The 2015 Dakar Rally and its hundreds of vehicles are raging across South America right now. Racers, support crews, logistics teams... and my diesel, manual, 2WD support trucks being bludgeoned within an inch of existence but simply refusing to die.
Myself, off-roading legend Magnus Eriksson, and an Argentinian tour guide named Sasha are leading a tour of Dakar Rally spectators on Kawasaki KLR dual-sport motorcycles and two trucks: a SsangYong Actyon Sports and a 2014 Ford Ranger. Both trucks are rental rigs rocking tiny diesel engines, the shortest pickup beds you can imagine, manual transmissions, and rear-wheel drive.
When we organized our trip to this year's Dakar; a three-week adventure tour chasing the race, we'd lined up a 4WD Volkswagen Amarok support rig upfitted for off-roading and loaded with recovery gear. Plus nine fresh dual-sport bikes.
When got to Buenos Aires ahead of the race start... there were no vehicles. No sign of the man who'd rented us the vehicles. And no money.
Having launched a barrage of emails and phone calls to just about every rental outfit between Argentina and Chile, we were able to get our hands on a fleet of weezy motorcycles in Santiago, a rear-drive Ford Ranger with an electrical fault and bald tires in Buenos Aires, and a "Chevrolet D-Max or equivalent" at the Santiago airport Europcar rental counter.
When the sweatervested Europcar man handed us keys with a symbol I didn't recognize, Magnus sighed deeply.
"The hell is this?" I asked flipping through the rental car catalogue.
"That is probably not going to survive the next three weeks... but it's what we're running. You're good at sand driving, right? Really good?"
Guess I better be.
Ten minutes later we were chirping the lock on a SsangYong Actyon Sports with a nasty gouge in the port quarter panel and a cargo bed roughly the size of the shower in a Brooklyn studio apartment.
So how is it?
The 114 horsepower two-liter diesel can actually propel the pickup to right around 100 MPH, as long as you've got a week to get there. With a motorcycle and a heap of parts crammed into the bed, plus three passengers and a few pieces of luggage, I think it's safe to say the the 900 pound payload capacity is being tested too.
But the interior is remarkably well-built, controls are idiot-proof, and it's got Bluetooth for subjecting everybody to my terrible taste in music. Even has the guts to get further than I'd ever imagine off-road... more on that later.
Hell, I'm starting to fall in love with the thing.
As for the Ranger; the size and styling are everything I'd hoped they'd be. Really nice interior layout, heaps of room inside, and a usable bed. But the four-banger diesel feels even weaker than the SsangYong's– the truck struggles to get up a parking garage ramp with a few suitcases in the bed.
Some sort of electrical fault is throwing the Check Engine Light and causing the truck to shut itself down every once in awhile, so I'll reserve judgement on how a properly running Ranger performs. The tires that have made a few laps around the Earth aren't doing much for performance either.
Look for full reviews on both vehicles when the race is over, and the fairly ridiculous yarn about how we punted these things down part of the Dakar Rally course, coming up soon! With over a week still to go on our trip, who knows what the hell these things are still going to go through.
Images by the author