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Test drive: Wildcat 300STR

Nick Hall puts the bonkers QT Services Wildcat 300STR to the test, and can't stop smiling

  • Although it's been designed to treat the roughest terrain with contempt it's also got the poise of a sImage Credit: Supplied picture
  • You can have your 300STR in a variety of colours, with Wildcat graphics. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • They've even got switches to operate the lights. How thoughtful. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The 4.0 litre V8 is a robust engine that produces 270bhp. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The 300STR is an SUV to beat all SUVs. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The body is manufactured from composite fibre glass, making it highly durable. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • That's a 300mm long travel remote reservoir damper with a specially wound coil spring. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The carbon-style dash top adds style to the bare bones interior.Image Credit: Supplied picture

We launch skywards and I can clearly feel the moment when all four wheels leave the ground in my own personal Dukes of Hazzard moment. Of course by now we all know the truth about that quaint TV moment, the wheels splayed and fell off the moment Bo and Luke hit the ground — the General Lee wasn't all that tough. The QT Wildcat 300STR really is…

We land with the kind of almighty crash that signifies the end of life, but there are no harps and cherubs to lead us on our way. Instead, there's the almighty roarof a V8 engine, the crunching of graveland our own crazed laughter as we headto the next impossible incline. This time we're going down. This is the first timeI've been genuinely scared in a car for a long, long while, and we haven't strayed above 100kph, but then we are bouncing around a quarry and speed just took on a whole new context.

We're slithering. I'm sawing at the wheel to keep in a straight line in the deep, wet, slimy mud ruts that pass for a path. Then we're hitting a bump that should flip us over, launching through a hedge, falling through ice into a waist deep puddle, flying through the air and doing everything that you just shouldn't do in your common-or-garden car. But then, the Wildcat is a totally different proposition. It's a four-wheeled scrambler bike, a tank, a rocket ship, all rolled into one. It's also road legal, and a car that originally bore a far more established name.

It's the car Drew Bowler campaigned on the Dakar Rally before he sold the designs to rival off-road competitor Dave Marsh's QT Services and focused on his new toy. And while Bowler has gone upmarket, Marsh has kept the competition ethos of the Wildcat alive. If this thing was any more rugged, it would run on smaller cars and chewed-up trees.

Everything about it almost dares you to try and smash it up. The lights are protected by screw-on Perspex, the bodywork is GRP that is easily and cheaply replaced after a brush with the undergrowth. There are even two spare wheels and a shovel in the back, and at the push of a button in the cockpit the whole car raises up on an extravagant hydraulic jack that could free it if the monumental breach angle was overcome and the car flapped helplessly on a ridge. That's how functional this car is and even climbing in takes no shortage of agility and an inelegant fall through the roll-cage.

Its shape is loosely based on the Land Rover Defender, but the similarity ends there, as the Wildcat is built around a space frame, motorsport-sourced chassis built to satisfy the FIA's stringent safety standards. The Wildcat was designed to withstand haphazard landings after launching off dunes, so the rugged look is all real here, it can even take a head-on landing on the floor and keep going strong. Marsh has added his own touches to the chassis that looks like it was hewn from girders, and is convinced his new car is even stronger than the warrior Bowler sent into battle.

That super strong spine is clothed in composite bodywork that weighs next to nothing and the utilitarian, two seat interior is wipe-clean and no nonsense.

If the customer is prepared to pay, then they'll go for broke with a luxury interior. But the Wildcat is about pure, ballistic performance and the sound-deadening headlining and bespoke Motordrive seats join forces with ipod connectivity and a decent stereo: those are the creature comforts as they stand, although Marsh has figured out how to install air conditioning for the Middle Eastern market and he's looking for partners Stateside, too.

More than 80 cars have found a home and QT has sent them as far afield as the Congo, Uganda and St Petersburg in Russia. And they're still competing, securing a 10th place in last year's Dakar Rally and beating manufacturer-backed opposition with a lot more money to spend.

The company uses this quarry near its base in the South of England to demonstrate the car's skills off-road and the current record for selling a car is 20 metres of travel.

The 270bhp four-litre Rover V8 powers the car to 100kph in 5.8 seconds and will keep going all the way to 193kph, which is really enough in most places in this world, but it's the fact it will do it on any surface that really brings a smile to the face. Don't be fooled by its agricultural appearance, there's some serious tech under the skin, including Donerre suspension that cost $3,000 (about Dh11,000) a corner, comes with separate reservoirs for bump and rebound and can drop the wheel to give the full 300mm of travel for landing if it feels the car leaving the ground. Which it does, a lot.

You can even spec a race-bred Sadev sequential box that transforms the acceleration, for another $30,000 (about Dh110,100) anyway…

QT's managing director Dave Marsh produces a far more able display of off-road heroics than I can manage, skipping the car up impossible ascents, launching into the air and clattering my teeth on landing, without letting up for a moment. It's a roller coaster ride through the mud, and this is just part of the Wildcat's arsenal. Because QT offers more extreme cars than this for pure competition, without the road legal niceties and with space for tools and spare wheels. But this is the road car, it's fully compliant and can simply turn out the quarry and go to the local shops. So we do, and we find that on the tarmac the Wildcat transforms into something else entirely. It's actually way more fun than we could ever envisage.

Relatively skinny off-road tyres mean it can break traction on all four wheels off a red light and driven with aggression it will take opposite lock to keep it on the road. That's set to get even more extreme with the torque heavy TDV8 March has just fitted to the frame and the more powerful 500 STR.

It's a weird sensation driving the Wildcat on the road, as the car pitches and rolls into corners and then simply finds its feet before catapulting out of the bend. And with too much right foot I'm grabbing armfuls of lock to keep this finely balanced 1,646kg, elevated race car pointing the right way. On the straight and narrow, it just acquires speed and is remarkably stable at the top end for a car that sits so high, and though it's loud inside, it's a small price to pay for the ridiculous smile that spreads across my face once again. And I'm not the only one. Everybody loves this car, there's none of the envy that goes with a Ferrari or Porsche and its agricultural looks work for it in town, when the locals turn out en masse for another look.

Bowler, and now QT, have found an entirely new niche of supercar that, in the modern world of speed limits and congestion, could well be the answer we've been looking for. Because this car is fun on the road and if you ever tire of the straight and narrow, then just turn into the nearest quarry and 100kph suddenly feels like 300 as you head towards the walls. Finally here's a car that Bo and Luke could sky over the nearest river, too, without needing a new car on landing.

Specs & ratings

  • Model QT Wildcat 300STR
  • Engine 4.0-litre V8
  • Transmission Five-speed synchromesh
  • Max power 270bhp @ NA
  • Max torque NA
  • Top speed 193kph 0-100kph 5.8sec
  • Price NA
  • Plus Go anywhere ability, looks and sound
  • Minus Interior needs work