Is it a crossover? A coupe? An MPV? And SUV? A shooting brake? A hatch? Yes and no to all! All of these definitions have hazy distinctions with grey areas in between, and the Avantime is unusual enough to not really fit in any of them properly. This is the third time Matra has created a model that practically stands in its own segment - but the first time it hasn’t worked.
I’m going to do a few brief posts about the history of Matra. Because cheap mid-engined cars are cool, and French cars are weird, and I need something to do. Also car content on Oppo can’t hurt. This is part eight. (Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven).
The Avantime was conceived as early as 1992 by Matra’s Philippe Guédon, eventually presented by Matra to Renault to help fill production capacity at Matra’s factory, since Renault would take Espace IV production in house. Philippe intended to catch a perceived market of children who grew up riding around in an Espace. Children who were older, image conscious, interested in expressing their non-conformity through driving a unique car, and had disposable income. To that end it was given a 152kW Renault V6, a 6 speed manual, and was presented as a coupe - just 5 seats and 2 doors, despite its underpinnings as a family hauler and despite being only 20mm shorter than the Espace III. It had, long, pillar-less coupe-like doors with a genius double-hinge (dubbed “double kinematic”) allowing them to open generously within a confined space. In fact this door design was borrowed from the earlier Matra P41 concept, precursor to the original Twingo.
It also had the ability to roll down the rear side windows as well as the door ones (like a convertible) for a completely open look, and a single button that would open all glass in the car - “grand air” mode. The full glass roof is common today, but innovative and exciting in period, and was set in a bold exposed aluminum frame. Other touches include windows lowering automatically when a seat is folded forward to give better access to the rear seats, power sun-shades to help cool the huge greenhouse, and “theater seating” whereby the rear seats are mounted slightly higher than the fronts for that special feeling all ‘round. It really seems to be a well thought-out car, built with aluminum and modern (for the time) composites - this was seen as a high end vehicle and Matra went all out to make it so.
It was originally shown to the public at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show as the Coupéspace - literally meaning a coupe of the Espace III with which it shared 50% of its parts. After delays to get the doors and pillarless roof finalised, it would hit market in 2001 as the Avantime (avant meaning “ahead”), unfortunately at a similar time to another unusual up-market Renault, the Vel Satis. Sadly, unlike the (hideous) Vel Satis which would sell more than 60,000 units over 8 years, the Avantime would survive just 3 years. Sales were expected to hit 15,000 in the first year, but it managed only 3,900, not helped by the absence of the all important diesel engine in its first year.
You can see more Coupéspace in this crazy period ad from 1999. Seems it was running and driving which is cool.
Financial losses forced Matra to close the historic factory in Romorantin in 2003, and Renault decided it wasn’t worth taking production in-house for the flailing model. With just 8,557 built, the Avantime was dead and so was Matra as a builder of automobiles.
I think part of the failing of this car is that the MPV as a class, introduced as the Espace in 1984, was never cool. It was what it was intended to be - a capable and practical lifestyle vehicle for families, not so different from today’s SUVs which are forever marketed driving through streams and parked next to rivers. But the Espace, or the MPV, was never seen that way. By the early 2000s MPVs were considered hopelessly bland, slow, the car you buy when you’ve given up on style and enjoyment entirely and just want to get your kids to and from their various engagements. In such a world, a coupe-ified “cool” MPV was always going to be tainted. A car’s heritage says so much about it to buyers - a Ferrari has racing heritage and an SUV evokes its more capable cousins, LandCruisers and the like. The Avantime’s heritage is the most boring class of car on the road, it could never have been cool.
But we can end on a high note. It seems that later in life the Avantime achieved the recognition it deserved. The Espace III mechanicals, electronics and widely used Renault/PSA engine mean reliability and maintenance are manageable, the handling of the car was always praised and the design is still unique and modern no matter where you park it. It has an active group of owners and on September 3 2011, 200 Avantime owners gathered at Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry in France, along with a number of people from Matra who brought the car to life. It’s a rare, iconic, concept car for the road, but one that you can own trouble-free. It would seem that the audacious styling that made it a challenging product in market has become an asset of the car over time. Truly, the Avantime was ahead of its time!