The Indian-made Arjun Main Battle Tank is a machine that grabbed our attention by the scruff and had us wishing we were behind the wheel.
Imposing is an extremely mild word for the Arjun. Almost four metres wide, with a hull that's shoulder high, the Arjun dwarfs even everyday trucks — it's almost 10 metres long. It's a colossal mass of hard, unyielding steel that feels as solid as the side of a mountain — you wouldn't even make a micro-dent in its side with a sledgehammer. The Arjun is so high, you need to unhook a foot-peg to get a leg up to the top of the hull, before you climb down to the driver's seat through what is basically a manhole. The enormity of the task ahead only sinks in once you're seated, staring blankly at a tiny rectangular slit of light, your only field of view. It’s like trying to steer a bungalow around, seated in a manhole. And this isn't even a big battlefield: we're just outside the tank garages, with other tanks, trees and buildings to steer clear of. Thankfully the controls are not the normal tank push/pull fare, with throttles for each of the tracks. The Arjun has a pretty straightforward half steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals. The big diesel comes alive with a shudder that rocks even this monster, and that's when the butterflies start. Someone has just told me that the Arjun costs Rs 14 crore, there are 1400 horses under my right foot and I don't think 58 tonnes will handle very well — without wheels that steer.
I select first on the fiddly-looking gearbox, get my right foot slowly off the brake and gingerly squeeze the accelerator. The entire mass of the tank lurches forward with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, as I struggle to get a perspective on the road ahead, even though I've lifted the seat up and am peering over the hull. With "Easy, this thing is big" on repeat mode in my head, I progressively push the throttle and select second. Lots of engine rpm and boom instantly get converted to lots of forward motion. The tank, now in semi-automatic mode, gallops forward with a growl from the MTU unit.
I will never again write, "Feels agile for its weight" in a road test again: the steering is a revelation. Turning the wheel makes the tank slow one track, while the other carries on at the normal speed. This instantly shifts tank bodily in the direction you steer, as if a giant hand has held the tank and pointed in the right direction. And it even darts the other way, as soon as you give it a quarter twist of the wheel. Also unbelievable for a vehicle this heavy is the braking: there's a pair of massive discs at the rear, but the majority of the braking is handled by a retarder that works with the torque converter to reverse power and torque. The scientists at CVRDE in Chennai were so confident of their mount, they even let us figure it with our V-Box. The zero to 40kph time of nine seconds is pretty impressive for something that weighs as much as approximately 67 Maruti Esteems. . . OK, you do the math.
But it was out on the range that the Arjun really impressed. It powered up hillocks with ease, languidly spanned massive trenches that would have swallowed two Safaris whole, and tackled broken ground with disdain. Even big dips or massive boulders didn't seem to affect the plush ride. A big Daimler-Benz engine as well as the magic carpet ride of an S-class — this was just too much. It even made light work of spinning around its own axis in pivot mode — with the massive rear differential spinning both tracks in opposite directions.