1999 Geneva Show: Renault Avantime

March 8, 1999

by William Diem

PARIS — As the Geneva Motor Show prepares to open this coming week, Renault hopes to open a new niche in Europe, as it has done three times already in the last 16 years — that of the coupe/minivan.

At Geneva, Renault will introduce the Avantime,

a four-seat vehicle based on the Renault Espace. It was the Espace that founded the minivan segment in Europe in 1983, about the same time Chrysler was inventing it in America.

The vehicle Renault showed to the press Feb. 5 in the Louvre is a concept that closely reflects the car that it will start selling next February. The Avantime will be shown at the Geneva show, the production version at Frankfurt.

"The series car will be slightly longer than the Espace" at 15 feet, said Philippe Guedon, the CEO of Matra Automobiles, which will build the car for Renault. The project, according to Georges Douin, the vice president for product development, will be "reasonably profitable" if Renault sells 60,000 to 80,000 vehicles over five or six years, "but our ambitions would be greater."

The car will turn heads, as its proportions are unlike anything now on the road in Europe, or anywhere.

Renault says it invented new segments with the Espace, with the Twingo city car, then with the Megane Scenic, a compact minivan with five seats. Renault calls its new segment coupéspace (pronounced "coop-AY-spaace").

"The coupéspace formula is generic and could be applied to other segments," Douin said. He said Renault is not developing other versions, but Guedon noted that "when we launched the Espace, we never thought of all the versions we would have now."

The first coupéspace vehicle in Renault’s lineup, the Avantime uses the 3.0-liter 24-valve V-6 engine already powering the Laguna and Espace. It is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that can be used as an automatic, thanks to clutchless shifting.

The back window is nearly a semicircle of glass. The back of the car looks like the front of an Art Deco tugboat. The top of the concept is a long sheet of glass, but the series version will have sections that can open to the sky. The upper structure is aluminum, to give the car better weight distribution and to give Matra and Renault more practice using the material.

The air conditioner will be more powerful than that of the Espace because all the glass will have a tendency to heat the cabin on sunny days. It also brings a lot of light, which Renault regards as a luxury. "The show is taking place outside," said chief designer Patrick LeQuement. Inside, the four passengers have loads of leg, head and shoulder room. The Avantime will spurn plastic for interior surfaces. Space, light, and "noble materials" like leather make up the luxury, he said.

The doors open in two steps, allowing them to be large without being clumsy. In the concept, there are DVD screens in the dashboard and on the back of the front seats, so the rear passengers can watch the show. Headlights are dressed in clear polycarbonate rather than glass. Avantime rides on the Michelin PAX system of run-flat tires, mounted on 20-inch aluminum wheels from Speedline.

The profile is somewhere between a minivan and a standard coupé. It gives a higher driving position than a car, but it is lower than a full-sized minivan.

Avantime has no competitors," according to Douin, but he hopes to steal sales from makers of German luxury coupes.

"The car remains a symbol social status, but it is no longer its sole reference," he said. "The car is becoming, especially in Germany, the embodiment of a lifestyle focused increasingly on leisure-time interests, and less on their work life."

He said the secret of Renault’s success in developing new niches was in "anticipating the changes in society." Customers for the Avantime will be people "who want to fall in love at first glance. Today, they own coupes, station wagons, and, in Germany, four-wheel-drives. They want a car with a strong personality." With Avantime, no doubt they will have exactly that.

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