By on May 9, 2010

Like cars, or even more so, 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 diesel Traffic van. Winnebago bit, and 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.

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15 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1985 Winnebago 23mpg LeSharo Turbo Diesel RV...”

  • avatar

    Hard to believe these two weigh the same:

  • avatar

    In the late 80’s I bought one of these LeSharo diesels. It was used and I bought it for a fair price. A week after I bought it, a friend sent me a copy of a WSJ article of a class action lawsuit by LeSharo diesel owners claiming that it was the most problem prone vehicle ever built. I sold it the next spring for what I paid for it and counted myself lucky. If it hadn’t been for the Renault engine/transaxle, it would have been a great vehicle. My exfatherinlaw bought a gas powered one and kept if for over 10 years. Apparently it was much more reliable than the diesel versions. I would like to have another similar sized unit but with a more reliable powertrain. But at the time I lived in the country and didn’t have to worry about parking restirictions,etc. Now living in a city motor homes must be parked and stored. I still wish that I could have lived in one for an extended period. After reading the article I was reluctant to take the vehicle on the road. The cost to fix any transmission/transaxle was over $4k. I hope the new Sprinter models are more reliable.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the Vixen 21. A BMW 2.4 td powered motor home of the late 80’s. The Vixen even had a French connection, the transmission was French made 5sp manual.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Yes. I will do a CC on one when I come across one again.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a 1988 Vixen XC and the mileage was 30 plus mpg the Renault transmission was not the best addition . it had caddy air ride , gm hubs,vw emblem on front ,bmw engine was great, but I got rid of it because it was a people magnet and I am more private . The traction was incredible but the upholstery was bad and the instrumentation was made for a tinker toy . The design was great , I didn’t need to stand up because I usually sit when in an rv and my wife at 5’4 could walk around easily . I had a older Chinook and that was a beautiful RV handled wind and parked like a car but the mileage was bad . I had other class c and class A motorhomes that did 8 to 12 mpg but now I have a allegro 3126 cat and allison , mileage is great 90 US gallon tank and I drove 386 miles before it came off the full ,I have to do another full test run but it probably is in the 15 plus mpg range I always liked cat over cummins because my logging trucks had cat’s :)

  • avatar

    I remember the LeSharo being tested on PBS’s Motorweek in the 80’s. I thought it was pretty cool. I wonder what the girl in the grass in the second ad looks like today?

    • 0 avatar

      “I wonder what the girl in the grass in the second ad looks like today?” Don’t go there – just believe she’s as charming and enticing as she was then, and always will be.

      Only the grass has grown.

  • avatar

    Did anyone ever notice that the headlight and parking light units were from a 1980-81 Buick Skylark?

    I always find it interesting to see an RV with various parts from other cars and trucks integrated into their designs.

  • avatar

    These things were built at the local Winnebago Industries plant 8 miles from my house. Every time there is a big rise in gas prices motor homes manufacturers have a hard time.

    The LaSharo, Rialta and now the Sprinter bases ERA with the Mercedes-Benz diesel engine are attempts by Winnebago to survive in a tough market with high gas/diesel prices.

    Motor home maunufacturers without small offerings sometimes don’t survive. At least a couple prominent motor home manufacturers have bitten the bankruptcy dust in the last 2 years. Meanwhile Winnebago is still spitting out motor homes. These small models serve their purpose both for the company and customers.

    Today large motor homes are a tough sell and Winnebago is still struggling although PR is that it is turning around. I have my doubts.

    Check out their current line up here:

  • avatar

    It’s too bad they didn’t continue working on the design and improving it. Maybe we’d have a better choice of fuel efficient RV’s then we do today.
    In Europe they have RV’s with Ford Transit,Renault Traffic and Fiat Ducato bodies that are not only well designed and engineered but return excellent fuel mileage. And these aren’t tiny little vehicles for tiny little people either. The idea in their design was to do more with less by using lightweight materials and items that can easily be stored out of the way instead of the rolling apartments like we have in NA.
    Case in point: A relative has a class C 2001 Ford E350 with a V10 gas engine and a full size bedroom,and with careful driving – 90 kmh, let off on the hills and coast going down etc – I’m still unable to get anymore then 10-12 MPG.
    In other words a 500 km drive costs over $125-150 at the pump and we didn’t bother using it in 2008 when gas was $1.40 a litre.
    Our neighbours have an 86 Class c E350 with a 460 and they get around the same mileage.
    Why do we put up with this?
    It is possible to have a good size RV and decent fuel economy without sacrificing comfort, but it seems that idea is lost here in the colonies.

    • 0 avatar

      Case in point: A relative has a class C 2001 Ford E350 with a V10 gas engine and a full size bedroom,and with careful driving – 90 kmh, let off on the hills and coast going down etc – I’m still unable to get anymore then 10-12 MPG.

      There are companies that will do conversions on Sprinters, which will net you far, far better than that. The driving experience won’t quite match the E-Series’ Nixon-era underpinnings, but hey, can’t have it all.

      The problem is price: everyone and their dog knows how to drop a body on an Econoline, but that expertise is a little thinner on the ground vis a vis the Sprinter or Transit Connect. And then you get into chassis pricing: you can get said Econolines and Savana/Expresses for a pittance new, while Sprinters cost quite a bit more. You’ll make it up on fuel, but that’s not the easy sell you’d think it would be.

    • 0 avatar

      I rented a well used and abused Fiat Ducato based RV in New Zealand. Phenomonal car. All the amenities you need (except AC power) in a package compact enough to drive around town. The little turbdiesel 4 pulled down 23-24 mpg no problem and power was, well, perfectly adequate. It was probably only worth $5k used. If something like that was available here I’d love to have one.

      Here’s an awesome pic I took of that little RV….

  • avatar

    I co-own a 1984 Chevy-based “Jamboree” with a 360 Chevy V8. It gets roughly 8 MPG. The trick is to share the gas cost with the friends you take camping with you. $75 worth of gas gets you 200 miles away; divide that by the number of friends and that’s not so unreasonable.

    Granted, when gas hits $5 per gallon, we might have to scrimp on a steak dinner, or just invite a friend we may need a little extra rum to put up with. When it comes to RV’ing, you just can’t put a price on fun!

  • avatar

    One of the problems is the cost of storing any RV or motor home. In my area this is not a small expense. If you live in an unincorporated area, this is no problem. But for those of us that live in ‘Cities’ it can be very expensive and very inconvenient.

  • avatar

    The VW based Rialta and the pop top camper that replaced the Westfalias went out of production at the end of 2003 with the VW Eurovan when VW introduced a new generation of transporter and didn’t bother to sell it in the US.
    As a side issue VW moved away from Westfalia conversions after Daimler bought them in 1999.

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