An eccentric, failed French minivan-coupé first owned by a Brobdingnagian sumo champion is actually one of the greatest grand tourers ever made.
Akebono Tarō, a 500-lb, 6'8" tower of a man, became one of sumo’s greatest wrestlers in a rather peculiar way.
To an activity which is very hard to top in sheer Japaneseness, he arrived as an American boy named Chad from a life of basketball. It took him less than five years to become yokozuna, the highest rank of sumo champions. As for just how rare that rank is, consider that only 69 wrestlers have ever attained it and all but two of those are either retired or dead.
Renault Avantimes are more common but not by much. Designed and built by Matra, a company which has made everything from missiles to Jackie Stewart’s first world championship-winning Formula One racer to weird sports cars, it was unlike anything ever seen before.
At first glance, the Avantime is a minivan, and it’s not a bad guess: it’s built on an Espace platform. But closer inspection reveals a grand tourer of even grander eccentricity, with a touch of the space cargo vehicle from a benevolent Martian colony in its lines.
Naturally, it was an utter, devastating failure on the market. The Avantime is such an unearthly car that it’s absolutely impossible to comprehend unless you’ve actually sat in one. Production was stopped after a ridiculously low run of 8,270 examples over two years (2001–2003), which is barely over supercar numbers.
Yet if you do make your way into an Avantime, you will feel a transformation take place. The engine is a 3-liter V6 making around 200 HP, suitable perhaps for nothing but cigarette lighters in America, but in Europe, it’s big and it emits a droning, throaty rumble not unlike the VQ35DE in a Nissan 350Z. There is space around you every which way and there is even more space after you’ve pressed what Jeremy Clarkson called “the Avantime’s party piece” on Top Gear. It’s a button that drops every window and retracts the glass roof, instantly transforming the Avantime into a rolling lounge with no top and two six-foot gaping holes on each side, through which even a sumo wrestler or an unkempt television presenter can cock his elbow or his head out, into the spring breeze.
What Renault should have done is pick random people off the street and pop them into Avantimes with the glass gone. Nobody would have left with their wallets intact. They would have sold hundreds of thousands. It is that good. It makes you wonder why all touring cars are not made this way. It leaves you flabbergasted at the idiotic design trend of ultra-high waistlines which leaves you squinting out of your car as if you were stuck in a Soviet armored personnel carrier on its way out of Afghanistan over the winter of 1989.
This Renault did not do, leaving the Avantime a used car for those in the know and with the desire to own the world’s greatest modern grand tourer. I shall leave you with one more picture. It’s a blurry mess so I’ll explain.
It shows my friend Nino showing his Avantime, one of 8,270, to my mother. My mother is a staunch believer in the sedan as the ultimate body style. I’m conducting an experiment here. I’m trying to find out whether entrenched preconceptions of automotive styling can be changed upon exposure to something better.
My mother is very intelligent. I have high hopes. Stay tuned.