French flop: Renault Avantime

French flop: Renault Avantime
French flop: Renault Avantime

The cool Renault that was a step too far

The Renault Avantime is the perfect example of a fantastic French folly. It looks like nothing else and caused a massive stir when it was revealed back in 2001, but there’s a reason why it’s as rare as hen’s teeth today. Because for all the fuss, Renault sold but a handful.

Arguably, the idea was sound. Create a distinctive and so very French alternative to the formulaic German executive saloons of the time. A charismatic and distinctive counterpoint to a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

The fact Renault had a factory ready-made to build something different also helped. The plant that used to build the composite-bodied Renault Espace MPV was hit by the decision to make the next Espace elsewhere, from steel. Renault had a workforce to keep happy. So, it gave them the Avantime to build.

Just one challenge. This required it to be derived from the old Espace MPV. And this is why the Avantime is such a distinctive machine – a glamorous executive express fashioned from the underpinnings of a seven-seat people carrier. How did they crack this challenge? By turning it into a large and totally unique coupe.

Like a coupe, it had two doors, but instead of a swooping roofline, it had a novel windowline with pillarless side glass and ultra-long front doors. With a chunky bustle shape to the rear end, there was no missing it, and the promise of a lavish high-rise cabin inside was obvious.

Sure enough, it had decadent seats mounted high up for a regal view out, something enhanced by an ultra-large panoramic glass roof. And surely the rear two seats were the best place of all? Well, not so. For, bafflingly, despite its size, the Avantime had appalling rear seat comfort, due to a lack of space and a raised-up floor that left occupants perched uncomfortably on the seats. It was like sitting in a rush-hour bus.

This was after the drama of getting into the rear, too. Each door weighted a massive 56kg, and you needed ultra-wide parking bays to stand any chance of getting anyone in and out of the rear. If you were parked on a slope, forget it: you’d need Iron Man to heave the doors open.

Renault even struggled to build them with executive car quality. The original launch was badly delayed because it couldn’t get the frameless side windows to seal properly. When it finally launched, BMW and Mercedes-Benz were not worried. Renault dealers were left relatively untroubled, too: little more than 8500 examples were sold, across Europe, in the entire time it was on sale.

It was thus put out of its misery early – despite one enterprising Brit ordering nine of them in 2003 to form the most distinctive executive fleet around. Clearly a fan of the quirky, we hear he today runs a fleet of BMW i3s. He can’t run the Avantime’s replacement, because it was such a flop, Renault hasn’t dared to again try making an executive car.

Yes, you could say the Avantime called time on any remaining Renault posh car aspirations…

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