‘You get respect with this,” says Gennadi Lazuein, an aviation millionaire, as I drive his Kombat armoured tank-ette along the roads of St Petersburg. As frightened faces stare at me and our looming vehicle from their greying, battered Ladas, I see what he means.
The Kombat T-98 closely resembles a large security van with lots of extra shiny knobs and lights. The car was designed to protect objects of vast wealth—namely Russian businessmen—from kidnapping, assassination or estranged wives. The brainchild of Dmitri Parfenov (owner of the St Petersburg design factory Autokad), this Kombat is one of only nine in existence. Prices start at just less than R1-million, rising to R2-million for the most heavily armoured version, which can shrug off an anti-tank round. Autokad is now planning to make 100 of these luxury vehicles in Britain to compete with the American Hummer.
Lazuein, who’s about 1,80m tall and 90cm wide, has kindly agreed to let me test-drive his T-98, which can withstand incoming from a light Russian-made Makarov pistol (but not a Kalashnikov). The windows are about 5cm thick. They don’t even wind down fully. It’s like looking at fellow drivers through a riot shield. I had decided earlier that Lazuein is better off not knowing that I am an appalling driver, who wrote off a hire car and another car in the United States six years ago, and whose wife is reduced to trembling hysteria whenever he takes the wheel.
The sheer size of the Kombat is initially unnerving, but the St Petersburg highway clears before it, allowing the driver to enjoy the vast roar of the engine and surprising lightness of handling. On the asphalt, its brakes can take it from 80kph to a standstill in about 10m, easing some of my fears at being in charge of the SUV equivalent of a Challenger tank. The leather seats, Bose stereo, endless 4x4 controls around the wheel and clear lines of sight eased my heart rate, too — and, after about 15 minutes of driving on the highway, I had enough confidence to go as close to “off road” as is sensible.
We head down a side road that leads into some woodland. As if part of a previously arranged obstacle course, three identical, large Russian Kamaz trucks appear and head towards us. We show no fear, and keep on the road towards them — and all three pull to one side, terrified.
The Kombat is, according to Parfenov, a high-performance, high-protection, homemade version for Russia’s ridiculously wealthy. The heavy armour, which can bring the car’s weight up to 4 250kg, may seem like a neurotic’s indulgence. But traffic accidents are one of the more harmless risks on Moscow’s roads.
Assassinations are commonplace, and armour can make a difference. Boris Goldman, an advertising executive, was killed last April when a biker placed a bomb on the roof of his armoured Volvo C80. The bomb—set by the assassin’s employee to detonate immediately, thereby killing the biker too—tore through the only weak spot in the armour, killing Goldman and his passengers.
Beneath the bonnet—you need both arms to lift it—is an American Vortec eight-litre engine, enabling it to go from 50kph to 130kph in about five seconds. The armour is mostly Swedish, the glass Finnish.
I can only compare it to a Cherokee Jeep I drove six years ago (it survived), whose centre of gravity was so high it bounced about like an elaborate Space Hopper. The Kombat is a much more serious toy, a Space Hopper weighed down with Kevlar—making you the biggest, baddest kid in the playground. — Â