Unlike most other Trophy Trucks, which run automatic transmissions, the Kia has a tall gear shift attached to a five-speed manual and Sprint Car-like quick-change rearend--just like the Sportage Skilton drove in the Paris-Dakar. Suspension is ably handled with adjustable A-arms attached to what looks like aircraft landing gear: 3-in. coil-over shocks and prototype Edelbrock rebound dampers all good for 22 in. of suspension travel up front, 24 in the rear.
The approximately 3.0-mile loop in the flood channel was a rutted, rock-strewn mish mash of sand, washboard, whoop-dee-doos, and sagebrush. Perfect for a race truck; a veritable minefield for a stock SUV. In fact, we'd even made a recon lap in the Toyota Sequoia I'd driven to the location outside Barstow, California. Doing my best to avoid the line that would have the most destructive effect on the undercarriage of the Toyota, the maximum speed we were able to achieve was about 20 mph. Bumpin' and shuckin' and jivin' along, the Toyota thumped innumerable buried rocks, high-centered several times, and slid all over the sandy ridges. The rugged desert befuddled its stability-control system, making it go berserk, and the cautious round trip took about 15 minutes.
In the Kia, the first couple of melon-size rocks were approaching, and I did my best to avoid them, as I had in the stock vehicle. Yet, the faster I drove, the faster they came, and there was little I could do to dodge all of them, time and again. But this Trophy Truck barely took notice. Then it happened: no place to go but straight at the rock-strewn 2-ft-deep gully that I'd forgotten was there. Had I attempted to get on the brakes, I'd likely slide the truck sideways up an embankment and roll it. Bad. The only choice was to stay on the gas to square off the corner and brace for the impact and resulting flight. While I was still in a convulsion of inevitable fear, the Kia had already traversed the gully that would've cleaned both the front end and undercarriage off a stock 4WD vehicle. Surprise and admiration (and dust) filled my helmet. When the next potentially destructive lunar landscape of rocks and ruts approached, I picked the line that'd get me out with the least amount of steering. Again, it felt as if I were levitating some three feet off the ground in a kind of anti-gravity machine that just slightly acknowledged the rough terrain below. It was only after I learned to subdue my instinct to flinch--to brace myself against the impact that never came--that I really began enjoying myself. I felt like a desert hovercraft pilot. On my second lap, I turned the wick up just a bit more and, as a race-car driver does on a track, began to see the best lines through the desert course. Oversteering and drifting slightly out of corners, anticipating what effect a bump has on the direction of travel, and even catching a bit of air time were all part of the learning process. By then, I was having an out-of-vehicle experience and even reached fifth gear for a short time. I assume I was going about 50 mph where I had driven the Sequoia to within an inch of its life at 20 mph. Then, in that instant, I finally understood.