There’s a feral party atmosphere at Baja Portalegre, the final round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies in the east of Portugal.

A remote hillside is scattered with empty Sagres bottles and chicken bones and there’s a sweet and pungent smell from bonfires of eucalyptus logs.

A mobile bar, pumping out Metallica from a battered hi-fi, is doing a roaring trade among the already frazzled locals, who are flecked head to toe with splodges of orange mud.

I soon find out the reason for their appearance: every time they hear the distant road of an approaching rally car, they press up close against the retaining fence.

As the car in question accelerates uphill out of a water splash, it liberally douses the onlookers in muck. Almost as a reflex motion, they turn their backs as the car roars past, but in truth they are wearing the dirt as a badge of honour; perhaps the least muddy fan buys the next round of Sagres.    

This section of the 50-mile stage resembles a natural stadium and is perfect for spectators, who can watch the cars traverse a river, slither around a heavily banked left-hand bend before tackling the watersplash and powering off over a brow towards the finish line.

Cross Country events can exact brutal demands on the vehicles and crews. Baja Portalegre is essentially a two-day version of the daddy of them all, the Dakar Rally, and follows some tricky gravel paths through the forests and farmland. A short prologue stage is followed by three tests of 50, 93 and 124 miles.

Cross Country competition vehicles place more of an emphasis on rugged capability over long distances than their WRC counterparts. Pick-ups and SUVs rule the roost in the car categories; the likes of the Ford Ranger, Mitsubishi ASX, Toyota Hilux and Nissan Navara are all represented. 

Adding to the variety is Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV. I’ve come here with Mitsubishi to witness the European competition debut of its new rally car.

This a significant moment: Mitsubishi withdrew from Cross Country rallying in 2009 and this factory-blessed project marks a return to a sport that helped to cement its reputation as a maker of quality SUVs.    

Additionally, the car, driven by double Dakar Rally winner Hiroshi Masuoka, uses the plug-in hybrid technology that has helped to make the Outlander PHEV the biggest-selling hybrid car in the UK.