► We drive bulletproof Skoda estate
► Can withstand guns and grenades
► Perfect for lowkey protection duty
Wondering why a pre-facelift version of the current Skoda Superb is airborne and news in 2023? Look more closely. See how the edges of the windows seem to encroach a little more than normal into the glass area? From the outside that’s the only clue this isn’t any old estate car – but rather an example of the Skoda Superb Armoured Edition.
Yes, you read those words correctly.
It’s probably also the most expensive Skoda you’ve ever set eyes on. Exact costs are a trade secret – and vary with spec – but the guiding price we’ve been given for a new one of these is upwards of £150,000. Understandably, Skoda doesn’t have too many of them lying around, so you won’t hear us complaining that the looks aren’t the latest given the chance to actually drive it.
Who on earth buys an armoured Skoda Superb?
Your humble scribe once wrote a review on these hallowed pages suggesting the Volkswagen Jetta was the perfect choice of transport for an assassin, being vaguely but not specifically recognisable yet barely noticeable (said review now presumably lost to the digital void – no bad thing since it sort of ripped off the idea from William Gibson’s use of Phaetons in the Blue Ant trilogy). Along similar lines, if you’re a high-value target, there would seem to be few better ways of flying under the radar than a ballistic and blast-proof Skoda wagon.
In reality, the customer set is much more, shall we say, legitimate. The project was kicked off in around 2016 by a request from a British police force – you’re probably well aware that Skoda supplies a lot of emergency services – and has, well, exploded from there.
As a joint project between Skoda UK and UTAC Special Vehicles, which developed the concept largely using its facilities at the former Millbrook (now UTAC) proving ground, it’s something of a quiet British success story. The first entered service in 2018, and almost 500 have been built at the time of writing in June 2023 – deploying to both our own right-hand-drive market and in left-hand drive elsewhere.
Exactly how armoured is it?
If you’re up on your vehicle protection standards (and we don’t doubt some of you are), the armoured Superb is certified to PAS 300 and tested to PAS 301 Civilian Armoured Vehicle levels.
This means withstanding not only attack from firearms – including over 200 rounds of ammunition from handguns and assault rifles – but blast resistance to grenades and other high explosives. The PAS 301 standard also sets acceleration, maximum speed, handling, braking and payload criteria.
To achieve the first part of this, UTAC Special Vehicles takes a conventional Superb, strips the interior and reinforces the bodysides, roof, floorpan and bulkheads. The bodysides are particularly impressive, as they’re hot formed single-piece panels developed using 3D scanning technology to hug the contours of the base vehicle as closely as possible.
They go in through the windscreen area, in case you’re wondering, and are obvious as soon as you open the (extremely heavy, also armoured) doors, rigidly skirting the apertures and causing the window shrinkage that’s ever so slightly noticeable from the exterior.
Bulletproof glass completes the resistance, including a new panel that together with an additional bulkhead seals the passenger compartment from the unarmoured boot space; there’s an escape hatch in this rear bulkhead for dire emergencies.
How do you make glass bulletproof? UTAC SV won’t go into technical details, but to give you a clue, the new windscreen weighs around 100kg alone – that’s 20% more than this writer.
All told, the armoured Superb is 800-900kg heavier than the standard car. A total of about 2,600kg before you add people.
Surely it must handle with all the grace of tank?
That’s where the second part of the PAS 301 standard comes in – and probably takes up at least as much of UTAC’s time as developing the physical armouring. The goal here is to deliver a car that’s as easy to drive as that egg-like ordinary model.
The aim is always ‘benign and predictable’ handling, with UTAC Special Vehicles managing director Kirsty Andrew and business development director Andy Brooks re-emphasising that the entire point of the armoured Skoda is to keep people safe. Since it will hopefully spend more of its time pottering around in traffic than being actively shot at, the vehicle dynamics are critically important for this.
So, not only does UTAC extensively upgrade the suspension and brakes – the latter being fronted by the largest set of Alcon calipers that will fit behind those off-the-shelf Skoda alloy wheels – it also makes full use of the Millbrook test facilities to balance capability and comfort. A task that’s led by ‘master driver’ Geoff Playle.
Playle was also given the unenviable job of sitting next to us while we got to grips with the thing around the renowned / notorious Millbrook Hill Route and Handling Circuit.
What’s an armoured car like to drive, then?
While those fundamental chassis and stopping elements have to be enhanced to cope with the car’s extra kilos, the rest of the vehicle is kept standard for ease of maintenance and warranty reasons. So where we were expecting changes to the engine, cooling system and power-steering – for example – these are exactly as they left the factory. For despite its extra weight, this Superb remains within the design tolerances for harder civilian activities, such as pulling caravans.
In some respects, it is obvious this isn’t a standard car almost as soon as you start moving. There’s a granite-like heft and solidity to the way it passes over the road surface, delivering the kind of placid ride control you typically experience in heavy – usually luxurious – road cars. However, as Playle breezily demonstrates then directs us to undertake, there’s also a remarkably unflappable and poised setup here that could easily convince the casual driver there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this Skoda.
Millbrook, then, can be tackled at proper speed. But not without due care and attention. For although it remains consistent and controllable, there is a momentous sense of bulk once the car starts rolling with the direction changes.
This moderate but distinct body motion is deliberate, Playle says, as it helps the driver better gauge the building forces. While UTAV SV could easily stiffen the Superb to the point the roll is eliminated, not only would this massacre the ride comfort, disguising the onrushing physics could create a situation where any mistake turns into a massive accident. Something that’s potentially troublesome for the firm’s armoured SUVs in particular, we’re told, and presumably best avoided in any extreme situation.
Don’t get us wrong: for 2.6-tonnes of fast-moving estate, the armoured Superb is almost astonishingly spry – but it works best driven in a guided way. Which is why the company also uses Playle and his colleagues to provide driver training for customers if required.
Talking us around the Millbrook handling circuit, Playle explains the Superb’s cornering attitude can by optimised by keeping it under power through the turns – effectively loading the suspension as early as you can. As such, to avoid the otherwise inevitable weight-driven understeer, a slow-in, fast-out approach is encouraged, in combination with sighting as far ahead as you can to smooth out your inputs. Don’t get fixated on the apex.
Sharper direction changes are aided by trail-braking to get the nose turned in, but once you start to pick up the pace it becomes increasingly apparent just what a good job’s been done on the suspension to keep all that weight in check. This includes giving it some behaviour that’s even better than the standard car – the armoured version will maintain its composure at 80mph+ over undulating surfaces that would see an ordinary Superb bottom-out.
It’s not hard to imagine how this kind of capability could be handy when evading or pursuing. Ditto the tyre retention system that enables safer stopping following deflation.
Can a 2,600kg Skoda really evade or pursue anything?
This 30,000-mile-old example is a top-spec 276bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol 4×4, and certainly doesn’t struggle to get along the road when required – helped by sharp reactions from the standard-fit seven-speed DSG transmission. And those Alcon brakes are mighty.
You can get an armoured Superb with the 187bhp TDI engine, but we’re suspecting you probably shouldn’t. All-wheel drive seems a more sensible bet for this kind of machine than the available front-wheel drive, too.
A couple of other nuggets. Modern bulletproof glass is apparently a vast improvement over previous stuff – literally headache inducing – but it still ripples in your peripheral vision, sometimes making parked cars look as if they are moving. Which could be problematic in tense situations if you’re unprepared.
This aside, the interior feels barely different to a regular Superb. The roof’s a little lower, the doorcards encroach further into the cabin, and the windows are restricted. But there’s still plenty of room for people in here and the additional controls for the lights and sirens are integrated with almost OEM quality via a control panel ahead of the gearlever.
You have got a little more maintenance to deal with, however. Most of the standard stuff lasts just fine, but the weight does take a toll on some components. Rear trailing arms, for example, go from lifetime service to annual preventative replacement. Guess that’s a small price to pay to avoid getting blown up.