ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia - Nearly a century ago, American adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews led the first expedition into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert by car, a fleet of open-topped Dodges delivering paltry double-digit horsepower and prone to getting stuck in the mud for days on end. Despite the slow slog through the region’s unforgiving landscape, the journey proved fruitful: A nest of fossilized eggs discovered at the base of the area’s now-famed Flaming Cliffs revealed dinosaurs to be reptiles.
Indeed, substituting cars for camels presaged a relationship between trucks and scientific exploration in this remote corner of the world that would endure for the next 100 years.
This summer, Infiniti Motor Co. upped the ante, lending its heavy-duty SUVs to the Explorers Club of Hong Kong and the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology to chart previously inaccessible territory using satellite, drone and thermal mapping technology. Traveling across the Mongolian landscape in a fleet of full-size Infiniti QX80 SUVs, the 35-person expedition covered more than 1,000 miles, compressing Andrews’ multiyear journey through the Gobi into 20 days.
The 400-horsepower V8 engines and all-wheel-drive platforms would have been a boon to Andrews, a tireless explorer who served as a director of the American Museum of Natural History and the alleged inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones. Instead, Infiniti seized the opportunity to broadcast a strong marketing message from within a burgeoning luxury automotive market. In central Mongolia, where the most modern roads resemble tire tracks cut into the steppes, the SUVs tackled tough terrain, including mud, sand, and flooded grasslands, ultimately allowing the team to uncover 250 fossil locations and three potentially new dinosaur species, including a Tarbosaurus tooth and a velociraptor rib cage, both suspected to be 70 million years old.
Infiniti, long the No. 3 Japanese luxury brand after Lexus and Acura, doesn’t have any dealerships in Mongolia - yet. Both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche recently opened showrooms in this country of 3 million people, and BMW plans to open one in 2019. Mongolia’s new car market is tiny - less than 2,000 vehicles sold annually, compared with 17 million in the U.S. - but there’s a developing appetite for luxury SUVs and manufacturers are beginning to spot its potential.