GLORY IN THE DESERT

Toyota Connect/Lexus Life - - TOYOTA CONNECT -

A THRILLING RIDE IN A DAKAR RALLY CAR – AND A JAUNT ACROSS THE DUNES IN A LIM­ITED-EDI­TION HILUX DAKAR – LEFT ME IN NO DOUBT THAT THESE WERE TWO OF TOY­OTA’S TOUGH­EST, MOST POW­ER­FUL VE­HI­CLES, ABLE TO CON­QUER EVEN THE MOST CHAL­LENG­ING TEST TER­RAIN

“WITH THE BON­NET FAC­ING SKYWARDS, THE TRACK BE­FORE US MO­MEN­TAR­ILY DIS­AP­PEARED, ONLY FOR THE CAR TO SUD­DENLY DIP (MY CHURN­ING IN­TESTINES!) AND THEN ZOOM AWAY.”

For a se­cond, I wanted to pinch my­self in dis­be­lief. There I was, in a rally car, with Giniel de Vil­liers, Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing SA’S cham­pion rac­ing and rally driver, and a vet­eran Dakar rally win­ner. No, we weren’t travers­ing the in­tim­i­dat­ing deserts of Latin Amer­ica – we were in an iso­lated test drive spot out­side Uping­ton in the North­ern Cape. With its rugged. wide-open ter­rain, it’s a test venue that per­fectly mim­ics the chal­lenges of a rally route.

The in­te­rior of the rally car was far from be­ing the “pol­ished” cock­pit you’d ex­pect in mod­ern ve­hi­cles. The dash­board seemed rudi­men­tary, but it fea­tured a wealth of com­po­nents that re­flect and track all sorts of per­for­mance data, in­clud­ing our (ter­ri­fy­ing) speed. Be­tween our seats was a mon­strous gear lever that De Vil­liers con­tin­u­ally and deftly changed, and I was re­minded of Mad Max: Fury. At some point, though, I gave up try­ing to guess what each com­po­nent was for and suc­cumbed to the sheer ex­hil­a­ra­tion of the ride.

BRACE FOR THE BUMPS…

Al­though I had a hel­met on and was firmly strapped into my seat, noth­ing could have pre­pared me for the tu­mul­tuous ter­rain, or the in­vol­un­tary jerk­ing of my head and body as we tra­versed the rocks, sand and dirt at bone-shak­ing speed. When the 10-minute ride was over, some­one in the group re­marked: “Imag­ine be­ing in a real Dakar race and jerk­ing around like that for eight hours ev­ery day for two weeks [the time it takes to com­plete the Dakar]. It’s com­mit­ment rac­ing!”

That ob­ser­va­tion makes you ap­pre­ci­ate the im­mense task rest­ing on De Vil­liers’ shoul­ders as he and the team con­tinue to aim for glory at Dakar, a race De Vil­liers won in 2009. As it turned out, the Toy­ota team also used our Uping­ton out­ing as prepa­ra­tion for the gru­elling Toy­ota Kala­hari Botswana 1000 Desert Race that was set to start in a few weeks’ time.

On this ad­ven­ture track day, our short “race” was a demon­stra­tion of what skil­ful driv­ing in de­mand­ing con­di­tions is all about. I sat with my right hand glued to the rail above my head as the car went through the cir­cuit and couldn’t help grin­ning like a Cheshire Cat at the thrill of it all. It’s not ev­ery day that you get to sit in a rally car fly­ing at 180km/hour on dirt, slow­ing down just in time to nav­i­gate a sharp bend be­fore re­gain­ing its bal­ance and re­sum­ing its break­neck speed. At some point, De Vil­liers had to drive through a nar­row gap be­tween two gates. Any mis­step and they would have been his­tory! Be­fore I knew what was hap­pen­ing, we were through them, without him even need­ing to glance side­ways.

NERVES OF STEEL

Later, the car bounded up a hill at full speed and, with the bon­net fac­ing skywards, the track be­fore us mo­men­tar­ily dis­ap­peared, only for the car to sud­denly dip (my churn­ing in­testines!) and then zoom away. Twist­ing this way and that on the sur­face, with a cloud of dust in­evitably ris­ing, cre­ated the im­pres­sion of a car skid­ding on ice. Sheer po­etry on wheels – and some­thing I’m un­likely ever to ex­pe­ri­ence again. So I sat back and savoured the mo­ment. De

Vil­liers, sen­si­tive to a novice’s frag­ile nerves, pe­ri­od­i­cally en­quired through hand ges­tures whether I was OK and I al­ways gave him a thumbs-up. Half an hour af­ter our thrilling ride, I was still ex­hil­a­rated.

THE LIM­ITED-EDI­TION HILUX DAKAR

Also put through the test in Uping­ton was the all-new Toy­ota Hilux Dakar. Based on the Raider mod­els, the Dakar’s off-road­ing abil­i­ties were on dis­play when we took a lan­guid drive on the sur­round­ing sand dunes. This time, I was at the wheel.

Our driv­ing in­struc­tor had re­peat­edly pointed out that tak­ing it easy – the com­plete op­po­site of what De Vil­liers had just done in the rally car – and ac­cel­er­at­ing at the right mo­ment was the key to driv­ing over dunes of loose sand. “If you get stuck, sim­ply re­verse and try the path again,” he ad­vised. “Get­ting stuck is noth­ing to be ashamed of.”

Thus re­as­sured, I avoided get­ting stuck on the trail, al­though there were mo­ments when keep­ing the steer­ing wheel steady on the loose sand was chal­leng­ing.

With its tall build, the Hilux Dakar of­fers im­pres­sive ground clear­ance. Its rugged ex­te­rior left me in no doubt that the dunes would be con­quered with ease, while its re­fined in­te­rior, com­plete with an LCD multi-in­for­ma­tion sys­tem, en­sured a com­fort­able drive.

Even on the road back to Uping­ton, the car han­dled con­fi­dently, de­liv­er­ing a smooth and ma­jes­tic jour­ney and show­ing off its strength, durability and ca­pa­bil­ity.

FAST FACTS: THE LIM­IT­EDEDI­TION HILUX DAKAR

• The fo­cal point is the large, glossy black hon­ey­comb grille, which in­cor­po­rates two hor­i­zon­tal sec­tions, cre­at­ing an im­age of strength. • The in­ner grille area is bor­dered by a metal­lic grey sur­round with a three-di­men­sional ap­pear­ance which blends into the LED head­lamps. • Buy­ers can choose be­tween the Xtra

or Dou­ble Cab con­fig­u­ra­tions. • The car has a 2,8-litre, four-cy­clin­der

turbo-diesel engine.

• Fuel con­sump­tion varies from

7,6-8,5l/100km, de­pend­ing on the

driv­e­train con­fig­u­ra­tion.

• CO2 fig­ures range from 199-224g/km. • It’s avail­able in four ex­te­rior colours: Glacier White, Chromium Sil­ver, Graphite Grey Metal­lic and In­ferno Orange Metal­lic. Both rear-wheel and switch-on­the-fly four-wheel drive transaxles are of­fered, each avail­able in ei­ther a six-speed man­ual or au­to­matic trans­mis­sion con­fig­u­ra­tion – cre­at­ing a matrix of four 2,8 GD-6 vari­ants. •

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