David Milloy remembers the Renault Avantime

More words from David Milloy, this time on the brilliant PetrolBlog favourite, the Renault Avantime. Over to you, David.

“How is Ming the Merciless these days?” asked the cashier in the filling station. “Eh?” was my reply. As usual, I was the epitome of eloquence. He pointed to the car sitting at pump six. “That spaceship on wheels is yours, isn’t it?” I nodded. “Well, in that case you must be Buck Rogers.” I gave him a non-commital grunt, paid for the fuel and walked back to my car, a Renault Avantime, wishing that the standard equipment list had included a ray gun for use against smart arses.

As I pulled away, the cashier gave me a salute. It struck me then just how wrong it was for the Avantime to run on something as primitive as fossil fuels. At the very least, such a futuristic vehicle really ought to have been kitted out with a cold fusion engine.  And, of course, a ray gun.

That little episode took place in 2008. It was hardly uncommon; nine years after the prototype was first shown and six years after it hit UK roads, the Avantime remained King of the Hill when it came to drawing a reaction from people.

Renault EspiderIt wasn’t just the styling that was a talking point. Right from the car’s first outing at Geneva in 1999, the wisdom of producing a car that was a cross between an MPV, a coupé (the Avantime was initially known as ‘Coupéspace’) and a cabriolet was also the subject of much debate. Sure, there had previously been some very unusual derivatives of the Espace – notably the 810bhp Espace F1 and the chopped-top Espider – but they’d never been intended for series production.

Putting the Avantime into production was a bold move, but from the viewpoint of its builder, Matra Automobile, it was also a move born out of necessity. By the late ’90s, Matra was well established as the third biggest car company in France. Since 1984, they had built three generations of the Espace for Renault at their factories in the town of Romorantin in central France. Indeed, the original Espace had been developed from Matra’s P18 prototype. However, in late 1997, Renault dropped a bombshell on Matra: the fourth generation Espace would be built by Renault in their own factories.

Talks between the companies resulted in a new agreement: Matra would build the Avantime. It was known from the outset that the Avantime would never sell in anything like the same numbers as the Espace. However, the intention was to launch the Avantime in 2000 for Matra to build alongside the third generation Espace, on which it was based, until Renault took over Espace production in 2002. That would keep Matra’s factories occupied till then, allow the Avantime to become established and afford Matra a little more time to come up with something else to produce in place of the Espace.

Renault Avantime on PetrolBlogIt didn’t work out that way. There were delays in getting the Avantime ready for production. Launch dates came and went. The biggest issues seem to have been with the roof and the doors. The roof was heavy, being largely comprised of glass and with no B-pillar to help provide support. The doors, at 1.4 metres long and weighing 55 kilos each, were the largest fitted to a production car at the time. The challenge was to find an effective and reliable system to keep the opening radius of the doors to within acceptable limits – after all, there’d be no point in driving a spaceship if you couldn’t get into or out of it if someone parked beside you. The solution was to double-hinge the doors, thereby allowing them to swing forward as well as out.

When the Avantime eventually went into production in 2001, sales did not come quickly. At first, Matra and Renault no doubt took comfort in the fact that the Espace had initially been a poor seller – only nine were sold in the month after it was launched – but had gone on to sell in droves. The Avantime was, however, a very different beast from the Espace. Sales never came close to meeting the anticipated figures, and by the time Avantime production ended in May, 2003, just 8557 had been produced.

There were a number of factors which contributed to the Avantime’s lack of success.  It was expensive – in the UK, the base model carried a tag of over £24,000 in 2002. It tried to be a jack of all trades, and mastered none of them: as a MPV, it was much less practical than an Espace; as a coupé, it wasn’t able to compete in terms of dynamic ability – even the manual V6 version couldn’t crack 8 seconds for the 0 to 62mph dash; and, as a cabriolet, there were plenty around that offered fully retractable roofs, not just a large opening sunroof and pillarless windows.

Renault Avantime rear on PetrolBlogThe Avantime’s cause wasn’t helped by Renault’s decision to offer another large, avantgarde car in their range: the Vel Satis. There were even mutterings that Renault favoured the Vel Satis, built in their own factories, over the Avantime, and that their marketing effort was heavily weighted towards the Vel Satis.

There were, to be sure, some odd omissions from the Avantime’s specification. In the UK, it was never offered with a diesel engine, albeit such a model was available in continental Europe. Another omission was Renault’s excellent keyless entry and ignition system, available on the Vel Satis, Laguna and Megane but not on the Avantime – something that remains hard to fathom, given the Avantime’s space age styling and vibe. Of more significance was the absence from the Avantime range of two engines available to Vel Satis buyers – a 3 litre V6 diesel and a 3.5 litre petrol V6. It’s a pity, as the V6 diesel, in particular, offered a blend of performance and fuel economy that might well have made it the ideal powerplant for the Avantime.

Whatever the reasons, the Avantime met a premature end. If circumstances had allowed it to be produced as a low-volume, niche vehicle, rather than a company’s flagship product, then it might have survived.

The Avantime is still a crowd-puller today. You needn’t just remain an onlooker, though. With prices at their current level – under £2,000 can buy you a V6 model – Avantime ownership is a tempting proposition, even though you run the risk of being mistaken for Buck Rogers!

See above for a short promotional video produced by Matra in 2000. It was given away with the now defunct French magazine, Auto Live.

I might have to ban Mr McVitie from future updates. More than ever, I’m now sure that I need an Avantime in my life. This can’t end well…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

21 comments

  1. October 10, 2011
    Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

    If the Avantime had come with that diesel V6, I’d buy one tomorrow. Unfortunately I can’t justify the running costs of the regular V6 as a daily driver, which is a shame since the Avantime is probably one of the most stunning cars ever made.

    Goes to show too that Renault has some ENORMOUS corporate balls stashed in its pantalons. Only Renault would give us the Avantime, Vel Satis, Spider, Twizy and mid-engined versions of the R5 and Clio. Anyone else’s marketing department would be having kittens being told they’d have to shift cars like that.

    Reply
    • October 10, 2011
      MajorGav

      Absolutely. Renault’s back catalogue of recent years deserves greater respect than it gets. Even today, things like the buzzy little RS Twingo are quite unlike anything else on the market. Respect for Renault! 😉

      Reply
      • October 10, 2011
        Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

        Or indeed, the Wind. Or as I like to call it, the Renault Del Sol.

        Reply
  2. October 10, 2011
    David Milloy

    The running costs of the V6 can be reduced by converting it to run on LPG. I know of some that have already been converted. Taking both the lower cost of LPG and the higher fuel consumption when running on LPG – about 10% higher than when running on petrol – into account, the equivalent fuel cost in miles per £1 is about 80% better using LPG.

    Fuel apart, the costly things to watch out for on the V6 are the cambelt service – over £1000 – and the engine’s appetite for coils.

    Also, I’d go for the manual ‘box over the automatic. It gives better performance and doesn’t suffer from the slushiness of the auto ‘box.

    Reply
  3. October 10, 2011
    Kuang

    Lots of Avantime love here, always been a fan. I’d have a manual one in a shot if I thought it would stay in one piece well enough to be a daily driver 🙂

    Reply
    • October 11, 2011
      David Milloy

      Personally, I’d go for the 2 litre manual version if I was buying one to use every day. The Avantime’s main issues tend to be with things like the CD multichanger and the sunroof. The CD player fault is common enough to qualify as a standard ‘feature’ of the car. Another common issue is with paint bubbling on the aluminium roof rails and upper structure. I believe that Renault corrected that problem on some cars under the paint warranty.

      Reply
  4. October 11, 2011
    AsianMartin

    Shame these never got the recognition they deserved. They were way better than their Espace underpinnings might lead you to think they would be and were a fantastic transcontinental express. Vastly superior to just about anything else Renault has cranked out in the last couple of decades, it was doomed from birth by its parentage – the Renault name isn’t exactly associated with luxury in the public’s mind, and the same public didn’t know what to make of it.

    Reply
    • October 11, 2011
      MajorGav

      All of which makes it a guaranteed future classic. I can’t see the values remaining low forever. One day we’ll look back on the days when you could pick up an Avantime for the price of a five year old Ford Focus.

      Reply
  5. October 11, 2011
    Oliver@vel-satis.org

    Duncan – great article about a great car! It’s warming to see familiar Twitter people saluting the Avantime and wishing they could get one as a daily driver. My family owns 2 Vel Sati and now an Avantime, when my dad snapped up a very, very low mileage one a couple of months ago. It’s a 2 litre manual which has never been driven outside of spring and summer and has been specially treated underneath, valeted weekly and really given the cotton-wool treatment. Like Gav, I think Avantime values on the second hand market will start to rise again in the not-too-distant future, but values seem to go up and down, so once they’ve risen, they may drop a bit later on and repeat the cycle. I really hope Gav buys an Avantime soon! 🙂

    Reply
    • October 11, 2011
      David Milloy

      Thanks, Oliver. Avantime prices in the UK are well below those in France. Hopefully, it’ll be a case of UK prices rising rather than French prices falling. I’m tempted to get another Avantime myself.

      One good thing about the Avantime is that much of its structure is based on Matra’s tried and trusted recipe of a hot-dip galvanised steel chassis and composite body panels. Having owned some Matra Murenas in the past, one of which was 20 years old when I sold it, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the galvanisation. The one part of the Avantime’s structure to keep tabs on is the aluminium upper structure. The paint there is known to bubble. If that happens – and you can’t persuade Renault to put it right – I’d have the paint stripped, the structure re-primed (the trick is to use the correct primer for aluminium) and re-painted.

      Reply
      • October 11, 2011
        Oliver@vel-satis.org

        Hi Duncan, interesting you should mention the bubbling, as two Avantime owners I know have signs of bubbling on their cars, and one of them has contacted Renault to no avail, but will be putting up a fight! If all else fails, they’ve got your good tips to refer back to.

        Reply
  6. October 11, 2011
    David Milloy

    There are a few Avantimes on on Ebay at the moment.

    The cheapest is this one: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/RENAULT-AVANTIME-PRIVILEGE-AUTO-BLUE-/220870988252?pt=Automobiles_UK&hash=item336cefd1dc#ht_500wt_1202

    No reserve and a Starting Price of £1450.00. Will be interesting to see what it makes.

    Reply
  7. October 11, 2011
    David Milloy

    The paint bubbling on the roof seems to be commonplace.

    If your Avantime is affected, it may be a good idea to contact Avantime Owners UK (admin@avantime-owners.com) to get an idea of just how common it is.

    Once armed with that information, an approach should then be made to Renault UK, initially via a dealer. The bubbling may be covered by the paint warranty – 12 years if my memory is correct.

    Reply
    • October 11, 2011
      David Milloy

      My memory wasn’t right – 3 years paint warranty; 12 years anti-perforation warranty. However, I still think it’d be worth approaching Renault about – the bubbling is not a recent phenomenon.

      Reply
  8. October 11, 2011
    Ton

    Very nice read, Duncan. I’ve only ever been lucky enough to be a passenger in a (new, though, that always has something special to me) Avantime; haven’t driven one but to be honest I would not care much about how it drives. I just want one.

    I think saying that the Avantime is Renault’s RCZ isn’t doing the Avantime enough justice, but I see similarities. The RCZ will be a future classic too, once mister depreciation and co. has taken about two thirds off the price. It isn’t as bold though, but it’s one of few current French offerings that isn’t completely a dime a dozen.

    So many replied, that this is the first time I haven’t read them all before waffling myself. But if any car deserves a lot of attention and hence replies, it should be the Avantime.

    As already pointed out on Twitter, I recently (as in just the other week) wrote a few words about it, too. So now that all 2 Dutch readers of my personal blog know about the Avantime too, I agree with The Major. Prices HAVE to go up.

    Talking of prices, please stop mentioning them here. Car prices on average seem to be anywhere from 2 to 5 times higher over here. A good Avantime will set you back 8k euro or so here. For 2k GBP I would.

    Reply
    • October 12, 2011
      Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

      “one of few current French offerings that isn’t completely a dime a dozen”

      Agree with that about the RC-Z. Unfortunately for Renault, I think it got its fingers burned a little too much by the Avantime and Vel Satis and is being much more careful now. I don’t know how much money it’s making from bread and butter stuff but I miss the lack of Frenchness about Renaults at the mo – they could be from anywhere. The RC-Z and Citroen C6 are holding what creativity the French car industry has left…

      Still, Renault is giving us the Twizy soon.

      Reply
  9. October 13, 2011
    Robin Shepherd

    What a great article and timely in that I have just traded my 2008 Megane for an Avantime V6 which should arrive later this morning. Tell me Duncan, what was it that prompted you to write a piece on the Avantime now? Do you think in this time of societal depression and anxiety there is a heightened need for light hearted innovation and behavioural change or do you just think theyre cool?
    Lets see what the future holds for Avantime ownership!

    Reply
    • October 13, 2011
      MajorGav

      Mr Shepherd, PetrolBlog salutes you on a fine choice of car. PLEASE keep us posted on progress with the Avantime. I hope to follow suit next year…

      Reply
    • October 13, 2011
      David Milloy

      Robin, thanks for the kind words. Right from the moment I read an article about the Avantime prototype in a French car mag in ’99, I’ve thought it was a fine blend of imaginative design and clever engineering. The blog arose simply by following the old maxim of writing about things you know and/or care about – for me, the Avantime satisfies both of those criteria.
      I hope your Avantime brings you much enjoyment.

      Reply
      • October 13, 2011
        Robin Shepherd

        Thanks Duncan
        The Avantime has arrived and I am going to take the wife out for a spin! Sadly she is less impressed with its looks than I am so lets hope it grows on her.
        My rationale was that the Megane was loosing value hand over fist since I bought it earlier this year and I reckon the Avantime should stabalise in price and prove to be a useful and quirky car at the same time. I am fortunate to own a few other `collectables` in a Citroen Ds Safari, Corvette Stingray (75) and a classic Saab 900 convertible. My regaular car is a P38 Range Rover so hopefully the Avantime wil offer the best of all worlds, interest and be vaguely practical.
        I will let you know!

        Reply
  10. October 14, 2011
    Joseph

    Ugly, but interesting. At least it turns heads, and there are a few features of the car’s design which I like, such as the vents above the headlights, and the aluminium-effect roof pillars. I do somewhat have a soft-spot for the Avantime’s sister car, the Vel Satis. In my neck of the woods (Glasgow), there is only a few Avantimes, but a small amount of Vel Satis (or is it Vel Satises?!). I doubt that Renault will do a mad-looking car like this again – the conservative-looking Megane only confirms this thought.

    Reply

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