Science Smackdown: Nissan Frontier Dune Buggy Ad

Continuing Nissan's advertising theme of how great their trucks could be if there was no reality, this ad showing a stock Nissan Frontier zooming in to rescue a purpose-built sand rail is, of course, little more than a wet dream from some Nissan exec. It would be the exact same if they showed the Frontier beating a purpose-built drag racer in a race– a total, unrepentant fantasy. I'm all for whimsical, imaginative commercials, but there's a difference between a fun ad and an ad that basically shows a lie. So, to give some vindication to all the real dune buggy/sand rail drivers and racers, here's what our captive physicist, Dr. Stephen Granade, has to say about it:


The thing about driving on sand or any other particulate (like snow or the dust on the moon!) is that you have to compress the particles down so they're not slipping loosely over each other. It's why you do better filling the back of your pickup with heavy things when you've got to drive it on snow or sand. From that standpoint, the Nissan's got the edge since it weighs more than the buggy.

Everywhere else, though, the Nissan would be worse. You're not just worried about weight, you're worried about the power-to-weight ratio. Dune buggies are so light so that they produce a lot of power relative to their weight and can go forward more easily. That Nissan will have a much lower power-to-weight ratio than the dune buggy because it's got a giant frame and doors and power locks and probably seat warmers. You also want to maximize how much tire surface you have on the sand to maximize how much friction there is to keep you from spinning out and how much grippiness (a true scientific word) you have. Dune buggies use wide tires for that reason. The best the Nissan could do is let some air out of its tires to give more traction.

What really tore it for me, though, was what the truck did when it started pushing the dune buggy: it peeled out and threw up a spray of sand behind it. That's the last thing you want to do on sand! You're making stuff slide around instead of compress down and give you some purchase, and it's a good way to dig down until the sand surrounds your axle and you're stuck.

As you can tell, I'm skeptical about this one as well.

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