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 are two of Toyota’s toughest, most powerful vehicles, able to conquer even the most challenging test terrain
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. But we weren’t in 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, its perfectly mimics the challenges of rally route driving.
The interior of the rally car was far from being the “polished” cockpit you’d expect in modern vehicles. The dashboard features 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, 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 he 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 scheduled for a few weeks’ time.
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 were 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 stand 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.