Cartier. Louis Vuitton. Chanel. And Avantime. That was the association Renault wanted you to make when it launched its latest segment buster more than fifteen years ago.
Presented as the 1999 "Coupéspace" concept by French coachbuilder Matra Automobiles and given the go-ahead by Renault for 2002, the Avantime shocked the market simply by showing up.
Was it a minivan? A coupé? A two-door wagon?
You might now call it a "crossover." At the time, though, the Avantime was impossible to categorize in the context of its contemporaries.
Strangely, perhaps, for two companies so proud of their French heritage, Renault and Matra pronounced the name as a part-French and part-English portmanteau: "Avant," in French (meaning before), and "time," in English. "Ahead of its time" was the intended effect, and a more prophetic moniker there has rarely been.
"A modern and daring model in the coupé class, Avantime plays on opposites, between the animal, almost feline front end and the stronger, squat and propulsive rear," said Renault.
"It is certainly a folly, a secondly a hideous creature," retorted Charles Moss, head of product analysis at J.D. Power-LMC, at the Frankfurt 2001 launch.
Available in Dynamique (two-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder) and Privilège (three-liter V-6) configurations, Avantime was never particularly quick, at 0-60 miles per hour in 8.6 seconds for the latter model; nor did it handle like most coupés, despite Matra's considerable efforts.
To create Avantime, Matra fitted a lightweight aluminum superstructure to the Espace chassis. Matra knew Espace well, having built it since birth through 2002. Now, it widened the track, lowered the suspension, and enlarged the wheels and brakes. Like all Espaces to that point, Avantime would use the fiberglass panels of which Matra was so proud.
Avantime handled better than many top-heavy cars, although handling, as CAR magazine pointed out, was hardly the point; far better to sit back and enjoy the unique panorama views and truly different driving experience.
Travelers sat high, with uninterrupted glass all around. The pillar-less design gave the feel of a roadster when the windows and one-tough, 1.7 m2 sunroof were open. "It's a bit like going from the small screen to the theater," said product manager Carole Hurel.
The interior, which seated four in abject comfort, would not have looked out of place in a futuristically designed and furnished home. Described by CAR's Paul Horrell as "architectural and luxurious," it hid more storage space in too many places to list. The doors – 1.4 meters long – were attached by patented double-articulation hinges, opening first upward, then swinging outward, to ease entry and egress in tight car parks.
A towering grand tourer on 17- and 18-inch wheels, which paradoxically made the ride a bit busy, Avantime was a car for those who desired attention. "We wanted someone walking around the car to be continually astonished," explained design project manager Theirry Metroz.
"When you look at the front, you can't imagine what the back will be like, and vice versa. The Avantime exploits those contrasts, between a figurehead of an animal and a solid, forceful stern."
Even in France, the looks of amazement never ceased. Avantime was as much art as car.
Philippe Guédon, head of Matra Automobiles, had conceived both the innovative Espace minivan (1984) and Avantime. He believed that Espace owners remained loyal to the car's charms even after their children had grown up and left home.
If Renault design head Patrick le Quément wasn't quite sure, he was certainly open to trying something new. A uniquely indulgent amalgam of minivan and sports coupé might lead luxury buyers to take a fresh look at Renault.
"I reckon Renault will sell as many of these as they can make, because despite looking barmy, the thing actually offers quite a lot of practicality," predicted Richard Hammond for Men & Motors.
Hammond's future colleague, Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, thought it "absolutely fantastic... I adore this car. For £24,000, if you want a four-seater car with a bit of style, you just can't beat this."
Leaving aside the problems of the Renault badge at a higher price point, the market had long been trained to categorize cars. Still, if anyone could successfully launch Avantime, it was a marque whose recent history was full of segment busters: the Mégane Scénic mini-MPV, Twingo city car, Espace minivan and Kangoo van among them.
The monochrome sea of black, silver and white cars on the roads, however, shows how conservative most car buyers are – and things get even more predictable in the near-luxury and luxury markets (if not the ultra-luxury stratosphere). Luxury buyers' expectations are to be exceeded rather than challenged.
And, uncharacteristically, Renault seemed to lack conviction. It described its target vaguely as "non-conformist consumers, at ease in society yet breaking free of social codes by claiming the right to own a top-range car which offers them real space for freedom."
Renault hazily expected Peugeot 406 coupé and Volvo C70 owners to take the plunge. Cabriolet drivers - BMW 3-series and Saab 9-3 - were also on the shortlist, as were sport-utility buyers looking at Jeep Grand Cherokees, the Mercedes-Benz ML, and the BMW X5.
That's a disparate cross-section of vehicles.
Coupé buyers would have found the Avantime unwieldy. Sedan buyers might have perceived it as too odd, and it was never marketed to those looking for a minivan. There would have been no guarantees there, either. Would they would have been able to get past the lack of a sliding door?
By 2003, Matra Automobiles found itself facing mounting losses stemming from the Avantime's lackluster sales. Part of the large defense and media Matra conglomerate run by Arnaud Lagardère (son of founder Jean-Luc), the company had devised as concept, then assembled, the Avantime for Renault at its Romorantin facility.
Matra had also built the Espace. Enthusiasts will remember Matra's own M-series cars (M620 through M670), which won Le Mans three years in a row (1972, 1973, 1974); the little D'Jet (one of the first roadgoing, mid-engined cars); the M530, the Marra-Simca Bagheera, the Matra-Simca Rancho (debatably the first road-biased SUV), and the Talbot-Matra Murena sports car.
Well short of the 20,000 annual sales planned, Renault shelled out €50 million to pull the plug on Avantime after less than two years on the market.
Just 5,522 Avantimes - of which roughly 400 for Britain and 800 for Germany - were built in 2002, and 1,399 in 2003.
"It's like a couture dress. Everyone finds it magnificent, but no one is actually ready to wear it," shrugged designer Thierry Metroz ten years later.
Automotive News reported that Matra was looking for a buyer for its engineering division.
Jean-Luc Lagardère, the charismatic 75-year-old founder of Matra, died on March 14th, 2003, weeks after severing his lifelong connection with the auto industry. He had left Renault's board and had sold his 1.3-percent stake in the automaker.
In the months after the Avantime's market failure, Renault suggested that the car had simply been a rolling indication of its intention to move upmarket – a preview of the Vel Satis. Indeed, though by no means a success, five times as many copies of the new luxury five-door were built over the Avantime's short, 2002-03 life.
It might also be said that the Avantime prepared the market for the controversial second-generation Mégane hatchback, which referenced Avantime's rear styling.
Perhaps the Avantime might have done better badged as an Infiniti in America, where the line between SUVs and sedans was becoming more blurred every day. After all, Car and Driver thought the Avantime more elegant and more competent than Pontiac's Aztek (with which the magazine saw a parallel).
Either way, Avantime was decidedly refreshing. It showed that, after a series of largely unconvincing attempts at luxury, Renault and chief designer Patrick le Quément were trying to tap into France's rich history of opulence and hedonism.
Le Quément had no regrets. "Of all the cars I worked on during my 22 years at Renault, the Avantime is one of the cars I consider the most spectacular," he reminisced in 2011, noting how remarkable it was that the car had retained its air of novelty even a decade on.
Moreover, its mere presence, no matter how short, helped cement Renault as more than a mainstream manufacturer. "Renault seem to be carefully crafting its reputation for every now and then giving us a mad car," mused Men & Motors' Richard Hammond.
Autocar writer-at-large Chris Harris suggested that every manufacturer whose brand image was "somewhere south of Volvo, i.e.: the mainstreamers" needed to take "a very long, hard look at what Renault's management has achieved and wonder how the hell they're going to compete.
"The way I see it, they can't.
"Here's why. Renault's range of cars is so complicated and extensive that it's quite difficult to know what's going on - at the last count, it had 22 different models. And individually many of them are very good cars. But it's their collective effort, the message that this group of disparate - and sometimes weird - vehicles sends out that matters.
"In a world obsessed with prestige, Renault has established itself as a sub-prestige brand and managed to make a virtue of the fact. No one else, apart from possibly Volvo, has done this."
Harris went on to credit Renault with "excellent, affordable and, crucially, interesting cars," meeting both pragmatic and right-brained needs in a "chameleon" range that all seemed to fit together. Cars like the Avantime and Clio V6 (a mid-engined hatchback), he added, were "never going to sell... but they both contribute greatly on a subliminal level, helping shuffle the company image away from the ordinary."
It was "difficult to see a future for anything overtly mainstream as society becomes more infatuated with notions of perceived superiority," remarked Harris, countering that "Renault has carefully redefined the acceptable face of ordinary motoring."