Sherpa: French for 'go anywhere'

The Renault Sherpa is ready to pick up where the Hummer left off, finds Richard Whitehead.

The Renault Sherpa can easily handle bouncing over dunes at 45°; the question is, can its passengers?
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The Hummer H1 has been good in the hands of the United States military, but this old-school light tactical truck can't hold a flare to France's take on the terrain buster, the Renault Sherpa 2. And unlike the Hummer, the Sherpa is available for the civilian market - in the Gulf at least - though not in large numbers. Renault is cagey about the cost of the vehicle and the number it expects to sell here, but it has a definite idea of its market.

While it would be a romantic notion to imagine a fleet of Sherpas taking to Liwa and the Empty Quarter for hunting trips, most units will be acquired for the far more down-to-earth purposes of the oil and gas industry. The Sherpa's speed, agility and derring-do make it a vital fast-response vehicle for oilfield emergencies and repairs. With just four cylinders within its 4.8L diesel power plant and a maximum output of just 215hp, the Sherpa's strength is in its torque. Almost 815Nm, in fact, with peak output between 1,200 and 1,700rpm giving it seemingly unparalleled ability over dunes. Unusually for a dedicated off-roader, the Sherpa uses six automatic forward gears allied to a separate, full-time, four-wheel-drive transfer box with a torque-dividing differential between front and rear drive axles.

Because this was a vehicle originally built for the military - the Sherpa currently takes part in a number of United Nations operations around the world, and we're told several armies, including the French, are looking at it as a serious tool - it was designed to protect its occupants, and accordingly it can be built with armour protection up to Stanag Level 1 to ward off shell fire, grenades and mine blasts.

Of course, this will add some considerable extra weight to the unladen chassis, but what is remarkable about the Sherpa is its ability to maintain the same performance figures up to a maximum burden of nine tonnes. What is doubly remarkable is that these figures include 140kph as its top speed. Given the terrain it can tackle, the speeds possible and the adventurous French driver at the wheel, the Sherpa's performance can be electrifying.

Looking like an overly endowed H1 from the outside and running on 34-inch tyres, it boasts a track of almost two metres, a wheelbase of over 4.5m and one of the biggest Renault badges known to man. Inside, four sports seats with full racing buckles provide the comfort amid all the utility: webbing, map lights, lockdown storage and little else. The driver is ensconced behind what looks like a bus console, with an oversize steering wheel, a swathe of knobs and switches and a radio player.

Grab handles are available, but only in the form of the roll-bar skeleton frame. If you can't reach up, you had better prepare for the sort of ride you would get at a rodeo. With an approach angle of 58° and a departure angle only eight degrees shallower, the Sherpa really can go anywhere?and at pace. After deflating the tyres hydraulically from the cab, it might take the best part of a minute to get to a decent speed, but given its capability there is little need to hammer the brakes. Dunes of 45° are child's play, and it feels like the only components in the Sherpa to get a real workout are the seat straps, which immediately show their value.

During our ride, we also saw the car's value in a practical setting. A 15-tonne, six-wheel drive Kerax support truck had come to a stop atop a dune. Dwarfed by the beached truck's mass, the Sherpa still arrived to help and, within seconds, the big brother was shifted by the tactical truck's massive torque, and roared off. Unfortunately, the Sherpa left the manoeuvre slightly injured, its tyre inflator malfunctioning and pumping out all the air. Given the size of the rubbers, the smell of burning tyre can become overwhelming; as can be the prospect of unbolting 20 or so nuts and replacing something that weighs more than a man.

But in spite of this glitch, the Sherpa is well-tested, a fleet of six having completed the Cape to Cape adventure last year, travelling from North Cape in Norway to Cape Town in South Africa for a four-month rally to show the model's capability. The UAE public, meanwhile, will be able to witness it in action at this week's Desert Challenge, where it will take part in active testing. And hopefully, we will one day see the beast tearing over the dunes in a recreational capacity. However, at a price that is no doubt as punishing as the environment it can cover, the Sherpa will be a prized sight, and one will be remembered as much for its imposing proportions as for its remarkable ability.