A weird thing is happening in the dwindling market for sports cars: These low-slung, tarmac-shredding scalpels are getting jacked up and heading off the twisty paved roads and into the dirt for some bushwhacking fun.
It may seem like a contradiction to take a vehicle prized for its low center of gravity and grippy track-ready rubber, lift it up for some ground clearance, and then mount knobby balloon tires. But that’s exactly what Porsche has done with its new $220,000 911 Dakar model, and Lamborghini is rolling out the Huracan Sterrato with a similar intent. The Porsche charges into the dust with 473 horsepower, while the Lamborghini is packing 602 horsepower. This isn’t some loony mistake. These companies are responding to what enthusiasts have been doing for themselves in recent years, as custom “safari” 911 builds have become all the rage.
Think this is a bout of temporary insanity that will soon run its course? Then don’t look at the motorcycle market, where Ducati did exactly the same thing with its traditional sport bikes when it created the Scrambler in 2014. That bike’s debut set off a bomb in the then-stagnant motorcycle market, and now Benelli, BMW, Husqvarna, Indian, Royal Enfield, and Triumph all offer their versions of scramblers. These bikes all feature knobby off-road-capable tires, long-travel suspension that can soak up bumps, and a high-mounted exhaust raised up out of harm’s way when trail riding.
Ducati has turned that single model into an entire sub-brand, with a whole family of variations on the Scrambler, including the inevitable versions with street-oriented tires that turn the off-road sport bikes back into street bikes!
Scrambler motorcycles have become the motorized equivalent of classic rock, based on this description by J.D. Power. “Nowadays, the term scrambler motorcycle refers to a distinct look, with a vintage stripped-down style that combines the functionality of older models with the versatility of modern manufacturing.” They have even become the subject of academic scrutiny, as demonstrated by the publication of “Scrambler: A Type of Motorcycle” by the International Research Journal of Engineering and Technology.
No less an authority than Pirelli, the company tasked with providing the dual-purpose on-road/off-road tires for many scrambler motorcycles, says the name comes from the scrambling of parts from the two types of machines, evoking an image of a cook scrambling eggs together.
Now Pirelli will find itself with the challenge of coming up with similarly scrambled tires for its four-wheeled customers, too. “I absolutely believe there’s that opportunity,” says Ducati of North America CEO Jason Chinnock.
“We saw this as an opportunity to grow the Ducati brand by bringing in a product that was unintimidating, was easily accessible, and evokes a smile,” he adds. That accessibility might be important. Today’s sports cars have become so incredibly capable that their owners may not feel they have the ability to maximize their performance. And outside of racetracks, they sure don’t have much opportunity to do so.
Scrambler-ized sports cars that have cushy, long-travel suspension and balloon tires are a lot more comfortable in daily use and when there’s a chance to hit a trail or a dune, they’re up to the task.
A lifted Miata for $250
Chinnock says he likes what he sees in the 911 Dakar, because “it is definitely a 911.” Adapting for the outback hasn’t changed the car’s character. Carmakers have known this, as Porsche famously won the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally with a lifted version of its 959 sports car. A third Porsche, running the course as a support vehicle for the two prime cars, finished sixth!
In 1982, Ferrari entered a modified 308 in the Monte Carlo Rally, though that race runs entirely on asphalt, however poor the surface may be in places. And Nissan won the East-Africa Safari Rally with a 240Z sports car in 1971. Normally, the protagonists in such events have been fierce off-road machines built using the body shell of compact hatchbacks over a purpose-built off-road chassis.
In 2016, Mark Rivera got the notion to create a grassroots off-road sports car and lifted a Mazda MX-5 Miata to create a car that’s fun to drive in the dirt. His company, Paco Motorsports, started with a simple three-inch lift kit that added ground clearance and permitted installation of off-road tires. “We’re not off-road guys, we just wanted to play in the snow a little bit,” Rivera explains. But then he posted pictures on social media, and “the internet kind of went crazy.”
A nice thing about the lift kit is that it doesn’t fundamentally modify the car, so owners can switch it back to a regular Miata if they decide to. But demand quickly grew from the simple lift kit to the Offroadster, a play on the convertible Miata’s roadster body style. “This was popular, so now we’ve got to go real big,” Rivera says, recalling what he was thinking at the time. “We did the suspension design in CAD to get all the wheel travel we can get and we softened the suspension so the wheels can move through the whole range of motion.”
Customers can choose between the $250 3-inch lift kit, a so-called “medium kit” for about $2,000, or a complete Offroadster conversion kit for about $8,500.
An off-roading Lamborghini for $270,000
At the other end of the spectrum, Lamborghini is offering the Sterrato version of its Huracan super sports car at a starting price of $270,000. “With the high-speed all-terrain concept of the Sterrato, we have uniquely combined the driving experience of a true super sports car and the fun of driving a rally car,” explains Lamborghini chief technical officer Rouven Mohr in the company’s press release for the Sterrato. “Lamborghini cars always deliver emotion: the Sterrato delivers a new degree of driving thrills,” he promises.
This proliferation points to the potential for these safari-style builds (Indian carmaker Tata owns the trademark to the Safari name, so unless they cut a deal, other manufacturers won’t be able to use that word in a car’s name) to become a full-fledged product segment. Porsche CEO Oliver Blume, told Britain’s Car magazine that’s exactly what he’s thinking. “Why not a third pillar, besides sporty GT and heritage models? Why not off-road, too?” he asked. “Now we will see how the market success of the Dakar pans out,” Blume continued. “And then maybe there will be more to come. The door is now open…”
It remains to be seen what else Porsche will drive through that open door, but if the motorcycle market is any prediction, we can hope to see a golden age of dirt-flinging sports cars that, as a bonus, turn out to be more comfortable to drive than their street-centric progenitors.