MERZOUGA, Morocco — Dawn in the Sahara Desert is the reason for the term “deafening silence.” As the rising sun illuminates the cliffs and dunes, the breeze blows like a loud whisper. Really happy; calm accompaniment, wipe the drowsiness from my eyes. But then the desert silence is broken by a sound both familiar and out of place: the harsh cold-crank of the six-cylinder engine.

Listening to a Porsche 911 Dakar fire up during waking hours in the Sahara is like David Lee Roth yelling, “Are you ready to rock, Morocco?!” There is absolutely nothing subtle about this car; it The sleeves are printed with the intention of throwing dirt and smashing dunes. The moment you set foot on the sand, the 911 Dakar takes on a new look. OMG, can this thing rip?

Really quick, let’s back up. In 1984, Porsche won the Paris-Dakar Rally with its first all-wheel drive 911 racing car. The new 911 Dakar pays homage to this primarily with one of its optional Rallye Design Packages, designed to look like the iconic ’84 Rothmans livery (below left). Yes, the text says “Roughroads” now, which is kind of lame to be honest, but automakers don’t do tobacco company sponsorships — even defunct ones — and, well, licensing is expensive. The martini wrap is more my style (bottom right).

In the ensuing decades, there have been a slew of rally-ready Safari 911 mods, including one-off customizations from renowned tuners like Ruf and Singer. Because of this, you might think Porsche is jumping the shark by offering its own 911 Dakar, but I promise, the thing is legit. Based on the Carrera 4 GTS, the Dakar has 2 inches of extra ground clearance in its standard setup, while High mode can raise the car another 1.2 inches for a maximum ride height of 7.5 inches. This adjustability isn’t achieved with the air suspension, either. Porsche has adapted the optional hydraulic lift system at the front end of the 911 and installed it on the rear axle. Incidentally, the extra space required by the hydraulics is one of the reasons why the 911 Dakar does not have a rear seat.

The recoilless approach also saves weight. At 3,552 pounds, the 911 Dakar is less than 16 pounds heavier than a Carrera 4 GTS (equipped with an automatic transmission). That’s pretty impressive considering all the add-ons in Dakar. But Porsche also gave its off-roader a carbon fiber hood from the GT3—ugly nostrils and all—plus lightweight material on the roof and spoiler to shed some extra weight.

Crucially, the Dakar’s suspension features stronger dampers and longer linkages, and the staggered 19-inch front and 20-inch wheels come standard with Pirelli Scorpion All-Terrain Plus tires. You’ll find 245/45s up front and 295/40s in the rear, and the tires feature a 9mm tread depth and a dual-carcass design for durability. Pirelli P Zero summer tires are available as a no-cost option, but go for it. Don’t do that.

Despite the added suspension travel and meaty tires, the 911 Dakar’s on-road ride quality is stiffer than you’d expect from a model designed for dirt. It’s more akin to a street-spec 911 Carrera, which means pitching and diving under acceleration and braking isn’t an issue — as is body roll. The steering here is as crisp as any other 911, and the car’s handling capabilities are really only limited by the asphalt grip reduced by the all-terrain rubber. The standard steel brakes work perfectly here too, and no, Porsche doesn’t offer a carbon-ceramic upgrade.

Like the standard Carrera 4 GTS, the 911 Dakar uses a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter flat-six with 473 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, mated to an eight-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. On pavement , the Dakar will hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds—the same as the rear-wheel-drive Carrera GTS—and on to a top speed of 149 mph. You can only keep it up to a max ride height of 105 mph, though, so don’t try to use the v-max thing on gravel roads.

You should definitely start it off-road, though. After all, Porsche engineered a new rally launch control system that allows for more off-line wheel spin than normal. In fact, there’s an entirely separate Rally drive mode that retunes the all-wheel-drive torque split to give it a stronger rear bias and loosens up on the traction control, intentionally allowing for more tail-happy antics. Press and hold the PSM button on the dashboard for a few seconds to disable traction control entirely, and the 911 Dakar turns into a complete rogue – despite being remarkably easy to control. Quick, responsive steering lets you make small corrections to keep the 911 going in a straight line, and rear-biased power delivery with lateral torque vectoring means you can control rear-end fun with the throttle.

Click the right drive-mode dial again to engage off-road mode, which automatically raises the suspension to its highest ground clearance. This also locks the all-wheel-drive system into a 50/50 front/rear split, though left-right torque vectoring on the rear axle remains active. Take it a step further, pump up the Pirelli tires, and the Dakar goes into full-on dune attack mode.

Porsche has borrowed the cooling system from the 911 Turbo, including a pair of large 650-watt cooling fans to help manage airflow, and because its central intercooler is designed to be less prone to damage off-road than other 911s. The GTS’ central radiator was also removed to allow for a reshaped front fascia. The Dakar has stainless steel bottom protection to protect you when you slam your nose into the dunes, and a new air intake and air filter help dampen all the dirt and dust you’ll no doubt kick up. If things do change (not literally, hopefully), the bright red tow hooks front and rear should make recovery a breeze.

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun off-road. Hold the throttle, and the Dakar will climb any incline, jump over the top of a hill, and kick up a huge cloud of sand as it dips sideways at the foot of the hill. All the while, the 3.0-liter engine roars behind you, and the transmission stays in second gear to keep the throttle responsive.

The best thing I can say about the experience is that on sand and gravel, the Dakar still feels like a 911. It’s easy to control. It never feels like it’s going away from you. It works with you, urging you to go faster and faster. As good as the Carrera 4 GTS is on the road, the Dakar is just as good on the dirt.

It’s also easy to work with. The Dakar comes standard with one-piece carbon fiber bucket seats, but you can opt for 18-way adjustable seats if you prefer. Otherwise, inside the car is all the typical 911 goodies: Porsche Communication Management technology on the color sensitive touchscreen, digital displays flanking the large analog tachometer and a level that makes this car rattle-free even when you’re in ruts Shake it on the road.

Then again, that’s to be expected considering the Dakar’s exorbitant price tag: $223,450, including $1,450 for destination, or, by comparison, slightly less than the new 911 GT3 RS. Of course, it doesn’t matter. With only 2,500 for global consumption, Porsche will have no problem selling every Dakar it can produce.

My best hope is that someone who buys a 911 Dakar will actually specify cool colors for it and drive it away; not just park the thing in the garage and show it off at their local car and coffee shop once in a while. The Dakar is absurd and hilarious, and there’s nothing like it on the road today. If you don’t let it play in the sand, you’re doing 911 a disservice.

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