Hjalti Vigfus Hjaltason may not be a household name but any Top Gear fan will be familiar with his work. He was the project manager responsible for modifying the two Toyota Hiluxes used in the episode where Jeremy Clarkson and James May drove to the Arctic Circle while racing the hapless Richard Hammond's dog sled. "I was never a huge Top Gear fan, I mean, I liked the show but it wasn't as if I'd never miss an episode," Hjaltason says. "But I didn't realise how famous Jeremy Clarkson was until we were out for dinner and someone asked to get a photo with him - and asked James May to take the picture!"
The Hilux that ended up beating Hammond's dog sled to the pole had a load capacity of more than two tonnes and was fitted with 44-inch high flotation tyres and an upgraded suspension. It's not just celebrities who have benefited from this man's expertise with off-road machines. Hjaltason and his colleagues at Arctic Trucks not only helped out the Top Gear team on their North Pole adventure, but the company transformed another Hilux so it could safely transport vulcanologists near Eyjafjallajokull, the erupting Icelandic volcano that caused airline chaos earlier this year.
Arctic Trucks is an Iceland-based vehicle modification company that was founded in 1990 when Toyota started modifying SUVs for the remote nation's tough conditions and they work exclusively with Toyotas. Now the company is set to have a presence in the UAE with the launch of the Toyota Land Cruiser Extreme, a vehicle modified by Arctic Trucks exclusively for Al Futtaim Motors, the UAE's Toyota distributor.
"Some of the modifications are cosmetic," says Hjaltason pointing out flared fenders and thick tubular chrome trimming the running boards, but other modifications are all about performance off road. The fat 35-inch tyres have been added to provide great ground clearance and make light work of sand and mud while the suspension has been raised 40mm higher than the standard Land Cruiser. Approach and departure angles have been increased by 8° to help with steep upward and downward slopes. There are also heavy duty bump stops to absorb the inevitable rigours of dune bashing.
Hjaltason has been setting up the UAE office of Arctic Trucks over the last 12 months and he has already understood what most SUV buyers are looking for here. "It still has to be a comfortable car for the daily drive, but with off-road abilities for the weekend," he says. The "anti-SUV sentiment" in Europe has affected sales of large four-wheel-drive vehicles but with the UAE's cheap fuel and off-road culture, Hjaltason describes UAE consumers as having "a totally different way of thinking [whereas in Europe] it is difficult to convince people that [an SUV] is the best solution."
Arctic Trucks has started their expansion in the Middle East by modifying Land Cruiser for UAE customers and will continue to work exclusively on Toyota and Lexus SUVs. "We have modified close to 30 Land Cruisers for the UAE and we hope to do more - it is a totally new playground for us and we are learning every day, how to cope, what to expect." "All steps we take [in setting up a business in the UAE] are very costly and when we get the hang of it with this one, we will look to the future in maybe Saudi or other GCC countries, but for now, we are in kindergarten," laughs Hjaltason.
With that, we set off towards Al Ain to find some suitable sand to test out the Land Cruiser Extreme and Hjaltason told me that like desert driving, ice driving involves letting the tyres down but unlike the tyre pressure of 15 psi or so that is generally used for dunes, ice driving involves deflating the tyres to just two psi. "So the car is basically floating as well as gripping," he explains. As we drove along the road between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, the Land Cruiser certainly felt comfortably luxurious and the slight increase in suspension height really does add to the giant road-beast feel of the car. All the Land Cruiser mod cons, from the large leather seats and the simple-to-use sat nav, that are demanded even by many hardcore desert drivers were still there.
Like any large SUV, you get the feeling of being thrown around somewhat in high winds at high speeds, but that should serve as a timely reminder to any driver that such cars are not designed to be driven like a Lamborghini on a track day. We turned off at one of the farm access signs and found some dunes, little bowls and plenty of fluffy sand nestled between the main motorway and a secondary road. The first step before testing her out on the sand was to lower the gigantic tyres. A nifty extra with the Extreme is that it comes with its own shiny silver air compressor. This gives you more options as to where you decide to depart the tarmac and hit the dunes because you don't have to worry about being really close to a petrol station to reinflate the tyres.
With the tyres down, it was time to test out the Extreme off road. It can cope admirably in -40° temperatures but how about getting thumped on sand in +40° conditions. It had exceeded 45° out there but the first thing I noticed as you careen over the sand is how effortless it all was. Setting the Extreme to low range and locking the diffs is a simple matter of pushing buttons although after a few tentative moments where it beeped and flashed at us rather than changing settings, Hjaltason expressed a preference for old school SUVs.
"In an old car, you'd just shift a lever and that was it, you'd be in low range but now it's automatic everything," he grinned. But he believes that the easier SUVs make dune bashing the more democratic it becomes and soon we are picking up speed, taking it easy at first but then trying our luck in sandy bowls and popping the front bumper of the vehicle over dunes where you're not entirely sure what is on the other side.
The leap of faith over a dune is always a nervous moment and there was one dune that I took on with perhaps a little too much gusto and I bumped the nose as I dropped over the other side. There was a bang but as we got out of the car to inspect the damage, it turned out that it was one of those thumps that sounds worse than it actually was. Thankfully, there was no harm done and it proved that luxury and sturdiness don't have to be mutually exclusive.
A long run-up is essential to get the Extreme up steeper slopes. With a weight of around 2.5 tonnes, it felt noticeably heavier than my comparatively puny three-door Mitsubishi Pajero, a featherweight at 1.7 tonnes. But once I added a bit more distance than I'd use in my own car, gave the throttle a serious thrashing to get the revs up and possibly yelled "Yalla, habibi!", the Extreme easily climbed a slope that confounded it at first.
Equally at home in sand as it is in snow, Arctic Trucks has created a capable and genuine all-weather off-roader. It is surely only a matter of time before UAE-based owners of FJ Cruisers (already a prime target for the mod-mad motorist) and Lexus SUVs give Hjalaston a call about a few upgrades. The Extreme modifications can be made to the Land Cruiser GXR and VXR models on the current range. Prices start from Dh262,000, which includes the price of the car and the upgrades, but even this probably won't deter a lot of customers. As Hjaltason himself said of the UAE market: "It's a different world here."