After two days of driving through the desert in Porsche's latest 911, its new heritage play and an oddly rugged one at that, I was left with one resounding thought: software is a wonderful thing. The new Porsche 911 Dakar can achieve some remarkable feats when the road ends, offers truly impressive grip when you want it and, when you don't, engages in some epic dirty drifting action.
Yet beneath that slightly revised skin and garish retro livery (a nod to the 1984 Dakar Rally-winning car) lies a barely modified 911 Carrera 4 GTS, a car that can be had for about £120,800. What makes the 911 Dakar so special, so worth the seemingly exorbitant price Porsche is charging for the 2,500 they'll produce? It's software, plus a few special hardware tweaks, and the hours and hours of time Porsche's engineers spent getting it all just right.
|2023 Porsche 911 Dakar
|Turbocharged 3.0-litre H6
|473 BHP / 420 Pound-Feet
|150 MPH (electronically limited)
|£173,000 incl. VAT
Gallery: 2023 Porsche 911 Dakar: First Drive
Dig Into The Dunes
The Porsche 911 Dakar has a 3.0-litre flat-six that, thanks to a pair of turbochargers, makes an impressive 473 bhp and 420 pound-feet of torque. That goes through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, getting to all four wheels via a trio of differentials. Other than a custom air filter, designed to dispel more grit before clogging, all that is exactly the same as on the GTS. It does have stiffer motor mounts, but even those are stock Porsche parts, borrowed from a GT3.
That bodywork is customised slightly, with a carbon fibre–reinforced plastic bonnet up front and wing at the back saving a bit of weight while adding a bit of durability. A lithium-ion battery also saves weight, as does thinner glass and, most substantially, a rear-seat delete. But this is no stripped-out Spyder. The Dakar actually weighs about 9 kilograms (20 pounds) more than a GTS.
What else has changed? The suspension, but it's less custom than you might think. The 911 Dakar sits 50 millimetres (1.9 inches) higher thanks to longer and softer springs with longer struts to match. But, ask nicely and it'll step up another 30 mm (1.2 inches) thanks to a hydraulic lift system. It's basically the same that enables the nose to lift on regular 911s, here applied to the rear wheels as well and bolstered with a more powerful pump.
Tying it all together is a lot of new code – bespoke routines to turn what was a delightful on-road tourer into an off-road powerhouse. But you can't drive software, nor can you slide it around on a dune in the desert, and that's exactly what Porsche sent me to Morocco to do.
The first test of the 911 Dakar was pretty straightforward: a roughly 90-minute drive across unpredictable asphalt through Morocco on the way to the dunes. Initial impressions were frankly unremarkable. On the road, the Dakar feels pretty much like a normal 911.
Yes, the suspension does feel a bit different, softer over the light stuff and maybe a bit firmer over big bumps, but the elevated driving position doesn't seem to have any impact on this 911's nature through the corners. The Dakar has exactly the same rollbars as the GTS, so no real surprise there.
Impressively, the chunky tyres, created specifically for this car by Pirelli, didn't add much road noise, either. They're meant to be no louder than a winter tyre and I'd say Pirelli succeeded in that goal. Its on-road manners are quite good too. Many mud- and snow-rated tyres with soft-sidewalls absolutely murder turn-in feel, making sports cars feel like MPVs. Not so here.
Rallye is the first of the 911 Dakar's bespoke driving modes, custom crafted for this car. I first dialled this up on a stretch of hard-packed Moroccan wilderness, loose gravel on top of packed sand that provided just enough grip and plenty of room to enable some amazing slides.
And that's really the idea here. In Rallye mode, Porsche's all-wheel-drive system tries to send the majority of power to the rear axle, though it can still send up to 88 percent to the front or, in an extreme understeer situation, 100 percent to the rear. A rearward bias might sound wrong for loose-grip situations, but the first time you pitch the car into a turn and put your foot down you realise it feels oh so right.
But, not quite right enough. Though the PTCC stability and traction control systems are programmed to let you have more fun here before they cut the power, I still found the window of allowable slip to be a little narrow for my tastes. Thank goodness they're so easy to disable. So toggled, the 911 Dakar became a wonderful dancing companion.
Pitched into a corner under full throttle the 911 Dakar sends a ferocious cloud of dirt and dust into the air from all four wheels as those differentials work to find grip, rear-steering and torque-vectoring rear differential getting into the game, too. Everything works together in harmony to make you feel like a complete hero in a car that seemingly has no right to be here.
But, perhaps even more impressive is what happens when you take things a little more slowly.
Off Road Mode
Keep spinning that wheel-mounted dial and you get to Off Road mode, the second of the 911 Dakar's new drive modes. Here, the suspension automatically lifts to its highest setting. (You can lift the car in Rallye too, but it has to be done manually.) The differentials also work differently, now doing all they can to keep power distributed to all four wheels equally.
This isn't exactly a rock crawling mode, and with approach and departure angles of 16.1 and 19.0 degrees respectively, the 911 still isn't really ideal for that. Where it shines is on loose, rough terrain. 190 mm (7.5 inches) of ground clearance meant the 911 cleared many obstacles I thought for sure would leave their mark on the Dakar's largely ornamental yet still surprisingly effective skidplates.
In this mode, I powered up and over some remarkably steep dunes comprised of sand so soft that I later struggled to climb it on foot. Yet this 1,605-kg (3,538-lb) car made short work of them, not only driving up and over the summits but making me grin like an idiot as I slid around between them. Though Off Road mode is meant for lower-speed antics and is limited to 105 miles per hour, sliding sideways over a dune at 40 is way better than just about anything else you can do at three times that speed.
Options And Pricing
The 911 Dakar starts at £173,000 incl. VAT and there aren't any options boxes that you'll need to tick to make it compete – a rare thing for a Porsche. The biggest option is the £23,834 Rallye Design Package, which brings two-tone blue and white paint plus a swath of decals to ape the Rothmans livery on that original, 1984 Dakar Rally-winning car.
But Porsche does have a suite of sweet accessories available that will do a wonderful job of adding the overland aesthetic, if that's your thing. The cargo rack, curved to perfectly match the taper of the roof just so, almost seems like a must-have. That it has an integrated 12-volt accessory socket for roof lights is icing on the cake.
One option I would very definitely recommend is substituting the standard bucket seats for the Sport Seats Plus 18-way adjustables, which are a no-cost option. Though I love how the buckets hug you, when you hit a section of washboard the padding is insufficient and those edges are positioned just perfectly to catch your elbows.
Oh, and in case you were hoping to put a rear seat in, that I'm sorry to say is not a possibility. That up-rated hydraulic pump for the suspension lift system lives there now. Sorry, kids.
Parts Bin Perfection
That the 911 Dakar is largely a parts-bin special held together by custom software might feel a little disappointing on the surface, but don't discount the power of good code. The 911 Dakar is an absolute monster on the dunes, a riotous good time on the gravel, and still a damned fine sports car on the asphalt.
I do wish there was a bit more customisation here, custom screens in the PASM infotainment system for off-roading or integrated trail maps on the GPS or something, but you can't have everything, and sadly the vast majority of us won't be able to have anything. Porsche is only making 2,500 911 Dakars (or is it 911s Dakar?) and by the time you read this I have a feeling they'll be awfully hard to get.
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2023 Porsche 911 Dakar