Oh how I wished this car had succeeded, but sadly has gone down in the annuls of history as one of the biggest automotive failures of the 21st Century, largely due to what it is, a Coupé MPV.
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), or as we Brits like to call them, ‘People Carriers’. The Avantime was built onto the same platform as Renault’s pioneering People Carrier the Espace, which is widely considered the first and greatest of the People Carriers, making its début in 1984. The biggest problem with People Carriers, and the Espace is no exception, is that they are unbelievably uncool, being for all intents and purposes vans with electric windows, and chocked full of as many seats as possible so as to cram in all the relatives you need for the day. Renault hoped to change this by making a luxury version known as the Avantime, a word in direct translation meaning ‘Ahead Time’ or ‘Ahead of Time’.
Design of the Avantime 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, and upon the car’s release in 1999 at the Geneva Auto Show, people couldn’t help but be astounded by its ways. Unlike other People Carriers, there were only five seats for extra legroom and space, and no central pillar dividing the cabin, with just one long window and door on the car’s profile. This was an early point of contention as there were concerns for safety without the all-important pillar for structural rigidity. This was overcome with a much stronger structure supporting the roof. The doors themselves were another point of interest as they were double-hinged, which meant that rather than the door opening for miles, it could slide forward in its mounting so it would only open to the width of a regular car door, but could still provide access to the rear without putting the front seats down. The biggest party piece of them all though was the Avantime’s ability to open all windows and the giant Sunroof simultaneously, giving the feel of driving a drop-top coupé. Power was also pretty good, coming in the form of Renault’s 24 valve, 207hp 3.0L V6 engine.
Upon its launch in 2001, the car was still lauded critically for its brilliant design and attempts to marry sports and speed with the size of a People Carrier, but didn’t actually sell. The problem is the car fell in between two categories. The idea of a coupé car is that it’s meant to look sporty and sheek, and the idea of a People Carrier is to cram in as many people as is humanly possible. The Avantime failed to meet both these criteria, looking not especially sporty, and not having the capacity 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, a similarly sized 5-door family car which was built more to the proportions of an Estate car that was more upmarket than the Espace, Modus or Scenic People Carriers.
The result was that the Matra division folded after suffering massive losses on building the Avantime, and thus their factory was closed. Renault chose instead not to move production elsewhere and decided it would rather just kill off this bad egg rather than suffer any more pain. In 2003, the Avantime’s time ran out, with only 8,557 units built. Here in the UK it was only sold in the petrol version and was on the market for a grand total of 18 months before being removed from sales with 435 examples leaving 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, and even 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, thinking outside the box and technically innovate in more ways than one. The most notable critics to acclaim the Avantime are Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond of the late, great Top Gear, who noted it as one of only three cars they all unanimously like, the other two being the Ford Mondeo and Subaru Legacy. In fact the Avantime re-entered a few minutes of fame when one appeared on the show in 2008, where they were given two days and a budget of £9,800 to get their plucky Renault to lap the Top Gear test track as fast as a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Eventually, after tuning the engine, removing the seats, fitting track-ready tyres, adding a spoiler just to remove it, and adding a chin-spoiler just so it could catch fire, they eventually did the lap and it was as expected, hopeless rubbish, but the Avantime was the overall winner in that since then it’s really kicked off a cult following.
Today they are incredibly rare cars here on the roads of Britain. In France you’ll probably find a fair few as that’s where the majority were sold, but other than that they’re touch birds to follow.