Cars are great, aren’t they? Fast, big, posh, practical, cheap, lightweight… they’ve all got a draw, a simple wonder at what man can make from base materials and the significance of that engineering feat.
And then you come face to face with a 7.6-tonne Supacat HMT400 – complete with desert camo paint, 16 smoke grenade launchers, gun turret, hydraulic suspension, switchable four-wheel drive and about as much swagger as a vehicle could muster. Crucially, it also has steel armour plating for mine and ballistic protection.
Anyone involved with the military is likely to be familiar with this vehicle, which is more commonly known as the Jackal. It has been around since 2002 and, following heavy demand from the Ministry of Defence, was being produced at a rate of one a day at peak output, with around 1000 of them now in existence.
The Jackal is the creation of Supacat, a subsidiary of Devon-based engineering company SC Group. It was designed because the military needed it. Fatalities were occurring from mines and IEDs striking personnel carriers with insufficient armour and, on top of that, there was a gap between the military Land Rovers, which often struggled with heavy payloads, and the slower, more cumbersome tanks and heavy vehicles. Something was needed that could carry men, provisions and weapons over woeful terrain, reliably and at speed while offering a high level of protection and offensive capability.
So the Jackal was created. It’s capable of carrying up to five, although it’s usually manned by three – commander, driver and gunner – and is able to function at quite remarkable speeds through all sorts of habitats, even with a 2.1-tonne payload on board, and with a range of around 500 miles on a 200-litre tank of diesel.Of course, the Jackal is made to a client’s brief. You can have it with a closed cab, but most want it open, favouring the extra visibility.
Although most military vehicles have commercial vehicle underpinnings, the Jackal has a bespoke steel box-section spaceframe designed specifically for the purposes required of a rapid, all-terrain armoured personnel carrier.
And it is rapid. The mid-mounted 6.7-litre Cummins straight six diesel punches out 516lb ft and will propel this deceptively manoeuvrable vehicle to speeds beyond 80mph. I know: I’ve seen it and experienced it.
Arguably, the Jackal’s biggest stroke of genius is its suspension. Hydraulic struts allow it to squat down to a ground clearance of just 180mm and a total height of less than 1.9 metres, enabling its 2.0m-wide body to be driven into a Chinook. Hit the road, or more likely the Afghan outback and the suspension lifts by a further 300mm for full off-road readiness. Huge air springs, designed for commercial use, are mounted laterally, delivering a frankly unsettling ability to drive over just about anything at just about any speed.
To make all this function properly, there’s a four-wheel drive system, which can run in rear-wheel drive, with high and low-ratio gear sets, locking diffs and epicyclical wheel hubs. The mechanicals at each corner are identical, so if you lose a wheel, you can scavenge parts from another Jackal (or its three-axled sibling, the Coyote) and patch it up in an impressive two hours in the field.
Our test track was centred around a woodland near the historic airfields of Dunkeswell and Smeatharpe. Photographer Will went first, tentatively bumping his Kia Sorento around the track. I watched it heave and scrabble, and the Kia is a pretty capable off-roader.
I followed, trundling slowly past a crumbling WW2 hangar. The lofty driving position in the Jackal is predictably utilitarian. The seat is designed more for protection from mine blasts than for rigorous support, so you cling to the wheel as the vehicle leans heavily going around corners. There are no gears to worry about, courtesy of the five-speed torque converter auto, and the hydraulically assisted steering makes it remarkably easy to wield such a hefty bulk.
What is disconcerting initially is having the front axle beneath you, rather than in front of you, which can encourage an unintended early turn-in. Still, we hit the autumn-shrouded woodland, complete with an unrelieved carpet of leaves, at which point my guide and Supacat veteran Andy Roberts told me: “Floor it”.
I liked Andy. He clearly knew his stuff, and he seemed like the kind of bloke who would call a spade a spade, or indeed suggest a flat-out run only where it would be fine to do so. So I did. Regardless of tree roots, gaping potholes and an oncoming hairpin, we went for it.
There was a pause of old-school lag while the turbo took a deep breath, and before I knew it I was watching the digital rev counter tick up as I winced in readiness for the horrific suspension-jarring shudder that would come from travelling over that whacking hole in the ground. But it never came. I barely felt the body dip.
This was one of those moments when I’d convinced myself that I’d made a horrific error of judgement. I was bracing myself to deal with the consequences of damaging this £500,000 vehicle, only to discover that the engineering was way ahead of me. The Jackal was so within its limits that it was laughable.
Then we hit a hairpin, which involved some heavy braking that had the ABS kicking in, a hell of a lot of work at the steering wheel and an early throttle squeeze to get the jump on the lag, and we were off again, bowling along towards a hill that I would have struggled to walk down.
As a demonstration, we stopped when fully on this slope and, using the second brake pedal, held the Jackal on the throttle and accelerated gently back up the hill in reverse. No slip, no fuss, nothing. And that was in rear-wheel drive, on a bed of wet leaves and mud. I won’t deny that I’m susceptible to enjoying the sense of indomitable, go-anywhere feel you get from a Land Rover Defender. This was like that but 10 times better.
Yet, ultimately, there are reminders everywhere that this vehicle wears its undeniably appealing, brutish bravado for a reason. Everything on it has a function, from the smoke grenade launchers that provide cover around the entire vehicle to the infrared headlights that are invisible to anyone without night-vision goggles.
The wire-cutter mounted to the bar that arches over the forward seats is perhaps the most macabre reminder of the bloody severity of the Jackal’s natural habitat.The seriousness of its purpose doesn’t stop it from being about as much fun as you can have in a vehicle, mind.
A different sort of fun, certainly, but I defy anyone to not have a grin splitting their face while rampaging around in a Jackal. It’s a liberating sort of experience. But this vehicle deserves to be credited not for being awesome, unstoppable, roller-coaster-style entertainment. It deserves real praise because it was designed to do a tough job in the harshest of environments, and to help save lives while doing it. And it has done that. Score another one for the wonder of engineering.
Supacat HMT400 (Jackal 2A)
On sale Now, if you have a big enough order; Price £500,000 upwards, depending on spec; Engine 6 cyls, 6686cc, turbo, diesel; Power 178bhp; Torque 516lb ft; Gearbox 5-spd automatic; Kerb weight 7600kg; Top speed 80mph; 0-62mph 12.0sec (est); Economy 11.3mpg (est)