How'd you like to race an SUV at high speeds through breathtakingly beautiful deserts and sand dunes for 18 days? Each year, competitors do just that in the famous Dakar Rally Raid, also known as the Paris-Dakar race. In the past 25 years, it has become one of the best-known races in the world, traversing different parts of Africa, but almost always incorporated Paris and Dakar as the start and finishing points. In 2003, however, the Rallye Telefonica Dakar started in the south of France and went through Spain before the vehicles were ferried to Tunisia from whence they traversed the Sahara Desert in Libya and Egypt.

The Dakar Rally is one of several cross-country rallys in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Ironically, it's the only race series dominated by SUVs, despite the fact that they're far less popular elsewhere in the world than in the U.S.

Off-road racing in the U.S. operates under entirely different rules that make it difficult for a Dakar-type SUV to be competitive. For over a decade, Mitsubishi has all but dominated the Dakar, with its Pajero (Montero) SUV winning the event eight times. This year, though, it saw some keen competition from VW, BMW, and Nissan, in addition to private entrants in Nissan, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz SUVs, and even Chevrolet and Ford trucks.

There were two diesel-powered BMW X5s entered by Sven Quandt, who happens to be one of the owners of BMW. He's also the team manager for Mitsubishi Motorsport. Nissan South Africa entered a team of crew-cab pickup trucks, but the big interest was in VW's all-new factory team. Now that VW is in the SUV market, what better place to demonstrate its prowess than by competing in a major off-road event?

VW intends to enter a Touareg in the 2004 running of the Dakar rally, so it considered 2003 an exploratory year by using a light-weight 1.9-liter/218-horse diesel-powered California-made buggy called Tarek. VW's main driver is Jutta Kleinschmidt, who became the first woman to win the event overall in 2001 in a Mitsubishi.