It’s one of those calls, the type you get only when you are in a desperately busy. “Good morning sir, and how are you doing today?”goes the infuriatingly high-pitched female voice in a slow, deliberate sing-song tone. “Sir, we are calling on behalf of Tata Motors and would like to offer the Tata MPV for a test drive.” “We’ve-already-tested-it, thanks,” I reply as quickly as possible, only half-listening.
“But sir, it is an eight-seater with four-wheel drive.” “Yes, yes, I know,” I reply, getting impatient. “And it is very heavy and very big and . . .” “Ok, please send it to our office,” I interrupt, desperately trying to end the conversation. “No, no, no, no sir. We can’t, it’s very, very heavy. It weighs 14 tonnes.”
Fourteen tonnes. F-o-u-r-t-e-e-n tonnes! Sure, the Tata Aria is overweight and heavy, but 14 tonnes is a bit too much, even for Tata. Of course, what the lady was referring to is Tata’s confusingly named MPV or Mine Protected Vehicle, an armoured personnel carrier manufactured by Tata Defence Solutions. It’s big, it’s brutal and even on paper looks tough enough to drive through a wall. We just had to ask: could we road test the beast?
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Tata’s Mine Protected Vehicle is a type of armoured personnel carrier that will take over some of the HUMVEE’s duties, all over the world. Designed to protect its occupants from threats like ambushes and sudden violent attacks using powerful explosive mines, it can do something the now-famous Hummer can’t. It can help its occupants survive the first assault. This is the reason vehicles like this are replacing the Hummer in the US. And there’s a huge demand for them in India too. Terrorism, Naxalite attacks and border roads exposed to incessant gunfire mean India itself is a huge potential customer. And then there’s the Indian Army, which is also a massive potential customer. And Tata is hoping to cash in on that demand.
So what’s it like in the flesh? Any vehicle that has a seven-foot-tall bonnet is bound to look menacing. And this is the case with the MPV too which, from almost any angle, looks like nothing but death on wheels. We asked Tata if any effort had gone into designing this vehicle, but they just smiled. “Of course not, it is meant to be effective, not look pretty,” they said. And pretty it isn’t. The huge locomotive-like cowl protrudes out like a battering ram, the flat bullet-proof windscreen looks strong enough to take a direct hit from a shell, and the long slender passenger cabin looks purposeful too, with its bullet-proof windows and gun firing ports. The Tata MPV makes a Hummer look decidedly delicate.
Sat on massive Pirelli Pista tyres, and with 845mm of enough clearance from the hull, there’s enough place to drive a Lamborghini under the MPV. But why so much ground clearance, what’s it for? “That’s so that the MPV can cross obstacles like logs that have been put down to barricade the road.”
What actually makes this vehicle special and quite different from anything else is its ‘V’-shaped hull. Designed to ‘shape’ the explosion of a mine away from the passenger cabin, it is made up of steel thick enough to embarrass a bank safe. Painstakingly cold rolled, so as to prevent it being weakened by the heat, the ‘V’ hull is so strong that the MPV amazingly needs no dedicated chassis. Everything — leaf spring suspension, driveline and engine — is just fixed onto it. But it is only when you get up close and personal that you realise how tough and indestructible this block of steel feels. Opening any of the almost one-foot-thick doors requires not just biceps but chest, shoulder and back muscles too. Then, operating the ◊
∆ solid metal door locks needs two hands, and the sides seem so tough, you could spend all afternoon pummelling the body with a sledgehammer and still not cause a significant dent.
About the only bits on the MPV that look delicate are the exposed driveshafts. Unlike on some international competitors, the driveshafts on the Tata MPV are not protected and Tata says they wouldn’t survive a sack-full of TNT going off anyway. However, the MPV has run-flat tyres, each costing Rs 1,10,000, a rail-mounted engine that can be rolled out for quick service or replacement, and even anti-lock brakes that can be switched off over rough ground.
The MPV can be serviced at regular Tata service outlets across the country and, like Ferrari has the Corse Clienti service support for customer F1 cars, Tata has an Annual Maintenance contract called the Sampoorna Seva Package.
Open the heavy rear door slowly (you just can’t yank it open), climb up into the back and you step into a cabin that looks surprisingly similar to the inside of a paratrooper transport. Porthole windows, a rubberised floor and wall-mounted seats greet you. Troopers get no seatbelts but a four-point harness to hold you in place in case of a blast, and mounting the seats on the walls help too, as the floor absorbs the worst from the exploding mine. Every single item also has to be fixed in place. If the MPV takes a hit, any loose items could become a flying missile and prove very dangerous. So there are storage boxes, gun racks where weapons can be strapped in, and plenty of places to secure stuff like bags and rucksacks. There are also a couple of hatches or turrets at the top, in case you need to return fire or escape. It doesn’t have a gazillion ceiling-mounted storage spaces like the Aria though.
Up front, things are more traditional. The driver’s seat is self-leveling, the steering wheel and some of the instrument panels are borrowed from Tata’s World Truck, the Prima, and there are bits and pieces you can recognise from almost all Tata cars, the Nano included. What’s unique at the front of the cab, however, is the slot-like windscreen. Almost a foot thick, the single-piece windscreen allows you an uninterrupted view of the road ahead. But it does feel weird, sitting so far up, peering down at that locomotive-like bonnet with just a sliver of road visible from 10 feet up.
Under the 40-odd kilo hood sits a 6.7-litre Tata Cummins common-rail ◊
∆ diesel that pushes out a stump-pulling 94.32kgm of torque. And stump pulling it will have to be if it wants to get this block on the move.
Firing up the motor is pretty straightforward, the big six-cylinder diesel settles into smooth idle and it’s apparent very soon that refinement levels are pretty amazing. This is strange, but we soon realise it’s due to the solid safe-like box of steel and glass we’re sat inside, insulating us against the noise outside.
Tata’s G750 six-speed gearbox, borrowed from one of its other trucks, helps transmits power and except for a difficult-to-find first gear, this double-H pattern ’box is pretty light and easy to use, better than many Indicas. I let out the clutch, heart in my mouth, give it a bit of gas . . . and stall it. “A bit more power is needed for sure,” insists the engineer sitting beside me, “remember all the armour you are carrying on your back.” More power, and a bit of a lurch later, we are on our way, the short wheelbase getting rocked gently by the massive transfer in weight. First is desperately short, and only takes the MPV from stationary to walking speed. Select second and you can put all the 245bhp to good use. The big diesel gets a bit noisy, you do notice the speedometer creeping up and, yes, finally some forward movement too. We’re soon doing around 40kph, but then panic quickly sets in . . . will this rolling mountain of metal stop?
I gingerly squeeze the brake pedal, to test where the brakes bite, and initially there’s nothing. Instant cold sweat . . . however, after the delay of about a second, the MPV drops its nose and begins to slow down. . . aaahhhh. Then, soon after, I make the dreadful mistake of entering a long corner too fast. It all starts out quite well, as the MPV changes direction easily. But then, halfway through, massive roll slowly sets in. And there’s nothing that seems to be able to stop it, as the mass of the hull continues to roll with the unstoppable momentum of a tumbling planet. I almost get out and kiss the thick anti-roll bar after we survive that one!
However, only a few minutes later, I’m much more confident behind the wheel. You get used to the lag in the steering system, get used to the lag in the brakes, and the rolling mass behind you doesn’t trouble you any more, as you know the vehicle won’t tip over too easily.
What’s it like to drive? Well, imagine sitting on top of a bus, steering wheel in your hands,
looking down at traffic, as you pilot a block of solid metal on a raised and softened suspension. And despite the obvious strength of the MPV, the fear of hitting something is very real: only it’s the other cars, trees, Armco and buses that you are worried for. This thing, be in no doubt, will slice through anything.
How tough does it feel? Well, let’s just say if you were to broadside a double-decker, even at considerable speed, the only thing you’d need on the MPV would be some paint. One thing’s for sure — no one is ever going to tell you go over them if you start to honk impatiently at the lights.
For the record, we even figured the MPV. Our acceleration run captured by our VBOX timing gear — 0-70kph in 28.3sec, with a power-to-weight ratio of 17.5bhp per tonne. Not too bad. Tata has also installed an 80kph speed limiter but unlike BMW M Sport, it won’t remove the limiter