I had just passed the point of no return. Actually, that's not entirely true – I hadn't just passed it, I had hurled mud, gravel and everything else that got in my way as I transitioned from a sweeping arc of pavement onto a much slipperier surface of slightly damp, hard-packed dirt.
Suddenly, what moments before had seemed like heavy but reassuringly direct steering felt more like I was only able to send gentle suggestions to the front tires as to where I wanted them pointed. I couldn't let off the gas, having been told to hit the ramp at about 40 miles per hour, and an acute lack of run-up room meant I had to keep power fed to the massive rear Goodyear MTR Kevlar-laced tires in order to make my speed.
It was at this point that I began to question my insistence that I jump the Local Motors Rally Fighter so that I could accurately describe what it's like to earn one's four-wheeled wings.
It had all seemed like such a good idea a few moments before. Despite what should have been an ominous sign – our affable host and experienced off-road racer Buddy Crisp exiting the vehicle just before the most dangerous stunt we'd attempt (gleefully offering to hold the camera), I had clicked myself into place using a three-point safety belt whose tightly knit weave of nylon appeared woefully inadequate for keeping me in the seat in the event of The Unthinkable.
Luckily for me, it didn't. The Local Motors Rally Fighter sailed 40 feet through the air with more grace and aplomb than the Wright Brothers' first flight. And, though none of us were there to witness Orville and Wilbur's Kitty Hawk triumph back in December of 1903, I'd bet our landing was far less eventful than theirs.
The fact that a driver with zero off-road training could repeatedly put a dozen or so feet of air under the Rally Fighter with such relative ease speaks volumes to the capability of this car's open-source design. In addition to the jump, I also pointed the Rally Fighter over a set of boulders and stones large enough to force a heavily modified Jeep Wrangler to a crawl – and I hammered over them at more than 20 mph. A short time later, I leveled a section of motocross-style whoop-de-dos (check it all out in the Autoblog Short Cut video below).
What is it about the Local Motors Rally Fighter that makes it capable of withstanding such punishment? It all starts with a heavily triangulated chassis welded up in mild steel tubing using one of the most elaborate jigs ever devised by humankind, and it ends with a set of remote-reservoir shocks that allow 18 inches of suspension travel up front and a full 20 inches in the rear.
Sitting at the front of the Rally Fighter is a 6.2-liter V8 that's more frequently seen in the engine bay of a Chevrolet Corvette.
Sitting at the front of the Rally Fighter is a General Motors-sourced 6.2-liter V8 that is more frequently seen in the engine bay of a Chevrolet Corvette, albeit in slightly different trim. The engine sends 430 horsepower and 424 pound-feet of torque through a heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission, also supplied by GM, to a solid axle at the rear of the car sourced from Ford. An 8.8-inch axle is standard, but we'd opt for the optional custom welded nine-inch unit instead.
Stopping power is ably handled by large 13-inch ventilated rotors up front with two-piston floating calipers, while the rear is slowed by 13.7-inch rotors clamped by single pistons. Curb weight is listed as between 3,800 and 4,000 pounds, presumably depending on options.
Many major components, such as the engine and transmission, are covered under some sort of manufacturer's warranty, but there's no vehicle-wide warranty offered. Each owner does get a packet of information that includes all the various warranty bits, and the Local Motors staff promises to offer as much post-sale assistance as they can muster.
20 inches of rear suspension travel is more than enough to soak up anything smaller than an Abrams tank.
The Rally Fighter we piloted was a 2011 model, and was therefore fitted with a three-link rear suspension system that uses a Watt's linkage to keep the wheels planted firmly in their vertical axes. For 2012, the Local Motors team is switching to a four-link arrangement that the company says is simpler, more durable and easier to tune. Either way, the aforementioned 20 inches of rear suspension travel is more than enough to soak up... well, anything smaller than an Abrams tank, we'd guess.
There's an interesting and eclectic amalgam of parts adorning the Rally Fighter, both on the surface of its fiberglass and carbon fiber skin (covered in a vinyl wrap of the buyer's design) and inside. For instance, the machine we drove was fitted with a fuel tank sourced from Mercedes-Benz. Future models will make use of a BMW unit that is both larger and shaped more appropriately for the space available. The entire front crash structure of the Rally Fighter is also borrowed from Mercedes, which means it ought to be properly engineered to deform in the unfortunate event of a collision... assuming the 'Fighter doesn't just roll over whatever happens to be in its path.
We had a good time playing Spot the Supplier when pouring over the Rally Fighter during our photo shoot. For instance, inside you'll find a steering column and wheel borrowed from a Ford F-Series pickup, sans airbag. The most surprising tidbits, though, were to be found on the bodywork. Take the door handles, which are otherwise seen on the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Or perhaps the taillamps that usually light the rear of a Honda Civic Coupe. Side mirrors? Dodge Challenger.
Such is the nature of crowd-sourced design. Though Local Motors cites Sangho Kim as the designer, many of the finer points of the Rally Fighter's blueprint were refined by a community of designers online.
It's got to be difficult to take such an odd assemblage of parts and end up with a cohesive look, but in reality the Local Motors Rally Fighter sorta just works. It's a design that takes equal parts BMW X6 and race-prepped Dakar SUV and combines them into something unlike anything else seen on the road.
That's right: on the road. This machine is indeed street legal, though the manner in which it's licensed (likely as a self-assembled vehicle) varies from state to state. Helpfully, the entire drivetrain package is already certified for road use, and, as you've been reading, most of the other major assemblies can be seen elsewhere on vehicles that are already DOT approved. Plus, Local Motors supplies the builder with all documentation necessary to prove the Rally Fighter's legality.
Did you notice we said 'builder'? You can't just march into a showroom and drive off in a ready-made Rally Fighter. Instead, the crew at Local Motors has rather cleverly devised a much different way to craft your new off-road bomber. Called the Local Motors Build Experience, each buyer spends six days in the Phoenix, Arizona area with a friend (or spouse) and an expert builder who will guide the team through the complete assembly process. We can think of no better way to become intimately aware of the finer points of the Rally Fighter, and the fact that each buyer spends time with the crew at the Local Motors Micro Factory means that an invaluable interchange between designer, fabricator and owner takes place during each build.
We witnessed the Rally Fighter in various stages of undress during the two days we spent with the team in Chandler, Arizona, and came away mighty impressed by the dedication of the small Local Motors team. We saw a recently completed bare chassis on jacks, a couple of Rally Fighters being torn down and inspected, and we also watched as some new-for-2012 bits and pieces were tested on completed 2011 models. It's still very early in the game for Local Motors, with under 30 of the planned 2,000 Rally Fighters sold and in the hands of buyers, but there's a palpable sense of accomplishment hanging in the small factory that's more than a little contagious.
To succeed, Local Motors is going to need its first product, the Rally Fighter, to resonate with buyers. To see what it's like to use one on the road, we spent some quality time in the passenger seat of the Rally Fighter in normal everyday driving situations. We sat in traffic, hit the freeway and parked it at the mall. Then we moved to the driver's seat and repeated the process.
On the street, the Rally Fighter feels somewhere between an AM General HMMWV (the military version) and a heavily modified Jeep Wrangler. The suspension doesn't feel overly stiff and it's completely adjustable to suit the kind of driving you plan to do. We noted plenty of body roll in the model we tested, which is to be expected and didn't at any time feel unsafe. Local Motors says you can get as much as 20 miles per gallon from a Rally Fighter, and while we weren't able to record any mileage figures ourselves, we doubt we'd hit anything near that number.
The Rally Fighter is definitely loud, and every noise you hear resonates off the bare aluminum that makes up the majority of the interior. We highly recommend opting for the full carpet and headliner package, something our tester was not fitted with. A few of the modern conveniences you'd expect in 2012 are present and accounted for, such as a stereo, power windows and locks and air conditioning. Aside from that, sitting inside a Rally Fighter for any length of time is likely to be a rather boring, and somewhat deafening, experience.
And that's why we suggest pointing the Rally Fighter in the general direction of dirt. Or mud, sand, grass, rocks, gravel, snow – really, anything other than pavement. That's when the fun begins. We touched on the amazing capabilities of the Local Motors Rally Fighter at the outset, and we're not really sure how to describe what it's like to drive, other than to say it's downright unstoppable in the right hands. After driving it through, over, around or several feet above any obstacle that stood in its way, we figure there's only one way to drive the machine off road: with your foot to the floor, using the steering wheel as a rudder to stay in the proper direction. There's so much suspension travel that the Rally Fighter will absorb all the rocks, ruts, logs or subcompact cars placed its way.
Here's some advice for would-be Rally Fighter drivers: If you feel like you may get stuck, hit the gas and hold on tight.
So, it works on road and excels off road, but we can't imagine owning a Rally Fighter as a primary method of transportation. And that begs the question, what customer is Local Motors targeting with the Rally Fighter? At $74,900 a pop, certainly someone with deep pockets who wants something completely different and not particularly rational... like an off-road supercar. Perhaps a do-it-yourselfer who relishes the idea of wrenching for a couple of long weekends and leaving with a product he or she can be proud of and have a ton of fun driving.
To whoever ends up with one of the 2,000 Rally Fighters the company plans to build, we have one sure-fire, three-step process for unlimited amounts of smiles per hour: Buckle up, mash the gas, and prepare for landing.