Forget those old jokes about Italian military vehicles having six reverse gears: Fiat's Iveco division has created Europe's answer to the Humvee.
13 December 2005

Imagine that you’re in a pine forest, staring at the rear-end of a camouflaged, Hummer-esque machine sitting motionless on a grassy track. Suddenly, you hear the sharp whump of an explosion. The truck rears up on its back axle amid a curtain of grey smoke, hangs in the air for a moment as it twists left before flopping onto the forest floor. This is – or was – an Iveco Light Multirole Vehicle (LMV), and it has just had a six-kilo landmine detonated beneath its front wheels. That’s enough to bring a building down.

The video – for that is what we are watching – cuts to a view of the front. One wheel has gone, blasted 200 metres away. But the doors are shut, the windows are intact, and the rest of the LMV looks unharmed. Which means that the occupants will be rattled, but alive.

Occupants? Mannequins, actually. These are crash-test dummies with a difference, wired to record ballistic forces and determine human survivability. Which is affirmative, sir – although the LMV is a gonner. But that is what is special about this truck. It can easily be armoured to protect its occupants against a landmine, its modular design allowing Kevlar protection to be retro-fitted in hours.

Fiat – sister company to Iveco – has shown a civilian version but the LMV is intended as a command, reconnaissance and liaison vehicle, or to patrol, act as a light weapons platform, an ambulance, a gun tractor or as straight military transport. Flavio Marchesoni, sales and marketing boss of Iveco Defence Vehicles, reckons it would need quite a bit of refining before it could be used as a car. But we are about to find out for ourselves.

When we pass through the gates of Iveco’s Defence Vehicles Division at Bolzano in northern Italy, it’s hard not to feel a frisson at the row of military machines confronting us. But right now we’re heading for a demonstration by test driver Mirco Trolese. It’s a little shorter than a Range Rover, this LMV, but taller, so you need the slender running-board to climb inside. There you’ll find five seats trimmed in no-nonsense military olive cloth, rubber-mounted to a massive roll-cage that not only traces the perimeter of the cabin but divides the front from the rear too. The aim is to isolate the seats from the body so that they are better able to absorb blasts.

Five-point seat-belts strap you down for off-roading or explosions and the headrests are shaped to prevent whiplash. Luxuries are short – the floor, doors and ceiling are painted steel and the seats remarkably unyielding – but you get grab handles, sun visors and air conditioning, essential in a vehicle designed to operate anywhere from freezing point to 49C.

Trolese grasps an unexpectedly sporty-looking wheel, his seat hemmed by a bulky dashboard that presents a speedo, fuel gauge and pressure gauges for the brakes’ hydraulic and air systems, and to his side a bewildering bank of buttons, most of them for the diff locks. The LMV rides well: the fat tyres and long-travel suspension absorb bumps with a panache that’s welcome given the firmness of the seats.

The proving ground serves up ramps, both smooth and boulder-strewn, a road circuit and a rutted, puddle-filled track. Trolese engages the diff locks – he has to manoeuvre back and forth to do so – and aims at the steep 60 per cent gradient. The LMV whines up it easily – so much so, that on the second run he stops it halfway up before charging the summit. Next, the rutted dirt track. Muddy water breaks over the LMV’s bow as it bucks over broken paving and rocks, its speed unabated. We’re being lightly tossed around, but there’s no jolting and the truck feels as tough as it looks.

And it’s terrain like this that it’s particularly good over, explains Marchesoni. The LMV’s ability to run hard and fast over rough surfaces was the priority.

So what makes the LMV so tough? A massive steel chassis for starters, to which the body – known as the citadel – is mounted. The body can be built with different levels of armour protection, but the LMV’s silhouette remains the same. That’s important, because it has been shaped for stealth: the relatively low profile makes it harder to spot and its cross-sections are minimised to limit detection by radar. The mechanicals are packaged at either end so that a landmine won’t blast any components into the cabin, so the 188bhp 3.0 common-rail turbodiesel, the only component shared with any other Iveco models, and the ZF six-speed auto (as per BMW and Jaguar) are mounted longitudinally up front, while the transfer case is rear-mounted to even out the weight. The fuel tank sits here too, to be flung free in the event of a blast.

The brakes discs sit in-board to minimise thermal detection, which is why other hotspots like the turbocharger and exhausts are also shrouded. The transmission has been designed by all-wheel drive specialist Steyr, as has the hefty double wishbone suspension. And just to ensure it’s unstoppable, the tyre pressures can be adjusted from the driver’s seat to deal with sand, gravel, asphalt or, as the button inside says, ‘critic’.

Not that I’ll be encountering anything that challenging when I have a go myself. Instead, I negotiate the Tarmac circuit, which is enough to determine that the LMV is easy to drive, that the low-geared steering has amazingly little freeplay and that despite a fair bit of roll, it will lumber through corners quite briskly.

The LMV has had to undergo plenty of other tests, including one from the British Army to gauge its resistance to sniper fire. Instead of subjecting it to a Hollywood-style hail of bullets, a sniper picks off parts of the bodywork with high velocity rounds until he has worked his way around the whole vehicle. None penetrated.

Indeed, the Army has options on over 400 LMVs, to be modified by BAE Systems’ Alvis division and called Panthers. Iveco has orders for over 1200 from the Italian army, 440 from the Belgians and preliminary interest from Germany. The first LMVs will be supplied shortly – and it probably won’t be long before you see them on the news.

Richard Bremner

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