Driven: Mechem CASSPIR Mk IV

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Just a regular old Friday morning. Some breakfast sandwiches, a cup of coffee and an off-road excursion in a mine-proof vehicle.

It’s amusing, when I think about it: the CASSPIR was the product of a government under an arms embargo, during that time of the country’s history. Now, it’s the basis for the US Army’s MRAP (mine resistant and ambush protected) vehicle program, in addition to being deployed in many conflict zones across the world. Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Angola; the list goes on and on.

Of course, the mine-protected vehicle with its hallmark V-shaped hull gained notoriety for its role as a big, yellow meanie when the South African Police used it all those years ago, and more recently it played a role in the hugely popular District 9 – both roles seeing the Mk II vehicle being used.

Fortunately, things are changing. Mechem, the company in charge of the development for the new CASSPIR Mk IV, told me that it wants the vehicles to be used for good. Sure, they’re deployed in war zones, but the major role is for the vehicle to be used in humanitarian missions: transporting people safely or clearing dangerous minefields.

While myself and the other journalists at this briefing weren’t going to be treated to a display of how mineproof the CASSPIR is – Gerotek management would probably frown at the idea – they did show us a video of a Mk II at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan, where a CASSPIR drives across a minefield like it’s bubblewrap. Pop. Pop. Boom. Of course, it emerges relatively unscathed and the crew go on to have a lovely cup of tea under the Afghan sun. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsbwSAfcJ1g)

To give us a sense of how far things have come, we were first driven around in a fully restored Mk II. It’s a loud, uncomfortable beast. The noisy engine seemed to struggle with certain obstacles, and the manual gearbox proved a challenge even for its seasoned driver. It made it through the obstacle course, though we couldn’t really tell how good or bad it would be in an active deployment role.

Despite the relatively short excursion, it was enough to show up the stark contrast between the old vehicle and the new Mk IV. So new, in fact, that it’s the only production model Mechem has for public displays. The representatives even joked about the paint still being wet – no serious bush-crawling was to be had.

Compared to its ageing sibling, the Mk IV is more comfortable and refined. Amazingly these sound like things we’d use to describe a passenger vehicle, and obviously they make a big difference: if you’re tootling around in an APC all day, you want to emerge not only unscathed, but also not exhausted from having to deal with the noise and discomfort. To that end, the new model has air-conditioning as standard, and its eight jump seats are a lot less cramped than the twelve in the Mk II.

A more powerful engine is used in the Mk IV, and its mated to a fully-automatic gearbox. The latter doesn’t even have a gear lever: it’s operated using touch buttons on the dashboard.

Uphills, corners, straights. It handled everything with supreme ease. No clunkiness from a tricky clutch, no hesitation on steep uphills. It just goes.

We were given a chance to try it out for ourselves, too. I commandeered the Mk II first, to see if the manual gearbox really was as tricky as it looked from the passenger seat. It was.

The clutch is stiff enough to give your left leg a whole week’s gym workout in just five gear changes. The gear lever has such a long throw, going form second to third is easily half a metre. It’s also slow. Foot flat, over about 700 metres, it managed a modest 75km/h.

The new kid on the block, with its fancy automatic-everything, was a lot easier to operate. Okay, steering input still required enormous input, and remained impossibly vague when travelling in a straight line, but acceleration and braking were vastly superior. Perhaps to prevent us from going over the top down the test straight, the speedometer was disconnected, but my trusty bum-dyno definitely registered a bigger shove under acceleration. The auto ‘box is also very smooth and swift. Being a truck driver has never been easier.

I doubt the ease-of-operation in the Mk IV means less training or skill is required to operate it. Complex mechanical systems probably mean more can go wrong, but it’s one less thing to worry about when driving around in the danger zone. If anything, I know I’d want my day in the minefields to go by with a little less stress.



Pic: The Casspir MkIV on the Gerotek test track.