Curbside Classic: 1985 Winnebago LeSharo Turbo Diesel – 23 MPG, If It Still Has The Original Renault Engine

(first posted 11/17/2012)   The quest to find fuel efficiency in RVs has come and gone with the price of fuel. In the early eighties, when gas was around $4.00 in today’s dollars, the RV business crashed and desperately looked for a radical solution. One could say that the Winnebago LeSharo was the equivalent of the 1985 Cadillac DeVille: downsized to the extreme. Winnebago desperately searched for the solution, and found it in…France. LeSharo: the LeCar of RVs.

The LeSharo was one of those great ideas that ran aground on the realities of its Renault engine and transmission. Renault had just recently introduced its new FWD dieselTraffic van.

In Europe, the Traffic was also used as a basis for euro-style motorhomes.

Winnebago bit, another Franco-American tie-up was created, and Renault shipped cabs complete with front drive train, and a rear axle to Winnebago, where the low and light (5,000 lb) 1983 LeSharo was born. The economy (20-23 mpg) was enticing; the Renault engine and transmission less so.

It may have worked ok in a small van delivering baguettes in Paris, but the 57 hp 2.1 L diesel four was overwhelmed by American standards. In 1984, a 75 hp turbocharged version was quickly rushed into service. But numerous and severe problems with both the engine and the four-speed manual transaxle necessitated abandoning it. By 1986, the diesel was out, and Renault’s 2.2 liter gas four (as used in their US cars) and a three-speed automatic transmission were in. mileage was more like 16-19 mpg. With the proper knowledgeable attention, they can be made to last reasonably well.

This combination was relatively more reliable, but lacked the diesel’s ultimate efficiency potential. The one I found here has the turbo-diesel stickers on the back, but since many were re-powered, its hard to say for sure. On the other hand, Eugene is the final destination of many old orphan diesels, so my guess it’s in the hands of a hard-core LeSharo TD fan. For those LeSharo lovers that are sick of the Renault issues, there is an outfit that does a regular business transplanting Chrysler 3.3 V6 minivan drive trains into these.

The LeSharo petered out in 1992, but was reincarnated in 1994 as the Rialta, now using a complete VW Eurovan front cab and drive train. The early versions used the 2.5 liter five, so it wasn’t exactly brimming with power either. Eventually, the VR6 engine was the definitive version. It appears to have gone out of production some time in the last few years, as Sprinter-based conversions and RVs offer real stand-up headroom and diesel economy.