Local Motors has been building the Rally Fighter for a few years now. It's big, it's brash, it's powerful. It's really everything you'd want in your ultimate offroading vehicle. And it's everything you imagined it would be, and more.
(Full disclosure: Local Motors wanted me to drive the Rally Fighter so bad that I basically just said "can I… can I drive it?" And then they said "okay." I was in Las Vegas anyway near their new microfactory, so that was pretty much it.)
In case you're not familiar with what must be one of the smallest American automotive manufacturers, Local Motors is a small Arizona-based outfit which from its start decided to go with a lean and nimble corporate organization. Rather than competing with the GMs and the Toyotas of the world, who spend countless hours and millions upon gazillions of dollars perfectly sculpting the right door handles for perfect manufacturing and design efficiencies, Local Motors crowdsourced the entire design of the Rally Fighter. The engine came from a Corvette. The taillights from a Honda Civic. And it feels like it can tackle the Baja with ease.
It sounds like some sort of hideous monster, but like a strange mashup of the Temptations and deadmau5, it somehow all works. Especially when you make it look like an old P-51 Mustang.
So far the company has made a little over 50 cars, with orders for more in the pipeline. There's no real set date on when they'll stop being made, either. Once they get to 2000 units, that's it. Done. Forever. It won't only be unique in how it looks, but also how many exist. Ferraris may be more scarce than the Rally Fighter's total planned production run, but if you want a more unique SUV you'll have to go with a Saab 9-4X.
And that looks like the one fat kid in Sweden.
As for the interior, it's decidedly bare-bones. The Rally Fighter is obviously pretty high up, so there's a bit of a scramble to get in. Once you've got the proper altitude for insertion, the rest of the process is much like a British roadster. You have to leverage yourself up, get your butt over the chassis (it runs high on the sides), and then sort of swing your behind in and then down. The seats are from Recaro and in traditional Recaro fashion are wonderfully supportive and comfortable, with substantial side-bolstering. You get in and it feels like you've sat in the gently curled hand of a big fuzzy giant. The one I drove had seats covered in cloth, but with a car as low-volume as this you can really get them covered in anything you want. The switchgear was a bit hokey, made up of plastic with little stickers (yes, stickers) identifying what button it is that you're actually pushing.
But again, your Rally Fighter is what you make it, even if it starts at $99,000. There isn't much of an options list, but rather more of a suggestion list. Want beautiful chrome toggles like the ones in a Spyker? I was told that they could make it happen as long as you have the dough for it. Really.
One German customer demanded that his Rally Fighter have a turbocharger slapped on. The company said they advised him not to do it, as the engine is built more for low-end torque and might do better with a supercharger, but the German insisted upon it. The chaps at LM dutifully slapped one on. With his Fighter shipped back to the Fatherland, the German instantly decided that yes, the turbo was a bad idea, and could he please have one with a supercharger. LM offered to ship it back, but the German now decided he just wanted a new one. Now he's got a turbo'd Fighter for Germany, and a supercharged Fighter that he keeps in the US. And it's even got the hideous orange leather interior he wanted.
But you're not reading this for cloth seat coverings and stickered switchgear. Those are just details. The real important thing is how it drives, and drives is certainly one way to describe it.
Though the massive suspension lift and tires might have you thinking that it feels like you're driving on top of the thing rather than in it, that couldn't be further from the truth. The high beltline and big seat bolsters make you feel like you're snugly in the cockpit of not just a car, but a rugged machine that would never break. The Rally Fighter only comes with an automatic transmission, and the way it changes gears isn't anything to write home about. But the way you throw it into drive is an experience in its own right. It's an open-gated shifter, like on so many old Italian cars, and putting it into D produces such a satisfying click that you just want to do it again and again like in one of Raph's old videos.
As a whole, the Fighter is surprisingly easy to drive in traffic. Even moving down the famously crowded Las Vegas strip was a breeze. Big sideview mirrors abound, and the rear is taken care of by an always-on back camera with the screen where your mirror would normally be. The only real traffic problem I had was the constant gawping and pointing from the automotively-jaded tourists on the Las Vegas Strip.
If you don't like attention, the Rally Fighter is not for you. If ridiculously deserved attention is the methadone to the heroin-starved 14-year old addict inside all of us, then the Rally Fighter is a big heaping cupful of it. You'll be getting slizzard with the sizzurp, is what I'm saying.
Once out of stop-and-go traffic, the Rally Fighter is possibly the most fun I've ever had in a car. Even though the 430-horse V8 is technically down on power from your average Cadillac station wagon nowadays, it certainly doesn't feel it thanks to the enormous suspension travel. You stomp on the throttle and the whole thing pitches upwards from the torque. The sound of a gravelly-voiced Liev Schreiber who's on his third pack of cigarettes for the day yells at you from under the hood, and the thing just seems to launch down the road.
Hit the brakes and the same thing happens in reverse. You feel like you're constantly going a million miles an hour, even if the speedo never breaks 40, just from the way it handles, and the complete lack of driver aids helps that. You've never experienced fear until you almost hit a little construction-worker lady who is jumping up and down in desperate fear to get the attention of the alien craft in front of her with the locked-up front tires.
And yet, somehow, it all feels incredibly nimble. You'd think it would feel like some big floaty boat of a truck, but it really doesn't. It's only about six inches longer than a Volkswagen Jetta, and while it's a bit wide, fitting its sporting pretensions, it fits in a lane on the highway. Yes, it's got big hi-top shoes on and yes, it's got long springy legs, but despite the road-going setup it's not soft and squishy. You feel bumps in the road and cracks in the asphalt. But it's so, so far from driving a taut little hot hatch as can be. Instead of seeing a pothole in front of you, desperately counting down the seconds until you inevitably hit it and then crack a wheel and have to spend $300 getting it fixed, you relish it. Instead of counting down in panic, you count down in glee. There's only one thought going through your head when you see a great gaping maw in the road ahead of you:
Yes. Yes I can. And I can do it fast.
Getting stuck in a jam is no problem either. While all backed up behind all of the cars in the world on one block, there was a particular worry about how I'd get around in time to make my next event. There was a dusty, sandy construction site to our right, and endless beige Japanesey-ness in front of us. It was suggested that I just go around the traffic.
"Go around it?" I thought dumbly for a few seconds. But how could I just go around it? Then the construction site all made sense. Driving the Rally Fighter, even in traffic, is unlike driving any other car straight from its manufacturer. You just hop the high curb, bumble over a few big hills, and you're there. You've hardly noticed anything at all. It's really something magical, but once you've adjusted yourself to the insanity that is the Rally Fighter, a whole world of possibilities has suddenly opened up.
Riding on the highway is relatively smooth and quiet despite the chunky tires, but it's not like you climb over that chassis only to expect Rolls-Royce levels of quiet. That would be ridiculous, unlike everything else about this car, which is not ridiculous at all, and neither is my level of sarcasm about that.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to take the Rally Fighter off road, owing to time constraints. But like I said before, it really is everything you could want in a car, and more.
Photo credit: Local Motors/Michael Ballaban