What do a Mini Cooper, a DeLorean DMC-12 and a Lamborghini Countach all have in common? They were all conceived by design visionaries, people who simply wanted to do something a little different and have some fun in the process. When you think about it, car designers are nothing more than children trapped inside adult bodies.
Sadly, just like when parents interrupt a kid’s video game so they can do homework instead, car designers often hit dead ends where bean counters—essentially people who don’t know how to have fun—wait for them with a straight face.
But what happens when the big boss gives a car designer carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want? Miraculous things happen. Creativity is set free, immaturity takes over, fun is activated and cars like the Renault Avantime are born.
Because this vehicle reminds me of something a child would have sketched in a coloring book, and because it’s abnormally attractive in an indescribably odd manner, I just had to get my hands on one. I did just that, and I’m here to tell you that the world would be a much happier place if carmakers gave their designers more power.
(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a 2002 Renault Avantime came from a Canadian Jalopnik reader from Québec City who recently imported one and asked me if I could review it. So I did.)
The Renault Avantime, whose name literally means “ahead of its time”, was the brainchild of French automotive designer Patrick Le Quément, the man who also penned the Ford Sierra, or as we knew it in this part of the world, the Merkur XR4Ti.
The idea behind the Avantime was to blend the practical attributes of a minivan —or as Europeans like to call it, an MPV—with the racy, two-door styling of a sports coupe.
Back then, Renault believed that the children who had been riding around in a Renault Espace growing up (Renault’s bread and butter MPV) would remain “loyal” to this type of vehicle as they’d grow older and seek something similar for themselves, but sportier.
Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering what the Renault execs were smoking to come up with such a ridiculous assumption. Nothing about this business case makes sense. A minivan coupe? Really?
Then again, we are talking about the same company that gave birth to the equally bonkers Clio V6.
Anyway, the end result was nothing short of extraordinary. When it hit showroom floors in 2001, the car had no B pillars and its entire roof would open up in one solid piece. The front end looked like the rear, and vice versa.
The interior was just as intense as the exterior, and no matter from which angle you looked at the thing, you’d find something fun to look at.
Riding on a revamped Espace platform, the Avantime gave you the option of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a 2.2-liter diesel four, or a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter V6, which is what my tester had. It’s good for a claimed 207 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque.
Front-wheel-drive is the only way to go for the Avantime, with a choice of either a five-speed automatic gearbox or a six-speed manual unit. And yes, my Mars Red example had the stick.
While the idea behind the Avantime may seem totally off-beat, the vehicle itself isn’t all that bad when you start peeling back the onion.
In many ways, this is one of the first interpretations of the modern crossover. Today’s carmakers keep shoving “coupe” versions of SUV’s down our throats in an attempt to convince us that a car can be all things to all people. Ever since this Renault hit the road almost 20 years ago, we’ve seen pretty much all types of vehicles being transformed into something “sporty.” Think the BMW X4M or AMG’s sloping-roof crossovers.
Also, the Avantime was crammed with a plethora of forward-thinking technology for its time, like back-up sensors that beep at you when you approach an obstacle. It had a heat-reflecting panoramic sunroof, aluminum body panels and “double kinematic” door hinges, which I’ll get back to in a bit.
But more importantly, the Avantime matters because Renault actually had the guts to build it. Someone wearing a suit up in the confines of a profit-making corporation looked at this unusual contraption and thought “yeah, let’s make this!”
Sadly, that gamble only works some of the time. The Avantime was a monumental failure from a sales standpoint, with only 8,500 units sold during the two (!) years it was produced. But I think that makes it even more unique and special today.
Finally, just like that Clio I drove last year, Canada’s 15-year import law means we get the cool forbidden fruit stuff ten years before you Americans do, which is why I was able to drive a fully legal example on North-American roads.
When I say the Avantime is the stuff of a kid’s imagination, I’m mostly referring to all the fun features Renault thought of cramming into it.
If you were one of those kids growing up (or still today) that felt the need to fiddle with everything the moment you sat in a new car with hopes of discovering something different, then this car’s for you.
Nothing about the Avantime is normal, per se. The immediate thing you notice is how top-heavy and surprisingly well-stanced this thing is for a minivan-ish vehicle. The car sits on a nice set of 16-inch wheels wrapped around low-profile 235-mm-wide tires and with just the right amount of wheel gap, so it kind of looks sporty in a unique French way.
Open up its long doors and you instantly spot that double hinge design to prevent those doors from hitting the next car when parked at Costco. In the 300 plus cars I’ve driven in my career, I have never seen a car door open this way.
Step inside, and the interior has absolutely no reference points. This isn’t a car, but a lounge which was dropped over four wheels and an engine. The entire dashboard is basically one large storage compartment, with drawers all over the place. Even the radio unit is hidden inside a cubby.
HVAC controls sit at each extremity of the windshield, and the steering wheel has buttons on it with numbers and letters that do nothing when you poke them.
Even the controls for the power-electric mirrors aren’t located where you’d typically expect them to be. They’re between the front seats, because French design.
Jean, the owner of this Avantime and also owner of the Lévis Chrysler dealership up in Quebec City, threw me the keys to his pristine example right at his garage. I must say, there’s something thrilling about walking up to the front desk of an FCA franchise and ask for the keys to the boss’s funky French car.
The Avantime was sitting inside the same shop the dealership typically performs maintenance on Dodge Journeys and Fiat 500s. The car was immaculate, its paint shining bright, appearing like it had just rolled out of its Matra assembly plant in France.
My job was to drive this Martian transportation device out of a tight garage where an entire staff tried to figure out who was insane enough to take the boss’ car for a spin.
Needless to say, I was nervous. But in the Avantime, I felt like nothing could stop me. I depressed the light clutch, shoved the long, yet precise shifter into first gear, and off I went in an automobile that would make more sense in a Daft Punk video.
Despite all that praise over its weirdness, my main disappointment with the Avantime was its interior. While it’s a fantastic place to spend some time in, with a clean and uncluttered cabin design, it’s just not particularly roomy in there. At least, not for something based on a minivan.
This thing only seats four people, it’s hard to access the back seat, and there’s an enormous waste of space between the dashboard and the large, slanted windshield. I didn’t expect it to be so small in there.
The trunk is fine though, and I’ll get back to it in a minute, but I have a hard time figuring out why anyone would purchase something the size of a Nissan Murano but with less passenger space than a Honda HR-V. This may have had something to do with its lack of sales success, when you think about it.
One other minor element that grinded my gears while I attempted to understand how this car operated, was the tiny, early 2000's digital gauge cluster. In the Avantime, it’s not really a cluster, but a thin, calculator-style orange screen with graphs and digits to illustrate vital driving data. The screen also randomly displays French words like “pour”, which translates to “for”. No idea why.
The worst is the RPM “gauge”, which is essentially another tiny bar located behind the steering wheel and shaped like an air vent. You can’t really see anything in it, which made shifting the manual transmission a challenge.
This is what the Avantime was built for, and it doesn’t disappoint.
While the interior is more cramped than I had anticipated, those enormous leather thrones rank among some of the most comfortable chairs I’ve ever sat my wide automotive journalist ass in. Plus, those enormous, pillar-less side windows and the slanted windshield, all coupled to the smooth, low-end torque of that V6 engine lead to a relaxed driving vibe.
Since I drove this thing during the summer season, I was also able to sample the one-button window and roof feature, another innovative first for the Avantime.
All you need to do is hit a button located next to the rearview mirror for all windows and the enormous sunroof to open up in unison. Back then, Renault called this feature an “open-air mode”, and it’s fantastic!
As I mentioned earlier, the trunk doesn’t have the same problem as the cabin. It’s actually quite spacious when compared to the passenger area. Of course, it opens up in a manner you’ve never seen on another automobile, like an awkward angular clamshell which gives way to a deep cargo area once you remove the fake floor.
Total cubes are about nineteen, and climbs to an acceptable 31 cu-ft when those rear seats are folded flat. That’s good, but even a Volkswagen Golf can do much better.
This is actually an area where I was not expecting the Avantime to be so good. While not a sports car, I can see why Renault marketed these things as a more dynamic alternative to a minivan.
Handling is European-refined with a solid construction and a well-planted feel on the road. There’s a capable chassis here, one that doesn’t flex over road imperfections, even without a B-pillar, and an ability to carry speed effortlessly on winding roads. Turn in is sharp, with a shortened steering ratio that leads to sharp reflexes when applying steering inputs.
The V6 engine, which is actually shared with the Clio V6 performance hatchback, is a gem, with a linear torque curve and a willingness to rev. It also sounds rather good as revs climb, with a deep, throaty intake snarl that adds character to the car.
That manual gearbox is quite solid too. While, yes, the shifter itself is long, gears “click” in with little effort, encouraging you to push this thing a little harder than you typically would a car of this category.
The Avantime isn’t fast—Renault claimed a 0-60 mph time of about eight seconds back then—nor will it break any records at the track. But there’s enough athleticism here to encourage fun, spirited driving.
Because the Renault Avantime isn’t yet considered a classic, and because it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it vehicles, it’s currently unclear if it’ll appreciate in value.
Also, since not a lot of them were actually built, with the ones sold mostly located in Europe, finding one this side of the pond might be a little rough. Somehow, Bring a Trailer currently has one for sale for $11,500 with only 7,000 km (4,349 miles) on tap.
Well-kept, low-mileage examples, especially the ones powered by the V6 engine and coupled to the six-speed manual transmission, typically hang between the $12,000 and $20,000 mark. If you’re interested, this one’s for sale, with its odometer reading 77,500 km (roughly 48,200 miles.)
I have seen a lot of weird shit in my life. But nothing has topped this Renault Avantime.
What you have here is a car that’s telling the entire planet that artistic freedom must remain alive and strong. That when carmakers give their designers wings to explore their creativity, fantastic, eccentric, ridiculous, and fun things happen.
Did the Renault Avantime allow Renault to make more profit? Of course it didn’t. Did it make any sense from a commercial standpoint? Hell no! But it looked like something that belonged in a kid’s bedroom, and that’s enough.
Just like when you’d open up the doors to your toy car and believed it could fly through the air, the Avantime makes you believe for a short moment that life doesn’t need to be hard, stressful or complicated. In this stylish Renault you’re instantly brought back to a time when your biggest challenge was beating the final boss at Contra. In the Avantime, your imagination is set free, and the entire world is yours.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.