Mirror, mirror on the wall, what is the most extreme 4x4 of them all? Forget all you think you know about insane 4x4s because a Russian company has just made something very, very special. Robb Pritchard went out to St Petersburg to see it for himself... and was very impressed.
When us Europeans think about amazing off road trucks taking on impossible obstacles I guess many think of King of the Hammers and it's insane breed of high-octane Ultra4 cars. Looking the other way though, across the border of the former Iron Curtain, Russia has evolved its own unique strain of off-roaders to tackle its most inhospitable terrains. Endless low lying bogland is what makes up much of the vast reaches of the world's largest country and it was always considered pretty much impenetrable. But a new vehicle is about to change that. Welcome to the Sherp.
In a random layby somewhere outside St Petersburg parked with its massive tyres deflated and front step and hatch open I realised that my friend Olga who'd come in her felt miniskirt and matching purple boots, might be a little under dressed for what was about to happen. In through the front it seems bigger on the inside than it looks from the out. The driving position in front of the front axle helps with that. Engine running the tyres get pumped up quickly, but even at low psi there's no compressor that could cope with inflating such a volume so the Sherp utilises an old Russian technique of filling them with exhaust gases, popular with the huge military trucks that have a CTIS system.
Driver Yuri explains that each specifically designed 1600x600x25 tyre holds 800 litres of air so despite the Sherp not having any suspension the ride as we started off down the dirt track was smooth. Sitting on such huge bags of air with such a short wheelbase it feels more like a hovercraft than a car. But it's on-road capabilities are not so important… what it can do off-road is what I'd come to Russia to see.
In the untouched wilderness where no ancient community ever set up a fishing settlement small lakes were left to fill with forest mulch until moss and small grasses could grow on the surface and form root networks. These are called carpet bogs. Most are sturdy enough to stand on, which feels like a large saturated sponge. Generally they are not considered territory for motorised vehicles because if you break the surface you are suddenly in need of a boat… which is exactly where the Sherp comes into it own.
From accumulated knowledge and experience the soupy morass we were headed into I saw ahead I understood to be utterly impassable, even by the most capable 'normal' 4x4. But in the Sherp we just drove straight in and in I needed to rewire the neural connections of my brain to understand what is possible. The body is sealed so it floats even without the massive, specially designed tyres, and even though the traction is lost for a moment it only takes a few seconds for the paddle steamer style ridges on the tyres to pull us forward through the mud until they have something more solid to grip onto… and forwards we go into territory previously uncharted.
Nothing I had ever driven, or even seen, could ever get across where we were driving/paddling. I doubt I could have even stood on the soft, gloopy surface if I got out of the front hatch. But despite never being in anything like this before I wasn't worried, as despite Olga alternatively screaming and cursing from behind the Sherp made it all seem so easy, even when we drove off a steep bank and nosed into a pool where we bobbed confidently around. Yuri did a three-point turn while floating, chose another impossibly steep bank to aim up and just drove us straight out. The Sherp can't tip over as a normal 4x4 would as while the rear wheels are pushing us over the front wheels are already floating. With the huge tyres so close together it has approach, departure and break-over angles that other 4x4s could only dream of. And no matter how abrupt the ledge of the bank its belly wouldn't catch anything as its underside is flat so the surface between the wheels acts like a large skid pan.
It's not exactly a technological marvel as it is actually a very simple design but it is an absolute engineering masterpiece. Designer Alexey Garagashyan is an absolute legend in Russian off-roading circles and spent many years building supremely capable machines that dominated Russian winch challenge events… mainly because they didn't need to winch. The Sherp is the end result of 25 years making machines with which to take on the Russian wilderness. Powered by the most basic, yet incredibly reliable, 1.5l Kubota diesel engine that has no electrics and produces just 44bhp the giant wheels are powered by a pair of chains. Like an Argocat levers control direction by powering or by cutting drive to each side. Without a gearbox, suspension, steering or axles, despite its size, it only weighs 1500kg, which again helps with buoyancy and traction.
Axle twisting (if it had axles) climbs were also no obstacle as well as having huge levels of grip from the huge footprint it has the Sherp also has a very low centre of gravity. But the best part of the demonstration of its amazing capabilities was in the lake over the hill. Normally home to a few vodka drinking fishermen in an old dinghy Yuri put it into top gear, tore along at about 20 km/h and just drove straight in. Olga cried out for close family members and a couple of deities to save her but obviously not too impressed with my confident expression Yuri played with the controls powering the left wheels then the right ones to pitch from one side to the other. I was already impressed enough with the Sherp's capabilities not to be worried so he upped the ante slightly pulled the levers back to accelerate which lifted the front wheels up and then pulled them back which pitched us forwards and dumped the nose under the waterline. Finally satisfied with my reaction of concern we headed at a fair rate of knots, actually 6 km/h, back towards the shore. This is not an off-roader that can just about cope with a water crossing, it is a vehicle wholly as capable in water as it is in the mud… or in a Russian bog… or any combination of both.
When I first saw the Sherp I thought it was more of a toy than some serious machine but actually after nearly 15 years of travelling the world to see some of the most extreme 4x4s I can confidently say that this is the most impressive and capable off-roader I have ever come across.
But it wasn't just the this test drive that truly impressed me. With 300 examples sold so far this is not just a prototype, it is a fully functioning business plan and to adequately demonstrate the Sherp's capabilities the team are involved in an absolutely incredible expedition across the previously impenetrable wastes of northern Russia. Nothing even remotely similar has ever been attempted before and is on such a scale of extremity that what they have done so far is basically inconceivable for any other vehicle. A team of five vehicles have spent 6 months driving through bogs that stretch 1000km at a time, through rivers sometimes up to 6km wide and endless mountain ranges in the east that have only ever been explored on foot or from the air. The Sherp is seriously amazing!