As bizarre as some French cars were, one was created more bizarre than all the others: the infamous Avantime, whose name is a combination of the French word “avant” (meaning “ahead”) and the English word “time.”
The Avantime was introduced for 2001 alongside the aforementioned Vel Satis. Supposedly combining the styling of a 2+2 coupe with the space of minivan, the Avantime concept was conceived by former Renault co-operative Matra, who dabbled in Formula 1 racing while building computers, bicycles, missles, and the Espace van. Matra intended the coupe-van-thing to cater to a younger generation of buyers who, as they saw it, grew up with the Espace and didn’t want to grow too far apart from it.
Le Quement handled the styling and came up with a large-butted one-box shape with a pillarless daylight opening, a massive retractable glass roof, and huge doors. It was something that was truly unlike anything ever built before by an automaker, a huge two-door van that was guaranteed to leave onlookers with the most confused look on their faces. No one could figure out if they were looking at a car, a small land-fairing cruise liner, or something sculpted by Picasso turned into a parade float.
Though the design wasn’t without its engineering issues, Renault bested the better part of them with some interesting solutions. For example, the Avantime used a space frame made of strengthened aluminum to retain structural integrity in a side impact collision in spite of the fact there weren’t b-pillars. The huge doors used a clever double-hinged design to keep them manageable in tight parking situations. To keep weight down, the lower body panels were all composite.
Aside from the neat engineering details, the best part of the Avantime was it’s so called “grand air” mode in which all of the windows and the big sunroof were retracted for a very convertible-like experience. The feature was activated with the simple push of a button on the headliner. It was this particular experience that Avantime owners would come to treasure most in their cars.
The entire package came at a hefty cost though. Engineering costs for the Avantime’s double hinged doors and semi-convertible design racked up at a whopping 224€ million back at the turn of the century (about $286 million US dollars then and $358 million today). Those engineering costs would also be passed on to the buyer with the base sticker price starting at 29,000€ (about $37,000 USD then, $46,000 USD today). With a sticker price like that, those young, Espace-loving buyers that the Avantime was supposed to attract couldn’t afford it. Their parents, which could, weren’t interested because of the odd styling and general lack of practicality. The Avantime also faced in-house competition from the Vel Satis, whose appearance looked more conventional in comparison.
Sales of the Avantime totaled up to just 8,557 cars in May 2003, at which point the plug was pulled due to Matra’s decision to leave the automotive market partially due to the money …