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Skoda really does make a Superb armoured car: 3-tonne, bulletproof monster driven

Serious police work requires serious machinery. We get behind the wheel of an armoured Skoda Superb

If you’ve spent any time playing Rockstar’s nefarious heist video-game Grand Theft Auto (GTA), you’ll understand the appeal of a heavily armoured unmarked road car. But unless you’re in the police or security forces, in real life you’re unlikely to want to see the inside of a vehicle like the one we’re sampling today. That’s because there’s a fair chance you’ll be handcuffed and heading to an appointment at the Old Bailey, in which case you can only hope that Auto Express is on the prison reading list.

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Luckily, we can forgo the requirement to commit heinous crimes or snitch on a fellow supervillain in order to sample this very specialised Skoda, or to submit to the sort of training that would give us access to an armoured car via police or security service channels. That’s because, having been quietly selling armoured Superbs to the police forces for the best part of five years, Skoda is introducing an all-new model this year that will render the current version obsolete. That means it’s free to talk a bit about the outgoing vehicle without endangering too many secrets, and even to allow this Auto Express hack a chance to get behind the wheel of a 30,000-mile ‘demonstrator’ to help celebrate the model’s service career.

Skoda vehicles are popular choices with police forces in the UK, which speaks to their many valuable qualities, including spacious interiors, good reliability and even an unpretentious image. All the above play into the Superb Estate’s success as an armoured vehicle, says UTAC Special Vehicles business development manager Andy Brooks. “It’s discreet and can operate in places where it won’t attract attention,” he tells us. “And because Skodas are good value for money, the public can’t look at them and say the police are spending too much money.”

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Taxpayers are UTAC’s only customers for the armoured Superb, it turns out. “We only sell to military and security service users – we don’t want it to get into the wrong hands, with the implication criminals could reverse-engineer weaknesses,” says Brooks. “It would be hard for a private individual to pass our due diligence checks, and we also have to avoid cars getting into the second-hand market, where an individual could get hold of them.”

That said, because of their operational role, the cars have a very prescriptive maintenance regime. UTAC Special Vehicles is the company that armours the Superb for Skoda. It used to be Millbrook Special Vehicles prior to UTAC’s acquisition of the Bedfordshire proving ground and all its facilities in early 2021. In fact the company’s roots go back to the days of the Hawtal Whiting design and engineering consultancy, which was commissioned to produce LPG conversions and police cars at Millbrook for Vauxhall, based nearby at Luton.

In terms of its spec, the Superb is built to armoured vehicle standard BSI PAS 300, which describes test methods for assessing the ballistic and blast performance of civilian armoured vehicles. The standard defines test levels for ballistic impact (including handgun, shotgun and rifle) and blast resistance for side blast, under-vehicle blast and roof blast. As part of the ballistic test it also includes fragment-simulating projectile tests. Prices start in the ballpark of £150,000, but police forces and security tend to top up the spec. “Police forces want blue light and ANPR systems. Wherever we put things we have to make sure the car is still safe to operate,” says Brooks.

Although he’s only been involved since 2015, Brooks has nearly two decades of experience in the specialist vehicle sector and was instrumental in developing the close working relationship with Skoda and the users of the armoured Superb. He introduces a brief video which explains how the car is armoured, a fascinating process involving the use of 900kg of hot-stamped armoured steel plates fashioned in Germany to fit inside the bodyshell’s existing contours. There are a pair of single-piece armoured body sides that extend a little way into the boot, a roof panel and multiple floor pieces. The objective is to use armoured pieces as large as possible, in order to minimise potential weak points at welds, and the panels are inserted via the windscreen aperture during the assembly process. Only the passenger cell is armoured in this basic conversion, because the priority is occupant protection.

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As well as the near-tonne of armour plating involved and some composite protection inserted in critical areas, there’s also the matter of bulletproofing the glasshouse. This time it’s a British manufacturer coming up with the goods, which means a 40mm-thick glass and polycarbonate composite in the windscreen, side-windows and on top of an armoured steel bulkhead built into the rear seat backs. You should be safe if anyone unleashes a 7.62mm automatic weapon in your direction at close range.

From outside the car, you can discern that there’s something funny going on, although the modifications might easily be missed if you’re not paying attention as an armoured Superb glides past. The giveaway is the black steel armour visible around the edges of the front screen and side windows, which creates an armoured overlap at all the glass and door entry apertures.

“You have to extend into the arch of the door frame as you need an overlap between the sides of the vehicle and door. In layman’s terms it’s a bullet catcher,” says Brooks, who explains that part of the testing process involves shooting carefully aimed bullets into the gaps between doors and body in an effort to breach the car’s defences. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to try that today, and anyway the process does not involve a GTA game-style full frontal assault. In fact it’s a carefully calibrated and measured assessment in laboratory conditions, with a series of single shots fired at considered angles, and doubtless involving lots of paperwork.

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Inside, the armoured cell comprising protection for roof, doors, floors and bulkheads reduces headroom slightly, but the appearance remains broadly ‘factory’. The bomb and bulletproof bulkheads include one at the rear, which is built into the exceptionally heavy seat backs. They fold from the inside (with a bit of effort), offering occupants an alternative escape route should the normal door function be compromised by either an attack or a traffic accident.

The glass all round the passenger cell provides a relatively distortion-free view out for the driver and passengers, although as you’re driving there are occasional visual disturbances where objects or perspective can appear a little distorted. It’s much better in that regard than earlier bulletproof glass, Geoff tells us, although the overlay of steel armour around the window edges means there’s less opening to look through. It’s not quite a letterbox effect, but is noticeably narrower than a standard car, and the windows don’t wind down. “It’s not an impossible ask,” says Brooks, “just that police forces don’t tend to ask.”

As a specialist in armoured car builds, plus various powertrain and vehicle-conversion services, UTAC Special Vehicles is one of the UK’s largest suppliers of civilian armoured vehicles, offering ballistic and blast protection.

To maintain vehicle performance and safety, it also carries out vehicle chassis development and testing at Millbrook, taking into account the impact the armour systems have on a vehicle’s weight and centre of gravity.

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Geoff Playle is UTAC SV’s Master Driver, in charge of all aspects of ride and handling development for platforms the company develops, including training users in how to drive these enhanced vehicles. Geoff has been an integral part of the UTAC SV team for nearly two decades, through the company’s various iterations, and we get an opportunity to appreciate his handiwork on a brief but enlightening test drive of this highly specialised Skoda.

The exotic steel armour takes the Superb’s kerbweight up to 2,600kg, but that’s not the whole story, because police demands require plenty of additional kit, and the Superb is specified with a maximum gross vehicle weight of 3,030kg.

Mechanically, the changes are relatively slight. The suspension is uprated with heavy-duty shock absorbers, and springs made by Nitron, a performance firm headquartered in nearby Oxfordshire. The aim is to maintain ride height and cope with the extra mass, while thicker anti-roll bars are fitted front and rear to help maintain composure around corners.

It would be reasonable to expect the car to handle like an elephant on a skateboard, but in fact the UTAC chassis revisions give it a surprising degree of agility. Crucially, it’s been set up to be easy to drive, and the excess weight is very effectively masked – the last thing you need when driving in the sort of scenario where the Superb’s special qualities come to the fore, is a battle to keep the vehicle pointed in the direction its occupants may need to get to urgently. There is moderate body roll, which could have been dialled out with stiffer springs, but which Playle suggests is essential to alert drivers that adhesion limits are approaching. While the Superb’s natural attitude is understeer, advanced drivers can use techniques such as trail braking into corners to tighten up the turn-in.

The extra weight makes itself felt when it comes to acceleration, but the Superb’s choice of direct-injection 240 to 280PS powertrains with two or four-wheel drive means there’s enough power under the bonnet to make decent progress, so UTAC doesn’t make modifications to either the engines or the car’s seven-speed DSG gearbox. Slowing a three-ton car does require a bit more effort from the brakes, so there are larger discs and calipers at the front, but no upgrade is deemed necessary at the rear.

It’s an obviously well integrated package, a fact Playle puts down to the fact that UTAC Special Vehicles is an established automotive consultancy, developing cars the way an original manufacturer would, rather than simply offering conversions. With five years of sales, and 500 examples on the road, the Superb is a genuine success story, albeit one that’s had to fly mostly under the radar.

Click here for our list of the best and worst police cars in the world...

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Current affairs and features editor

Chris covers all aspects of motoring life for Auto Express. Over a long career he has contributed news and car reviews to brands such as Autocar, WhatCar?, PistonHeads, Goodwood and The Motor Trader.

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