Bucking the trend: the brilliant Renault Avantime

General Bunk Matra Renault 00s cars
David Milloy remembers the Renault Avantime, a favourite of PetrolBlog. A car ahead of its time that failed to capture the public's imagination. Shame.

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-committal 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 eSpider concept

It 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.

The brilliant Renault Avantime

It 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 8,557 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 windows.

Renault Avantime on PetrolBlog

The 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 Milloy from future updates. More than ever, I'm now sure that I need an Avantime in my life. This can't end well...