The Torsus Praetorian against Etna
Dealing with anxiety is simple in theory, much harder in practice, although the basics are exactly the same whether it’s an opening night on stage, a first date or the first time you try to catch a ball with your teeth. You just broke this thing down into the basics. Play a song you know. Go out for dinner or a movie. Take a bite of something. Make it look simple, and it loses its power. So today I’m going to drive a bus up a hill. Which makes perfect sense. There is a tiny bit of additional risk in this case, be careful. Because it’s not a normal bus. And it’s definitely not a normal hill. Ah.
The “hill” in question is Mount Etna here on the east coast of Sicily, and it is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Something that is made glaring by looking up from the coast and seeing the mountaintop quietly burning like last night’s campfire. Mountains, as a rule, are supposed to be reliably dull. They must not be inclined to smoke. But then again, they are not supposed neither does it explode, but evidence from my own eyes suggests Etna isn’t listening. Take a look from the road outside the city of Catania and the vertical panorama is corrupted; green marked by a wide band of black that cascades down from the top like a dodgy line of code. Etna is definitely not offline. An active stratovolcano (the conical ones that tend to be more explosive than the more awesome shield volcano), it’s the tallest in Europe, tends to squirt molten rock randomly. As a result, the whole thing actually becomes bigger. Over a six-month period in 2021, Mount Etna covered so much melted ice that it actually rose 30 meters. It smokes more than a 2001 diesel Transit, and the most recent blowout considered “major” was in February. Of this year.
Luckily for me, the term “bus” also covers a lot of intellectual ground, as it is not an ordinary means of public transport. The Torsus Praetorian is a normal coach like a great white shark is a fish. It’s leaner, meaner, more capable. Designed from the ground up to be a multi-person mover with extra capacity, an oversized minivan. It has big tires, even bigger suspension and more differential locks than it has axles. It also seems like he was designed with dark thoughts at 2 a.m., grainy eyes from lack of sleep, and an imagination dispensing semi-lucid nightmare fuel. The luxury coach of the apocalypse. A bit of kit needed because when a vicious cascade of molten rock injures an entire island, leaving behind a thick keloid of black scar tissue, humans adapt. We are building a road and making tourism a reality. Obviously.
There are roads to the top of Etna. Rough, rugged roads that tend to wander in the face of unusually mobile geography. We’ll use some of these routes less used today, to see if the Praetorian is actually capable, or just a bus that looks like an asshole. But first I have to learn to ride it on Sicily’s narrow, winding tarmac mountain roads – if I can’t handle it, I can’t ride it on the barrier-free switchbacks of the mountain. No pressure.
First impressions? It’s big. It will take 34 people plus the driver, all with spacious leather seats, seatback charging points, air conditioning – everything a modern traveler would expect. The driver sits slung, proud of the front axle, the clutch on the left side of the steering column, the brake and throttle on the right. The forward view is generous, the view behind a long aisle framed by seatbacks. Three-point turns are awful. Release the air brake, lunge first, and it pulls out easily. Although slowly, I assess the extremities and try not to scratch roadside trees, churches and huge chunks of black lava.
Usually you would be diplomatic with the drivetrain on a specialized kit, try to encourage gear meshing and negotiate some mechanical sympathy. This doesn’t always work with Praetorian; he loves big positive entries delivered with the brutality of an iron bar. But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly hard to drive, you just have to get used to it. And you have to watch the speed – the raised suspension, big boofy tires and general weight mean the Praetorian isn’t particularly nimble. Get too excited on the way to a mountain hairpin and the momentum will cost the speed sin.
It is not a surprise. Praetorian is about creating something that is largely unique in its fitness for purpose, but deliberately not mechanically unique. Underneath there’s a ladder frame and drivetrain from a MAN 4×4 truck, with selectable all-wheel drive, a selection of differentials and locking mechanisms, and anti-roll bars the thickness of my wrist. Mounted near the front is a 6.9-litre straight-six diesel engine that produces a modest 290hp and a much more impressive 848lb-ft of torque – giving you an idea of what is really the purpose of this engine; it’s a big low-end shunter rather than a peak power generator. And then there’s a 12-speed semi-automatic with a proper transfer case. And in this format, “semi-auto” means four forward gears via a traditional manual with a clutch, but when you get into fourth, you flick a switch and go into first, which is now fifth. Same thing at eight: you flip a switch and start in first position in ninth. We didn’t use the top end of the box, simply because Sicily isn’t big enough and the things we ride on need more serious gearing.
Above the chassis of the truck is a hat of a triangulated spatial structure much like a racing car. Thus, the Praetorian is both robust and safe (and capable of meeting very strict safety standards), if not particularly light – it weighs 13,600 kg in the basic version. The fancy corsetry then provides a convenient base on which to hang a hardened skin of plastic panels. Now, the panels in question are both exceptionally strong and easily replaceable if damaged. Its good. The global MAN network is accessible for service and maintenance, and everything is guaranteed up to the eyes. So even though the Praetorian looks like a very specialized piece of kit, it’s actually a machine that can keep downtime to a minimum. And the basic structure – minus the 34+ driver’s seats of our version – can be used for just about anything, from a giant off-road ambulance to a mobile workshop to a command center or a tourbus. Off-road motorhome? Yeah. And a good one, too.
Apparently I passed some kind of test, because it doesn’t take long before we are faced with a barrier in the national park and a real off-road volcano. Engage four-wheel drive from the dial on the dash, and go. Today, the lower slopes of Mount Etna are green and beautiful, with local flora taking advantage of the fertile volcanic soil to produce everything from citrus fruits to hazelnut crops. But as you rise above the edge of the forest, it suddenly looks like a bomb has hit the place. Which he kind of has. Petrified trees that have been boiled where they stand reach like skeletal fingers through the veil of black sand, a rudimentary looping track through the lower valleys. The lava is cold now, of course. Sharp and crisp underfoot, unwelcoming and alien. And yet life will find a way. There are bushes scratching the existence of the thorny black sand, the occasional flower – even, somewhat incongruously, butterflies.
And then even those little bursts of life just stop, and it feels like you’re on Mars. The landscape script is misspelled, like someone dictated it over a bad phone line and now a section doesn’t make sense. Kill the big diesel and get out and the silence is loud enough to be awesome and oppressive at the same time. You can hear your stomach growl, hear the rattle of your breath. We learn that a fortnight ago NASA was testing and photographing the Mars rover here, and you can see why. Up there, the mountain wick burns endlessly just above the caldera where we stand, down below near an observation post that looks like some kind of interstellar base of star wars.
It’s a humility thing, that. Perhaps even more so when you discover that Torsus, as a company, was born out of the support of a specialist conversion company called Pulsar Expo (which converts equipment for organizations such as the United Nations and major mining companies) . PE is owned by a Ukrainian couple, the Dzhukashvilis, and currently all the other Praetorians are back in Ukraine organizing humanitarian extractions and doing humanitarian work. If you want to move a lot of people when someone bombed your road infrastructure, I couldn’t find anything better. Driven correctly, the Praetorian is extremely capable and unique. But standing on the side of a living volcano, driving a vehicle like this, knowing what we know about where the others are, your own problems seem very, very small.
After a bit of light wondering the scenery, it’s time to descend – low gears and differential locks for the tricky parts, slack off the transmission for the more benign sections. Truth be told, we could probably drive here in a four-wheel-drive car if we’re careful enough, so we’ll find bumps and bumps to see what the Praetorian is capable of. Imperious is a good word, picking and slicing through rough terrain like a camel, a cadence to the suspension that you pick up after a while and move with. It feels comforting and bombproof, reminiscent of the name; the Praetorian Guard was a specialized unit of the Roman Imperial Army that provided the great and the good with protection and intelligence. Knowledgeable bodyguards, basically. Which fits the description of a conquering luxury monster coach.
The Praetorian might be pretty specific – overkill for many situations – but Torsus also offers a smaller, more robust people carrier based on the VW Crafter 4×4, and there’s talk of electric versions for industries like forestry. But if you come to take a look at sights like this, why not bring 34 of your friends with you? Places like Etna are too beautiful not to be shared. Vakhtang Dzhukashvili, when we spoke to him, said that Ukrainians have a saying: “Freedom is our religion. The vehicles produced by Torsus offer their own kind of freedom, allowing access to places like Mount Etna to those who otherwise could not experience it. And that sounds like the kind of religion I can support.