With more and more arborists going green, the Spartan EV might just be the electric 4x4 they need.  

FOR my business it isn’t so much the dawn of a new era as it is the end of an old one.

We managed to use seven Land Rovers at my daughter’s wedding in 2018 and shortly afterwards bought two more, but for me the golden age of the Defender is over now and I’m selling at least half of them.

This decision, based on economics and a vague feeling of wanting to ‘do my bit’ for the world is tough, both emotionally (I like Land Rovers) and financially; it’ll be expensive to transition to what I hope will eventually be a mix of greener diesels and electric trucks.

The problem has been finding an electric 4x4 that hasn’t been designed by a buffoon, with a marketing eye on customers similarly afflicted with buffoonery.

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Having said that, we have just bought a new off-roader that puts me in that category, though not by choice.

Why do four-wheel drive vehicles need so many gizmos? For what reason do farmers and tree surgeons feel the need to cocoon themselves in space-age luxury? What is wrong with manual windows, absent computers that unnecessarily help you drive off-road and so many flashing lights and switches that the battery hasn’t a hope of getting you to work and back?

READ MORE: MW Spartan EV: Forest and Land Scotland using first of its kind 4x4

So, when I spotted a feature for the Spartan EV, that advertised a vehicle that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rambo movie, I was intrigued and immediately ordered a test drive.

The word ‘Spartan’, to me, has always meant austerity or lack of comfort, but is also apparently something to do with a Greek fellow.

I do not find my literal interpretation of the word to be a drawback, however.
Rosh Mendis, from MW Motors, showed up in the Czech battle waggon and I was in love, not with Rosh, though he was pleasant enough, but with the truck. The base vehicle is manufactured by Russian UAZ, then full electrification and MWM is responsible for availability for the UK/EU market.

Less is more, I’ve always thought, when buying a commercial vehicle. Less on the inside and less under the bonnet, gimmick-wise, at least.

This isn’t an article about the complexities of the electric motor, how it fits in the truck and marries to the transmission or whatever. This is about off-roading and the usability of electric vehicles in the world of tree work.

Rosh was cheerful and trusting as I sat behind the wheel and flapped my newly hipped left leg at where the clutch should be, to find there wasn’t one.

I’ve never driven an automatic before and it was a total upset rolling downhill out of the yard and relying only on the brake to slow down. It’s quite disconcerting to start with. I kept thinking we’d stall. The old gear-shift lever is still the same as the original vehicle on the prototype I drove, so you set it in fifth and then just drive.

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I pulled out onto the road, still struggling with the concept of not having a clutch, not having to change gear manually and not knowing what to do with my left leg. The Spartan picked up speed astonishingly fast and I glanced at the computerised speedo, mistook it for the battery-life dial and wondered why we were only doing 40 mph, which we weren’t.

In fact, when I did look at the correct instrument, we were already accelerating well past 60 mph, within what felt like seconds. Not like a Defender at all.

I surprised myself at how quickly I adapted to the clutchlessness. The Spartan is very easy to drive, but maybe the steering is slightly heavier than the vehicles I’m used to. I checked with Rosh and he reckons that is something that’ll be improved, but to be honest wasn’t actually a problem anyway.

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The motor was quiet enough to cause me to sit behind two joggers on a country lane. I suppose that could be thought of as an issue, like top-handled e-chainsaws that the groundsmen might not hear, but the solution is simple, the operator needs to be aware and make allowances.

Rosh demonstrated the battery life improved in braking and decelerating (regeneration), and going downhill. The dial goes blue, so you can see yourself saving the distance allowance, which is 125–150 on road miles on a full charge, presumably unladen, but the vehicle weighs 2 tonnes, so that seems reasonable to me. The payload is 700 kg, which is very good, and the towing capacity 2.5 tonnes; the vehicle had five seats rather than a van layout, but the seats at the back do all fold flat.

The spare wheel, which is full size, sits under the bonnet, to balance the weight of the three drive batteries. There is also a normal 12 v battery under the bonnet, for the auxiliaries which is charged by the main motor.

Inside the cab, which is accessed through basic doors with sliding windows, there is very little. I’ve mentioned some of what is absent, but functional switches for the drive, neutral and reverse and the battery recharge lead security were simple and easily reached.

The four-wheel drive has a manual lever, high and low box options which are best used in fourth gear, for torque. There is a separate diff-lock button.

The seating position was comfy, but if I wanted to complain, which I don’t, your hand is quite near the windscreen when on the wheel and if I was really grizzling then I’d point out that it is very slightly awkward getting into the driver’s seat. But I have four slipped discs, a new hip, painful knees and zero flexibility, and I managed.

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Rosh is a good salesman. He lets you drive while mixing cheerful small talk with the occasional tips and facts about the vehicle and the company. The Spartan really speaks for itself, it handles nicely enough, comparable to a Defender, with two leaf springs at the back and coils at the front.

Maybe I’m just used to the handling of basic four-wheel-drives, but I couldn’t find fault with the Spartan. It just tootles along.

The men at the work site I visited were excited enough to stop their lunch break to gather round and admire the aesthetic Russianness of the truck. To them, and me, it’s quite beautiful in its rugged simplicity, 
which is similar to the old Lada Niva, a very capable and affordable vehicle in its day.

We drove back over the Pewsey Vale hills and the truck easily coped with a long gradient that steepened towards the top.

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And then the fun part.

“Can I get it dirty?” I asked, expecting a firm ‘no’.

Surprisingly, Rosh agreed in the affirmative and was positively encouraging: “That is what the vehicle does best.”

We selected fourth gear, four-wheel drive and set off at speed.

The Spartan was easily equal to the task, helped in part by the all-terrain tyres (BF Goodrich KO2s) that were fitted to the demo vehicle (these are an extra) and we flew along, sliding a bit from side to side more on purpose than because the truck was struggling.

We use the same track daily in the Defenders and they cope with it fine, even fully laden and axle deep, but the Spartan didn’t just manage, it was fun! After a while of churning around and giggling, I selected the low box and slowed to a halt, losing the advantage of momentum deliberately.

No problem, the wheels all spun a bit, but I didn’t need the diff-lock and we were soon underway again.

READ MORE: Balcas, Coillte and John Deere Forestry give Irish schoolkids first taste of sustainable forestry

Happy, I returned to the yard and asked a few pertinent questions, the obvious one being the cost which starts from £35,395+VAT. I was worried about parts and availability of such, bearing in mind the problems in Eastern Europe. Rosh assured me that the spares would be readily available in the EU.

I also enquired about the cost of recharging, which apparently depends on where you do it and how much the tariff is for your property if doing so from home. I think the figure, at worst and at current average rates, meant that the cost per mile would be roughly half that of a diesel off-roader.

Currently there seems to be no road tax to pay for the Spartan EV, but who knows what the future holds for that, or for the escalating cost of energy in general.

My only actual concern, other than the initial investment, is that I know nothing about batteries. If this vehicle is a prototype and I was to be one of the first to own one, I worry that better, faster charging and longer life batteries that are sure to be developed might leave me at a disadvantage, or having to swap the batteries for better ones.

Presumably that would be expensive.

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The batteries in the Spartan take less than 10 hours to charge from 0 to 100 per cent (based on 7 kWh fast charging that is now commonly fitted to domestic dwellings), which is okay overnight, but might be annoying on a trip. I suppose the infrastructure will catch up, making more charging points available and if it were me, I’d take a flask and a book with me, rather than pay for expensive luxuries in service stations. These issues, however, are not unique to the Spartan EV and I don’t know what the answers are.

It seems that a home charging point installation is the best bet, with its own costs, but in the interim a three-pin mobile charging pack is available on the market. This takes longer than the ‘fast charge’ or the slower charge from a designated power point, but sounds flexible and usable.

All of the above details are a bit ambiguous and I haven’t tried too hard to cover them here because the answers are better addressed by experts in electric vehicles.

The scenario I can imagine in the tree world is the one I am likely to investigate and possibly pursue. An arb company might own a diesel truck or two, possibly a similarly powered tractor, but at the same time I can think of many, many uses for the Spartan.

Quoting for jobs, tree surveys, personnel carrying, probably some towing work (when your ageing Defender is having an off day) and off-road work. It is also a good advert for your green credentials and the trend seems to be heading towards electric power at the moment. I haven’t bought an Spartan EV, but am seriously considering doing so, despite the nostalgia and the pitfalls mentioned. One day, probably soon, I’ll make up my mind whether to go down the electric four-wheel drive route and the Spartan is the most realistic option I have discovered to date.