hitting a boulder and breaking part of the rear suspension, the number 14 car clung on for a second-place victory, its teammate finishing fourth.

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The Porsche 959 racing the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally
The Porsche 959 racing the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally Photo by Porsche

The podium finished showcased Porsche’s build quality. Years later, in 1986, Porsche emphatically underlined how strong its technological superiority was. Three examples of the then-new 959 supercar were entered in the Paris-Dakar rally, a 10,000-km race running from France’s capital to the west coast of Africa. Equipped with twin-turbocharged engines and clever all-wheel-drive, the Dakar 959s finished first, second, and sixth.

In a curious footnote to that victory, Porsche was also responsible for fitting V8 engines to the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens that were used as support vehicles for the racing team. While it wasn’t an official entrant, one of the support G-Wagens actually finished the rally in second place.

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After its mid-1980s triumph, Porsche focused on circuit-based motorsport, and left rallying exploits to privateer teams. However, the cars seemed to stick in everyone’s memory, particularly the 1978 team. When air-cooled Porsche 911 values started taking off, specialist builders started building tributes to the Safari.

The 2021 Singer 964 All-Terrain Competition Study (ACS)
The 2021 Singer 964 All-Terrain Competition Study (ACS) Photo by Singer

At first, these started out as mostly toys, lifted 911s fitted with a bit of underplating, used to throw rooster tails of dirt around the California desert. Soon, though, the trend had grown to the point where it attracted the attention of Singer. Their creation, the one-off All-Terrain Competition Study (ACS), is a modern recreation of the idea of the 959 Dakar, close enough to be a bit controversial.

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With the Safari trend in full swing, Porsche finally seems unwilling to just let the aftermarket have all the fun. Building a 911 Dakar is a great way for the company to pay tribute to the past and, as with everything Porsche, will likely prove very profitable.

As for the rest of us, dreams of Safari’d Porsches and Lamborghinis don’t have to remain mere wishful thinking. Aftermarket lifts exist for many entry-level sports cars, including the always-popular Miata.

Or, if you’d like something from the factory that’s a bit more off-road-y than standard, there’s always the new WRX and its Safari-like wheel arch cladding. It’s no lifted 911, but then again, getting a few rock chips on the front of your Subaru probably doesn’t hurt quite so badly.

Brendan McAleer picture

Brendan McAleer

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