The sun has now fully disappeared over the horizon, and the purple glow of dusk that once filled the sky has gone with it. The desert is encased in darkness, save for the stars above and the high-powered LED lamps on a train of tiny four-wheel-drive buggies barreling over and around the dunes at high speed. But the blackness of night matters little to the experienced desert drivers leading the pack as they tear across the sand.
I'm in the middle of this procession; in the white beams of the LED lights on my Polaris Razor, the swirling sand kicked up by the leading car makes it seem like a furious Arctic snow blizzard instead of what is in fact Arabian desert, about a half hour's drive south of Dubai. And while I have faith in my ability behind the wheel, I don't have faith in my ability to judge the terrain, so I'm content to follow behind other lead cars with drivers who know what to look for, trying to follow the tail lights as they disappear momentarily over a dune and come back into view. It's my first time driving Polaris's wild four-wheeled off-roader, so I don't fully know yet what the Razor can - and more importantly, can't - do, but I figure if the guy in front can make it traversing a steep dune face sideways or jumping off a high hill, so can I.
But there's not much these Razors can't do, apparently. If you've ever spent any time in the desert, you'll surely have seen these powerful, side-by-side buggies careering over the sand, blasting their way up and down the steepest of dunes both day and night. They are incredibly popular with off-roaders, so much so that the local distributor, Specialized Sports Equipment (SSE), opened the world's largest Polaris dealership in Abu Dhabi last week, in part to handle the demand for these buggies. To celebrate, staff at the dealership brought along valued customers and a certain staffer at The National for a dusk/night drive with the whole range of Razors.
And as an indication of how important the local market is to Polaris, the company's global president, Bennett Morgan, along with its Europe, Middle East and Africa managing director, Truls Tvete, are in town for the opening, and they join the group. With tussled grey hair and a Midwestern US accent, Morgan smiles as he toys with his helmet before the drive. "I've got the greatest job; I get to drive all our products all over the world."
Indeed, the reach of Polaris is global, and indicative of the company's range of products, Morgan spends up to eight weeks a year travelling to different continents with different climates and terrain to meet with distributors and customers, as well as to drive Razors, snowmobiles, Victory motorcycles and other vehicles under the Polaris umbrella. It's his first time in the region, though he's had experience with Razors in the company's largest market, the US.
About 4pm, as the sun is just beginning to set, I get into a long-wheelbase, four-seat RZR version from the last model year and strap into the Spartan cockpit. It has a seat belt like a normal car, with firm but comfortable seats, a basic control panel with four-wheel-drive switch (which will stay engaged for our j ourney), a long gearshift in between the front seats and, comfortingly, a rugged-looking roll cage. A turn of the key starts the rear-mounted 800cc engine (replaced this model year with 900cc), and all it takes is a stab at the throttle to get it moving; the gearbox is continuously variable like that of a snowmobile, so there is no gear changing.
After some hesitation, a few drivers set off from our parking lot base towards the dunes, and I take a place in the middle of the pack. As we pick up speed, I rock the steering wheel back and forth to keep it on track in the slithering sand, kicking out the rear end occasionally. The power is impressive, and we quickly get up to more than 70kph, while the high torque helps for climbing up and over the endless dunes. A few of the drivers disappear on their own farther ahead; they drive Razors almost every day and are obviously experienced enough for higher speeds.
What's more impressive is the traction and handling. The tiny cars have a low centre of gravity, and their capabilities of clinging to the side of steep hills and tearing over the sharp, pointed dunes is amazing for someone not familiar with these vehicles. The long-travel suspension makes for a surprisingly comfortable ride, and the car seemingly floats along the surface of the sand while effortlessly absorbing the shock of landing from jumps or hitting the ground at the bottom of a steep hill.
As we snake farther and farther into the desert, I'm getting more and more comfortable behind the wheel; the Razor is actually easy to drive hard. When my brow is not furrowed in worry as I follow the leading car in some new, daring maneuvre, I'm smiling under my helmet.
After about a half hour, the group stops for a break. Karim Kassoul, general manager for SSE, offers me his two-seat RZR XP, with a warning. "Careful," he says low and solemnly. "This one will bite you."
I soon realise what warrants the words of caution. What I previously thought was high performance with the four-seater seems downright dull now as I plow over the sand in this 539kg, short-wheelbase version. Handling is much, much sharper, while the 88hp from this new 900cc model gives stunningly quick acceleration; the combination of the two makes carving a tight crescent moon on the side of a steep dune and spitting up high rooster tails of sand almost too easy. And too fun.
But it's that ease of driving, racing, jumping and carving that is the real appeal of these machines. They are truly capable desert racers, right out of the box; though they aren't exactly inexpensive - the base version comes in at Dh81,000, going up to Dh93,000 - they are still an appealing combination of affordability and high-speed, high-adrenaline thrills. Overall, side-by-side vehicles like these, as well as more work-oriented versions, are Polaris's best sellers across the world and, here in the UAE, they move about 1,200 every year. And as the company has developed the Razor over the last few years, the UAE market has been a small part of that process.
"SSE is a tremendous partner," Morgan tells me later. "We've been in business with them for 14 years. They're constantly giving us feedback and relaying feedback from our customers here and we get that back to our product development teams. A lot of times these guys are our leading indicators if something is really good or if something needs to be better.
"People out here are heavy users. They're very passionate and they're very capable and they put the products through the paces."
They certainly are, I find as we stop again for snacks at Fossil Rock. One of the Emirati clients offers to take me for a spin in his heavily modified Razor, and as I climb in I notice that, instead of the stock shoulder belt, he has installed racing-style body harnesses. I soon realise why; he fires the engine and takes off like a Dakar racer, with sand billowing up behind us. We go full bore up the side of a steep, high dune, rotate around and travel along the side, and then hit another high hill at full speed. We spend a full four seconds in the air, coming down with nary a jolt and continue on, his foot firmly to the floor to take another monstrous jump. I can't help but laugh uncontrollably as I hold on to the handle on the passenger side to steady myself. It's quite obvious that this driver is exactly what the Polaris development team is aiming for.
As the purple of the dusky sky deepens to darker hues, we climb in again, switch on the headlights and take off towards our base. The night drive is a thrilling end to a day spent with a vehicle that has truly amazed me. It's easy to see why the Razor has become ubiquitous with off-roading here in the UAE, and why the market has become so important for Polaris. And encouragingly, Morgan says the company isn't sitting on its haunches when it comes to making the Razor even better.
"Polaris at its heart is a product and innovation company," he says at a majlis dinner under the stars after our ride. "All of our product development team and engineers ride the products; we started early, we started innovating, we've got good partners close to the customer, and we keep innovating our products. If you don't have the best product, you don't win."