Not afraid of blazing a trail, even if it’s to a dead end, Renault’s transport solutions for la famille nucléaire are a class apart
There’s a line in the incomparable Blackadder Goes Forth in which our eponymous hero observes that a war “hasn’t been fought this badly since Olaf the Hairy, high chief of all the Vikings, accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside”.
It’s difcult not to look at the Renault Avantime and arrive at a similar conclusion. The car business is at the apex of capitalism, wherein juicy proft is reaped by clever designers, engineers and product planners when they create something lots of people buy, a result rendered all the sweeter when it’s something they never knew they wanted. Sadly, in the Avantime’s case, they never knew they wanted it because they didn’t want it.
Renault, then trumpeting itself not inaccurately as a “créateur
d’automobiles”, served up a car that was efectively an Espace coupe, a bold proposition driven by avuncular design boss Patrick Le Quément’s belief that space, light and height were key components in 21st-century luxury motoring (see also the Vel Satis). Squint a bit and the Avantime could have been part of a grand brand continuum back to 1905’s Type S, and a generous soul could fnd merit in the idea of a palatial, decadent, pseudoGT. But it was also created to fulfl a contractual obligation Renault had
with Matra, who spent two years struggling to turn 1999’s Geneva show concept into a production reality. With mixed results, it has to be said.
Full disclosure: I ran an Avantime for a year, back in 2003, and it’s equal parts amusing and sobering being reunited. The fact is, I loved the silly old thing, and 14 years later I still do. Especially now that its rarity – 8,557 sold all told, just 435 in the UK – is accelerating, well, mildly speeding up, its future-classic status and you can pick one up for about £5k. The huge front doors, suspended on complex double-cantilevered hinges, always shuddered when you opened them, and the intervening years and the 105,000 miles this one has racked up obviously haven’t improved matters. The Bridge of Weir leather on the vast armchairs is now heavily patinated, but they’re mighty comfortable. The dashboard is a late Nineties timewarp, probably the clearest indicator of how far things have come (the audio system came with a remote control, for heaven’s sake). Yet despite France’s rep for, um, fckle build quality, the Avantime remains a surprisingly solid thing. Not a bad drive either, with the creamy if rather lethargic, 207bhp 3.0-litre V6 gamely hauling its substantial mass along. This is a car for tree-lined boulevards rather than bendy B-roads, though.
As for progress, well, the latest Scenic is self-evidently a vastly more practical tool than its wacky forebear. Renault’s commitment to mainstream weirdness was almost its undoing, but the Scenic is that rare thing: an MPV whose principal USP is its far-out design, capped by those audacious 20in alloys. It can’t match the Avantime’s party trick – the full-length glass roof and pillarless glass all-round still dazzle – but there’s enough fair coursing through its veins to separate it from the herd. Convergence is a word you hear a lot in 2017, but Renault still has the balls to do things its own way.