I truly wished this magnificent car had been a success, but has instead gone down in the annuls of automotive history as one of the biggest failures of all time. The way in which the Avantime rose and spectacularly fell is truly a cautionary tale of how appealing to the niche will never pay itself off.
The Renault Avantime was the company’s attempt at marrying the sporty looks and charms of a luxury coupé with the size and practicality of an MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle), better known to we Brits as ‘People Carriers’. The Avantime was built onto the same platform as the Renault Espace, which is widely considered the first and greatest of the People Carriers. However, that’s not say much when you consider the fact that People Carriers just aren’t cool; then again, they’re not supposed to be. People Carrier’s have only one purpose, to carry as many relatives as possible for a day out at the zoo or on the beach. They are the very definition of utilitarian vehicles, with not a shred of sex appeal or a whiff of performance to make them other than what they are.
Renault, however, thought differently, and decided that they would make the MPV concept cool, but also make it something that would appeal to luxury buyers as well, which is where the Avantime came in. Even the name Avantime was supposed to reflect its supposedly revolutionary premise, the direct translation meaning ‘Ahead Time’ or ‘Ahead of Time’.
The design process began back in 1998, being conceived by Renault’s affiliate Matra and the head of its automotive division Philippe Guédon. Styling was carried out by world famous motoring designer Patrick Le Quément, which astounded audiences upon the car’s release at the 1999 Geneva Auto Show. Unlike the Espace, the Avantime had only five leather seats which provided oodles of space by comparison. The B-Pillar was removed in order to make one long open-air window along the car’s profile. Fears that the removal of the B-Pillar would compromise the structural rigidity and safety were dispelled by a stronger structure supporting the roof. This gave rise to the car’s biggest party piece, the fact that at the push of a button all the windows and the giant sunroof would simultaneously open, giving the feel of driving a drop-top coupé.
The car had only two-doors, which would normally negate people’s ability to get into the back. However, the doors were extra-long in order to allow access to both the front and back seats. This was supported by the doors being double-hinged so that they’d slide forward into their mounting rather than opening so far they’d hit everything in their way.
The car was powered by a range of V6 engines ranging from the 165hp 2.0L Turbo V6 to the 207hp 3.0L. The latter gave a 0-60 of 8.4 seconds and a top speed of 139mph. While this is still very slow, compared to the contemporary Espace, which did 0-60 in 15 seconds and went on to only 104mph, it’s a vast improvement.
Upon its launch in 2001, the car was lauded critically for its brilliant design and attempts to marry sports and speed with the size of an MPV. Even the Top Gear trio had a soft spot for the Avantime, it being one of only three cars they could all agree as among their favourites. However, there was one fundamental problem with the Avantime, it was a sales nightmare.
In its attempt to satisfy two motoring genres, it failed to appeal to either of them. The idea of a coupé is that it’s meant to look sporty and sheek, while the idea of an MPV is to cram as many family members in as possible. The Avantime did neither, being not especially sporty but at the same time not having nearly enough capacity to match that of a regular MPV. The result was that the Avantime absolutely tanked in terms of sales, not helped by the launch of the Renault Vel Satis the same year. The 5-door Vel Satis was essentially what the Avantime was meant to be, being a comparatively large family car but with a more upmarket image than the Espace, Modus or Scenic MPVs.
After making such massive losses, the Matra division of Renault folded and their factory in Romorantin-Lanthenay was closed. Upon the closure of the factory, Renault decided not to move Avantime production elsewhere and instead chose to kill it off. In 2003, the Avantime met its premature end with only 8,557 units built. Here in the UK, only the petrol version was sold, and was listed on the market for only 18 months before being removed from sales after just 435 examples left the showroom.
Opinion on the Avantime since its discontinuation have been mixed. While many put it down as one of the worst failures in automotive history; even going so far as to dub it the worst car ever made, most critics and the few owners who actually bought one, declare it to be an automotive marvel. It was a wonderful example of outside-the-box thinking, and was technically innovate in more ways than one.
As mentioned, the Top Gear trio consider it one of only three of their unanimous favorites, the only other two being the Ford Mondeo and Subaru Legacy. In fact, the Avantime get its 15 minutes of fame when one appeared on the show in 2008. The challenge was to take a stock Renault Avantime and, on a budge of £9,800, make it fast enough to match a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X around the test track. Eventually, after tuning the engine, removing the seats, fitting track-ready tyres, adding a spoiler just to remove it before adding a chin-spoiler just so it could catch fire, they eventually did the lap. As you can imagine, it was completely hopeless and the Avantime fell to the bottom of the times board. However, the old Avantime did win in the end as it gained a lovely bit of exposure that started something of a cult following among auto fans.
Today, Avantimes are incredibly rare cars on the roads of Britain. While there’s likely a few still roaming the roads of France, the most common places you’ll find these obscure Renault’s here in Britain are in the home counties. When I lived in London I encountered about two or three of these strange machines, but they were never stayed in the same place. Otherwise, unless you know someone who happens to own one, they’re tough birds to follow.
Overall, the Avantime is the very definition of a cult car; reviewed great, sold terribly!
- Looks – 4/10 – While I think the Avantime has its charms and is better looking than the Espace, it’s still not an especially pretty car
- Comfort – 7/10 – With wide, spacious leather seats it’s got some real European panache, but it’s nowhere near as comfortable as dedicated luxury coupes
- Practicality – 3/10 – One of its main failing points. For a car of its size it can only seat five and bootspace is compromised by the large leather seats
- Features – 6/10 – The quirky doors and windows are novel and will get your friends talking, but otherwise it’s not particularly well equipped
- Reliability – 3/10 – It’s an old Renault, that alone should strike fear into the hearts of men
- Efficiency – 8/10 – At 30mpg, the Avantime is a very economical car despite its size
- Quality – 4/10 – Though the leather seats are a nice touch, the car is still comprised largely of cheap parts carried over from the Espace
- Speed – 2/10 – 0-60 comes in 8.4 seconds and it will only do 139mph, which is why it was nowhere near comparable to sports coupes
- Handling – 3/10 – The car wallows and rolls with hideous amounts of understeer, so take care on the corners!
- Price – 5/10 – Prices for the Avantime used to be abysmally low, with most going for as little as £4,000 up to around 3 to 4 years ago. However, appreciation of what the car is has seen them start to rise to around £15,000 to £20,000. My advice, get them while they’re hot!
- Value – 7/10 – As mentioned above, prices for this car have seen a substantial increase in the past few years. However, attempting to sell the car for £20,000 or over right now may be sailing a bit too close to the wind. I expect prices will likely peak at around £25,000, so for the time being watch this space
- Total – 52/110 – The Avantime is a very niche car that can be a practical classic, but at the same time is very much an enthusiasts car. Novel features will make you smile, but poor performance will curb your enthusiasm somewhat.