Fabulous Flops is a monthly series profiling some of the spectacular failures in the automotive industry. The automotive industry is by nature an innovator, but sometimes those innovative ideas are taken out of the oven before they are done cooking, others fall victim to poor timing. Today we are profiling the delightfully bizzare Renault Avantime.
There’s no mistaking that Renault has built some bizarre looking cars during its 113 years in business. Back in the 1950s, Renault rolled out the Colorale, a very butch looking five-door car with optional four-wheel drive meant to compete in Europe’s large family car segment at the time. The 1960s brought about the 8 sedan, whose front fascia juxtaposed a rather constipated brow above a wide-eyed yet expressionless stare.
The ‘70s and ‘80s was when Renault started to get a little more frisky with oddly designed cars. In 1971, the French automaker built the 15 coupe, based around the already fishbowl-looking 12 sedan, with rounded styling that was better suited to an electric shaver. Renault then launched the 14 hatchback in 1976, whose big-hipped shape and notorious rust issues earned it the comical nickname of “the rotten pear” in the automotive press. For 1980 there was the oddly bloated and hunchbacked Fuego sports coupe whose defining feature was a huge belt of ribbed cladding that ran its entire waist line.
1962 Renault 8 (left) and 1976 Renault 14 (right)
With the exception of the Batmobile-like Alpine GTA, Renault’s styling team mostly simmered down in the 1990s only to explode in a burst of French burlesque oddness in the early 2000s under the direction of stylist Patrick Le Quement. In 2001 Renault built the Vel Satis, another large five-door car with very untraditional upright styling that was too ugly or wasn’t ugly enough, all depending on who was looking at it. For 2002 the Megane, which had been fairly conservative during its first run in the ‘90s, would flaunt what would turn out to be one of the biggest derrieres ever seen on a small hatchback..
1991 Renault Alpine GTA
As bizarre as those particular Renaults 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.”
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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.
2001 Renault Avantime
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.
2001 Renault Avantime
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.
2001 Renault Avantime Interior with door hindge detail
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 lost developing and building the Avantime and Renault’s growing disinterest for the model. In contrast, sales of the Vel Satis equaled up to 62,201 cars during it's production run from 2001 - 2009 (an average of about 7,000 cars a year).
The Avantime’s polarizing styling and concept coupled with its very costly but clever engineering and poor sales definitely make this one of the most jaw-dropping failures ever in the automotive industry. In spite of its name, over a decade later we still don’t know what time it was supposed to ahead of.
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