As avant-gardist in appearance it might have appeared when it entered service over 25 years ago, the sleek and popular Panhard VBL is now ripe for a serious overall performance boost.
Performance is something that time gently takes its toll on, but in a world that has seen a dramatic turnaround in military presence capabilities, the 25 years that have elapsed since 1990, when the VBL was ushered into service, suddenly look shorter.
A first enhancement actually took place a few years ago when Kuwait ordered 20 VBLs with a more powerful 135-horsepower Steyr engine instead of the hitherto standard 90-horsepower diesel borrowed from the Peugeot 504 sedan. This version was known as the VBL2 or VBL Mk.2.
Initially, the VBL was certified with a weight of 3.6 tonnes, but as additional equipment was piled on the vehicle, wheels ended up having to share a load that often ended up being on the wrong side of 4.5 tonnes. This kind of punishment, especially when inflicted in hot climates and harsh terrains rapidly took its toll on the now totally underpowered engines, transmissions and brakes to a point where it is estimated that several hundreds of French Army VBLs are garaged, waiting for better days. And to make things worse, the source of original engines and gearboxes has long dried up.
Those better days might have well arrived, Renault Defence having received a contract to produce a beefed up demonstrator, which was turned over to the Army for evaluation last year. With preliminary tests now completed the Army has recently contracted Renault (now owner of the Panhard brand) to prepare three prototypes based on the VBL shell, but with significant enhancements all round. While the engine type has not been disclosed, its output is believed to be in the range of 130 horsepower, but will be mated to a new automatic gearbox. Since the aim is to turn the VBL into a fully certified 4.5 tonner, the rear drive and suspension (which takes the brunt of the up-armouring punishment) will also be heavily redesigned to incorporate better guidance with a double wishbone layout, while new disk brakes in all four corners will be entrusted to safely bring this mass to a stop whenever required. Once these two prototypes have been put though their paces – this is expected to be completed by mid-2016 – reproduction of the new VBL, which will be known as the VBL Ultima, will be able to commence. The aim of the French army is to have some 800 cars of its current fleet stripped to bare shell and thus rebuilt. Once underway, this programme is likely to attract interest from current operators whose VBLs may be running out of steam. Well over 1,000 have been exported, and the French army alone took delivery of 1,650.
With new payload capacity built in, the Ultima lends itself to being better self-protected with, for instance, a remotely controlled turret.