It might be too cynical to put it in these simple terms, but Renault is hailing the Avantime as a 'nonconformist' flagship model for its range and a sign of things to come. It will go on sale in the UK just two months before Renault's new executive car, the radically-styled Vel Satis, and the Avantime is also bound to turn its fair share of heads.
Based on the same platform as the Espace, Renault is intent on creating a new niche, just as the Espace did in Europe in 1984. Renault also points to niche successes like the Twingo, Kangoo and Scenic.
The Avantime is a coupe with some of the practicality of an MPV and innovative styling inside and out. It shares a high driving position with the Espace, and will seat four people in relative comfort. It has more boot space than the average family saloon and the rear seats fold to increase its carrying capacity further.
Renault expects Avantime buyers will currently be driving coupes, executive cars, people carriers and SUVs, and expects to sell about 1,500 units a year in the UK. The car will be powered by a 2.0- litre turbocharged engine or 3.0-litre V6, with a choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.
Specification is high, with the entry-level Avantime in Dynamique trim boasting climate control, part leather trim and satellite navigation. Its styling is certainly attention-grabbing with sharp lines, a tall cabin and an upright rear window that bends almost in a semi-circle.
The coupe theme is seen in its absence of a B-pillar and seatbelts designed into the front seats. There is some repetition of the Espace inside with its orange LED information panel and ventilation controls. But in the Privilege model we drove, Renault has succeeded in creating a more upmarket feel, with high-grade plastics and textured surfaces.
Rear passengers get a fair deal for a coupe, with double-hinged doors (an innovative solution for supermarket car parks) and plenty of shoulder and elbow room for two - or three at a pinch. Legroom is a different matter, getting tight with tall people sitting in the front, and an unnaturally high floor. It feels similar to sitting in the third row of seats in an MPV.
With large body panels and huge glass area raising fears over high repair bills, and the fact that large French cars traditionally have a poor reputation for holding their value compared to German executive contenders, it would be difficult to form a decision on buying the Avantime with an open mind at this stage. However, user-choosers interested in a coupe might be more tempted by a Peugeot 406 3.0 V6, which is still one of the most attractive cars ever built, is reasonably roomy and will outperform the Avantime.
Other coupe contenders include the classy Volvo C70, the BMW 3-series, the new Mercedes-Benz C-class Sports Coupe and the Saab 9-3. Directors looking for a luxury car are well served by variants at the lower end of the BMW 5-series, Mercedes-Benz E-class and Audi A6 ranges.
Most large MPVs are more practical than the Avantime, although Renault hopes MPV owners whose children have now grown up and left home or have cars of their own will be tempted by the commanding driving position and comfort of the new car. This is why the Avantime was a huge disappointment to me. Although it makes a bold statement it neither drives like a coupe, nor does it have the practicality of an MPV.
It is the ultimate victory of styling over substance. As a concept car signifying the future direction of Renault it succeeds, and we will soon see elements of its design in the new Vel Satis and the next generation Megane. But as a production car it fails, let down by poor driving dynamics, and failing to offer significant benefits from cars in each of the sectors from which Renault hopes to steal sales. Although the fleet appeal of the Avantime is limited there is a chance that the range will be joined by a 2.2 dCi turbodiesel. The dCi, which will also power the Laguna and Vel Satis next year, uses balancer shafts to boost refinement. But whether it will reach the UK and offer company car drivers the benefit of lower carbon dioxide emissions will depend on demand.
A Renault spokesman acknowledged that diesel sales are increasing in the UK and two new diesel coupes - the Mercedes C220 CDI and the Peugeot 406 2.2 HDi - could prove a useful barometer to how the market would react to the diesel. He said: 'What's happening with diesel in the UK is interesting, especially when you look at the current share of Laguna sales, and we will take this into account. We do not envisage introducing the 2.2 dCi, but there is nothing that excludes the UK from having a diesel.
'If there was only 100 diesels from the year's total volume of 1,500 units we could not support the costs of such a limited right hand-drive conversion, but if demand is higher, it will be a different matter.'
He added that other markets would also have a 3.0-litre V6 diesel from 2003. The engine is sourced from Isuzu with Renault input, and will make its debut in the Vel Satis. He also hinted that the 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine, due to be used in the Avantime and Vel Satis, would be put into the Laguna. The most striking aspect of the Avantime's interior is its huge glass area - four square metres including windows and the roof. All have an electric sunroof and all four windows and the roof can be opened at the touch of one button.
Like the Espace there is a central instrument binnacle with LED readout and numerous storage spaces. There are a few ergonomic grumbles - the Laguna-style plastic cover over the satellite navigation and CD player controls obscures the view of the controls when open. Visibility is excellent despite a prominent A-pillar, and the absence of a B-pillar does much to eliminate the rear three-quarter blindspot. However, rearward visibility is less than adequate, and more typical of a traditional coupe.
All cars available at the launch were pre-production six-speed manual 3.0-litre Privilege models. The engine is also used in the Laguna and Espace and is smooth, refined and torquey. The Avantime provides a smooth ride on flat surfaces and is a relaxed cruiser. Travelling on the autobahn at 130mph the overwhelming noise was wind lashing around the A-pillars and frameless windows, but at UK motorway speeds there was no such problem.
Poor road surfaces do, however, show up the inadequacies of its ability. Although it is 30% stiffer than the Espace, the large windows rattle over bumps and the ride becomes fidgety. There is the sort of body roll you would expect in such a tall car, with the Avantime easily losing composure in sudden directional changes on demanding roads.
It is also too easy to find the limits of grip. On our test route the front tyres began to squeal around a 50mph bend on a sliproad joining the autobahn.
When I first saw the Avantime I was full of expectation that the driving experience would be in keeping with its bold styling. But it was a major letdown. Despite being a relaxed cruiser, the Avantime drives like a coupe with MPV ride and handling.