The off-road buggy that is an easy and fun way to dominate the dunes.
The new Polaris is the king of the hill
Polaris has taken off like a rocket in this part of the world, thanks largely to its range of affordable, off-road toys that go like nothing this side of the military. There are herds of them around the UAE, the roar of their motors often providing the soundtrack amid the silence of the dunes.
Providing in equal measure joy and sheer terror, Polaris vehicles are currently flying off the shelves, so popular they are with the dune-bashing crowd. So, having failed to get our hands on one to test in Dubai, we headed off to the wilds around Barcelona in Spain to try out Polaris's latest offering, the Ranger RZR XP 900.
The RZR is marketed as being the only "trail" side-by-side by virtue of it being about 125cm wide, and thus able to whizz through narrow gaps between obstacles. But such trails in the desert are rare, so this is of little consequence to UAE buyers. What the local market will care about is the 875cc, twin-cylinder engine that is good for 88hp, making it, according to Polaris, the most powerful engine in a side-by-side available anywhere.
That's all very impressive, but there's still scope for tuning. Any number of after-market companies can almost double the XP 900's power figure. Thankfully, though, the suspension should be able to handle it. It features adjustable Fox Podium X 2.0 shock absorbers, which provide the RZR with about 35cm of travel, front and rear, and 33cm of ground clearance. The patented engine-behind-the-seat design also guarantees a low centre of gravity, meaning that, in theory, more power shouldn't be too much of an issue.
But despite all of the serious numbers, this is still a toy. Polaris stresses that it's a purely recreational vehicle, built from the ground up to destroy whatever terrain is thrown at it. The blurb even labels other manufacturers as "pretenders",because their vehicles apparently compromise on performance for some sort of practical use. The XP 900 is built for fun, and nothing else.
It had been arranged that we visit Les Comes, where Land Rovers are tested and rally cars are launched. A former Italian rally champion was in my group, so I thought I would start by tagging along with him, seeing what's what from the passenger seat. However, I was soon eager to snatch the wheel from him, and he agreed that I should have a go.
We strapped ourselves in and set off up the mountain, following the narrow, twisty trails, up and down steep inclines. From the get-go, the engine pulled like a bullet train. On a gravel track, it simply lunges forward, leaving the unsuspecting driver's stomach far behind in a cloud of dust. You expect that kind of speed from a rally driver, but it's hard to believe it when you're behind the wheel yourself. The power is smooth, torquey and, with the straight delivery curve, it is easy to go anywhere, despite the varying amounts of grip on the surface below.
Through the corners, the XP 900 continues to excel. You only have to think about touching the left pedal when the performance brake calipers halt you with similar force to hitting a brick wall. I learn quickly that to take fast corners, only a dab of brakes is necessary. There is a surprisingly small amount of body roll, and the four-wheel-drive system keeps the vehicle very well planted. And, because you sit so low down on the chassis, you feel like you're driving a sports car rather than an ATV. Having said this, I struggle to pull off the long, swooping drifts that my co-pilot seems so capable of, but that is probably to do with my lack of ability.
What stands out most, though, is the RZR's capability to drive over anything in front of it. Here, there are deep rain ruts, large rocks and spiked bushes, yet we simply drive through or over everything at full pelt. The 35cm of give in the suspension doesn't sound like much, but on a machine barely taller than it is wide, it's astounding. I find myself looking for obstacles that might be able to stop it, but I simply plough through them like a speedboat on water.
We also do two laps of a high-speed dirt track, which I think would be a good place to test the RZR's 2WD setting. Disappointingly, it is nasty. I take several corners too quickly, expecting to be able to cure the understeer with a simple bootful of power, but it doesn't like the treatment at all, to the point that I worry about causing the first crash of the day. I don't even wait until the second lap before reverting back to 4WD, which, thankfully, makes the vehicle a breeze to drive quickly once more.
In short, then, the XP 900 gives you the confidence to do things you simply would not dream of in any other vehicle. It could be used for thrashing across the desert's dunes, or slowly navigating a treacherous mountain pass. The handling is brilliant, if you keep it in 4WD, and it's relatively inexpensive (prices start at Dh74,000) for the amount of ability it provides. You can spend huge amounts of money on extras ranging from LED headlamps to stereo systems, never mind the tuning goodies, but the base version is more than most could ever need.
With all of this in mind, it's easy to see why showrooms have had a job keeping these kinds of vehicles in stock. Dune bashers have realised that there's far more fun to be had in a plaything such as the RZR than any 4x4 around. They might not be as practical, but that's not the point. They're a laugh; full stop.