Currently reading: MWM Spartan 2.0: driving the £50k electric off-roader
Czech-made commercial vehicle promises a greener option for the agriculture, conservation and forestry sectors

As we enter the EV era, the word ‘vapourware’ is coming up a lot. You will be familiar with the story: a small firm appears out of nowhere, it shows renderings of a car to the media, its founder/CEO does an interview or two and then suddenly it’s a few years later and you realise that you never heard anything more about it.

Well, MW Motors is the polar opposite: it has been busily developing a competent product before seeking publicity, and just a week after first hearing about it, I’m here looking at it. Marketing types might consider this approach anything from foolish to negligent, but to me it’s highly admirable: get it done and only then promote it. 

MWM was founded in 2017 near Pilsen, the Czech Republic’s fourth-largest city, and the more digging you do, the more interesting – and slightly weird – it all seems. ‘MW’ doesn’t actually stand for something with too few syllables and too many diacritics; it’s the initials of an Irish logistics magnate who has had Czech business interests since 1994. It seems Maurice Ward is something of an environmentalist, because his multifaceted group goes big on sustainability and the brave idea of making own-design EVs supposedly came from the man himself.

MWM realised that designing a chassis and body would never be financially viable and so it needed to find a capable and plentiful yet basic and affordable donor car – a Spartan, you could say. As they did.

Enter the UAZ 469 (or Hunter), a light utility 4x4 designed for the Soviet military way back in 1971. MWM ripped out the pitiful fossil furnace and its gearbox, then fitted its own electric powertrain to the four-wheel drive system and coded the software to control everything.

Why did MWM decide to create a 4x4 as its first EV? “We understood there was a big niche market, and if you talk about niche, you talk about thousands of cars, which is too low for the big manufacturers to focus on but for somebody like us is high,” general manager Lukáš Metelka tells me. “There wasn’t an option if you wanted an electric 4x4, yet in 2035 this will become mandatory [in the EU and the UK]. So we said: ‘If we become disruptors, we’re going to get a big advantage.’”

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It’s not only a regulatory thing, though: the public and businesses are now acutely aware of the need to be green, and surely those who dedicate their days to conserving the environment will be first in the queue to go electric.

“There were mixed reviews when our Spartan arrived, but I really like it,” says Bradley Brown, a nature reserve manager for public body Natural England whose habitat management often requires him to take gear like chainsaws and brush cutters to awkward places. He and his colleagues have been using the EV for about 18 months, replacing an old long-wheelbase Land Rover.

“Generally, it’s been really good,” he says. “The ground clearance is really good. We’ve towed livestock trailers and smaller work trailers, and it does that with ease. We’ve recently put all-terrain tyres on it, and that’s made a big difference. And the range is really respectable: about 160 miles. Okay, if you’re in bad weather and you’ve got the heater and the electric seats on, that goes down, but all except one of our sites are within eight miles of our work base, so we charge it probably only once a week.”

It’s like two-stroke versus battery-powered tools, he adds: the latter might not be quite as good, but for 90% of duties they are much easier, more pleasant and less damaging to the environment.

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Brown invites me on a ride of the track here at Surrey 4x4 Tours and Training, with its deep ruts, gooey mud and steep inclines. I can’t help laughing as he breaks the virtual silence with the blower – honestly, it’s louder than some stuff I’ve seen at Farnborough. But the vital thing is the ease with which this ancient yet modern 4x4 returns to the start.

The only issue, as Brown shows me, is the need for ‘power braking’ with both feet: the EV’s regenerative braking is too weak to provide absolute downhill confidence.

Pleasingly, feedback from people like him has been factored into the creation of the all-new Spartan 2.0.

While I wait for my turn behind potential buyers (some like Brown, some enthusiasts, arriving in their Landies and Suzukis and naturally including an Autocar subscriber, the delightful Richard Edwards), I get chatting to Metelka and MWM’s UK sales manager, Rosh Mendis.

“This car is for anybody who works outdoors and needs a daily device or tool,” Metelka tells me. “We’ve gained a lot of knowledge and expertise [from the Mk1], so we now have something that we believe is really sexy, in design terms and inside comfort, but we haven’t taken away any 4x4 capabilities. When you test it, you will be surprised that really we can compete with and challenge any car you might bring.”

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“Bold claim!” I reply instinctively. “And I’m sure we will deliver on it,” fires back Metelka. Well, then…

Climbing aboard, I am indeed pleasantly surprised. The spacious interior is such an improvement on the original Spartan’s. It’s all hard-wearing black plastic, yes, but the two cloth seats are comfy and adjustable, as is the steering wheel. A digital dial display is matched by a modest infotainment touchscreen.

I engage 4WD Low using one of the levers down by my left, then D with another (the other two are for the front and rear differential locks) and we’re very quietly away.

There couldn’t be a more marked contrast to the last time I was here, learning to drive off road in an enormous Toyota Land Cruiser, whose four-cylinder diesel growled while its ABS imitated an AK-47.

The wheel writhes around in my hands as we descend a steep slope, deep in the ruts, but it’s still easy for me to make corrective inputs, the rack being pleasantly light. I don’t need to ‘power brake’, thanks to the presence of decent regen, and nor does the lack of hill descent control on this prototype (it’s standard on customer cars) result in sliding.

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As we splash into the puddles at the bottom, I look up and wonder. Surely it won’t manage that on road rubber? It’s been raining cats and dogs for weeks around here. Trying to avoid wheelspin, I depress the accelerator only about halfway. As it turns out, that is enough. We simply glide up the hill. I can’t believe how easy it is. All I have to do it keep the thing rolling and avoid the trees.

The MWM guys are pleased by this, of course, but not surprised.

“Every time I do customer demos, it’s the same situation,” says Mendis. “‘Oh, I was really nervous at first, but it was so easy.’ With an EV, it just makes things so much easier.”

Metelka concurs: “Many people find 4x4s difficult to understand and to drive, but anybody can get in and drive this car.”

Including our photographer Max, it seems – even if the curiously long time he is at the bottom of the hill coincides with a noise that makes me scan for a low-flying helicopter…

Is this a 4x4 that people could drive to and from work, though, and not just once they were there?

“If you’re looking for a luxury SUV, this isn’t the vehicle for you, answers Mendis. “This isn’t what it’s about. This is a functional, practical, utilitarian vehicle – but it has the modern comfort of a modern-day car.” He highlights that the Spartan is “less extreme” than rival electric 4x4s that have shown up recently – I assume meaning the Fering Pioneer and Munro M-Series

“It provides much more than just a rough 4x4 experience,” agrees Metelka. “It’s really very comfortable not only in terrain like here but also on the road. The quality on road isn’t compromised. It’s comparable to any other car you will see on a highway. That’s quite unique for a 4x4.”

The makers of the modern Defender and the proper G-Wagen would surely bristle at that final statement, but if it’s another cheque (ahem) that the Spartan really can cash, this will be a highly impressive debut from MWM.

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shortbread 2 March 2024
That's no Soviet military 4x4, it's a Force Gurkha from India. It's based on a licensed version of the Daimler Puch G, hence the knock off G-wagen looks and is powered by a Mercedes-Benz OM616 engine. It's proven off roader in India and other Asian markets. This is basically a Force Gurkha with an electric power train.
Kris Culmer 4 March 2024

This is covered in my earlier news article. The car pictured is the Spartan 2.0, which is based on the Gurkha. The Spartan 1.0 is the Soviet 4x4.