French cars are cool. That’s a fact. Big French cars are cooler. Quirky big French cars are cooler still. And in 2001, Renault launched not one... but two quirky big French cars for our delight – the Renault Avantime and Renault Vel Satis.
The name “Avantime” is a portmanteau* of the French word “Avant” (“Before”) and the English word “Time”. It wasn’t like anything else on the market at the time – a sort of cross between a grand tourer, MPV, coupé and convertible. These days we’d think of it as a crossover, but twenty years ago customers were baffled.
|Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.
Like the Vel Satis, the Avantime was designed by Renault’s legendary chief designer Patrick Le Quément. But unlike the Vel Satis, the Avantime was built by Matra who a history in aerospace, defence and motor racing and who somewhere had along the way created the magnificent Matra Rancho.
The Rancho was really just a Simca van converted into the world’s first MPV with the addition of some fibreglass, seats and plastic panels. Although it was a modest success, Matra took the idea further and created arguably the world’s first purpose-built MPV in their P18 prototype which they intended to sell to their long-time partners Chrysler-Simca. Chrysler were interested, but their business was collapsing and they were bought out by PSA (Peugeot Citroën) who weren’t interested in the concept at all.
Matra then sought out a new partner for this radical new car, and in the end Renault agreed to work with them. After some back-and-forth, the Renault Espace was launched in 1984… although the original still had many components from the Simca parts bins. Consumers did not understand the Espace at first – huge, radically shaped and quite different from anything else on European roads. However, once customers “got it” the Espace became a significant success.
Matra was a relatively small company though, and in order to build enough Espaces for Renault they had to drop their sports car line and give 100% of production over the to the new MPV. The Espace II was launched in 1991 with the same basic formula but a more Renault style, followed by the Espace III in 1996 which introduced a radical new interior.
Hundreds of thousands of Espaces were built by Matra, but Matra’s automotive division had just one customer…. Renault. And in 2002 Renault switched the production of the new Espace IV to their own factory in Sandouville. This was potentially very bad news for Matra.
Renault’s solution was to co-design a new car based on the Espace which would utilise Matra’s own engineering skills. Based on the same floorpan as the Espace, the Avantime had just four luxurious seats (squeezing in a fifth person at a pinch), two double-hinged pillarless doors, an almost completely glass roof with the largest production sunroof of the time, a cavernous boot, futuristic yet minimalistic interior all housed in a radical and coherent body based on Matra’s space frame engineering.
Typically this was all powered by a big 3 litre V6 engine and an automatic gearbox, combined with a soft ride for eating up the miles on the autoroute. One interesting feature was the “full air” mode, where at the press of a button all the windows would drop and the sunroof would open to create a sort-of-convertible. The lack of B-pillars helped the illusion of open-ness.
There was nothing else like it, and the Avantime didn’t fit into anybody’s pre-defined notion of what a car should be. Sure, it was a radical design… but so was the Espace and with that it just took a little while for consumers to understand that this was the car they needed.
So, sales of the Avantime were slow to begin with. Alas they stayed that way, with the model selling just over 8000 units worldwide rather than the 100,000 needed for profitability. Despite being critically acclaimed, it was a sales disaster. Matra’s automotive division went bankrupt, ending 40 years of innovative car designs..
..and yet, Renault consider the Avantime to be a design success even if it wasn’t a commercial one. Twenty years late, the huge bulk of the Avantime is not unlike the majority of other new cars. Even the esoteric two-door layout has found its way into other large cars. Today, the Avantime is recognised as being innovative… but nearly two decade too late to save Matra. This is a car that was ahead of its time in more ways than one.
Part of the problem with the Avantime may well have been the Renault Vel Satis. If you wanted a big, weird Renault then this was another choice you could make. A bit bigger than the Laguna, it was also designed by Patrick Le Quément but with a rather different design philosophy.
A large hatchback designed for executives and dignitaries, the Vel Satis was designed to look imposing. This was a car with presence rather than elegance, while not exactly ugly there was a hint of brutalism in the exterior design. Inside, the was comfortable and more conventional. The odd name - a bit like the Avantime's - was a combination of Velocity and Satisfaction.
|Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.
It lent itself well to those who needed a car that people would notice without it looking too flashy. The President of France had one, which he loaned to Queen Elizabeth II. The French police would use them as unmarked police cars. These were serious motors.
The design never really fitted in with the rest of the Renault range of the time, with the result that it didn’t date in the same way. Although the Vel Satis is a rare site, especially in the UK, it still looks fresh.
A revision in 2005 kept the car going until 2009, although it wasn’t sold in the UK. About 64,000 were built, although just 1200 made it to the UK… even so, that was 8 times the number of Avantimes worldwide.
Both cars are uncommon these days, but it you are in the market for a big weird car with 20-year-old French electrics, then prices do vary depending on condition. The Avantime is probably the most collectable, with some prices going as high as £10,000 but mostly much cheaper. The Vel Satis can typically be picked up for a few thousand pounds, but it’s not as well-loved as the Avantime and numbers are dwindling fast.
Lovers of big weird French cars in the UK don’t have much choice. Although the fifth-gen Espace is pleasingly individual, it isn’t available in the UK. Other most other big French cars don’t have the character, with most big Renaults originating from Korea and Citroen and Peugeot producing badge-engineered Stellantis models you would be hard pushed to find anything quirky.
* literally meaning “coathanger”, a word created by merging two other words.