Armour-plated vehicles have become almost a necessity in Mexico, while in South Africa a few luxury manufacturers have also brought in armoured versions of their vehicles.

It seemed almost bizarre when David Beckham ordered a special bulletproof Mercedes-Benz S500 recently, but if he had been planning a driving holiday through Mexico it would actually have made sense.

Due to the high rate of crime in the Central American country, armour-plated vehicles have become the norm. "Demand for armour-plated vehicles in the last five years has almost doubled because of the levels of crime we are living with," says Jose Ramon Abraham, director of a Mexico City armour-plating firm.

According to , at least 1 500 vehicles, mostly owned by businessmen and government officials, were armour-plated last year. This is up from the 1 000 that were protected in 2000, according to the Mexican Association of Armour-Plating Companies.

It costs about R176 000 to R1,3 million to have a vehicle armour-plated, depending on the thickness of the plates. Bulletproof tyres, special brakes and suspension systems are also available.

In Mexico City, an average of 104 vehicles are stolen each day, and about 40 per cent of these are hi-jacked.

Most kidnappings are not reported, so statistics are not as organised, but it is accepted that Mexico is second only to Colombia when it comes to kidnapping in South America.

"All types of arms are out there, which makes armour-plating a general necessity," said Martha Beatriz Manrique, who set up an armour-plating company in the Colombian capital of Bogota.

In December, Volkswagen launched its Passat Protect in Mexico, which costs about R880 000. They expect to sell between 50 and 80 units in 2002.

Audi also imports protected vehicles and is planning to sell about 80 armour-plated cars this year. "Demand for armour-plated vehicles is growing, unfortunately, for our Mexican clients," said Carlos Fernandez, director of Audi's Mexico unit.

Range Rover has also developed a special armoured version in Britain. It tips the scales at a tonne more than the standard model. The 3 700kg car costs R2,6 million.

It has Kevlar-protected panels, 40mm plasma-cut bulletproof glass and a floorpan that can withstand grenade attack. To cope with the extra weight, the chassis has been re-engineered by performance specialist Prodrive.

In South Africa, BMW has the 540i Protection that sells for R744 000. It is not noticeable that the cars have been armour-plated and the weight of the BMW has only been increased by 130 kg compared to the normal 5-Series. The chassis has been adapted to handle the additional weight. It provides all-round protection from handgun shots using carbon fibre panels and polycarbonate glazing.

It has a two-way communication system with hand microphones, allowing you to communicate with someone outside the vehicle without opening the windows. It also has the option of wheels with a tyre reinforcement ring that allows the driver to continue at a reduced speed even if the tyre carcasses have been destroyed. The car can also cross a spike barrier.

Mercedes-Benz has the S-Guard range, based on the S-Class, and prices range from R1,2 million to R2,5 million. The S-Guard’s windows can absorb the impact of projectiles without shattering.

CAR magazine featured armoured vehicles in its March 2000 issue, pointing out that Mercedes-Benz offers four levels of protection, ranging from B4 to B7. B4, the entry-level, offers protection against handguns, up to the famous “Dirty Harry” .44 calibre Magnum. B5 protects against NATO 5,56 mm rounds, and B6 resists normal soft core 7,65 mm rounds from a Kalashnikov or equivalent assault rifle.

The B7 can withstand hard core 7,62 mm rounds, close proximity, underfloor or overhead airburst grenade explosions and Molotov cocktails. The vehicles also feature an armoured sump guard under the engine, and a self-sealing fuel tank that is also isolated from the cabin by armoured steel.

Armoured vehicles are also big sellers in Russia, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and the Ukraine.