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Avantime: Not Mainstream

The French automaker Renault is one of the past masters at creating market segments that others did not know existed.

The French automaker Renault is one of the past masters at creating market segments that others did not know existed. One only has to think of the Espace, which for so long was the standard bearer for minivans in Europe. Then along came the trendsetting Scenic, a pint-sized minivan that was more appropriate to European roads and which, if anything, was even more of a success. Add into the mix such models as the Twingo and Kangoo, and Renault's innovative modus operandi is plain to see. However, with the Avantime, it is pushing the boundaries even further.

There is no doubt about it, whichever way you look at the French company's new model, it is distinctive. Some might call it outrageous, others may think it ugly, but whatever it is it will not be mistaken for any other model on the road. Ever since it appeared as a concept car at the Geneva auto show in 1999, the Renault's coupé-minivan Avantime has been acknowledged as a design that pushes the boundaries.

Based on the floor plan of the Espace, it is a simply huge two-door four-seater, but one in which the rear seat passengers are almost as well served as those in the front. As Renault is aiming this vehicle at the empty nesters who have grown to love the space, size and command driving position of their minivan, but who no longer need the rear seats on a regular basis, a great deal of emphasis has been put on driver and passenger comfort.

An intriguing part of this car, though, is the complicated double-hinge arrangement that enables the doors to open without taking up too much swept volume. This is an important consideration in Europe where parking spaces are tight and coupes with large doors are always at a disadvantage as they need a bigger space between vehicles to be opened. The Avantime goes some way to address this while also allowing far easier entrance and egress for the rear seat passengers. The penalty, though, are doors that weigh around 55 kg each.

The model is actually a co-production between Renault and Matra Automobile, which know each other well since they have been working together on the Espace for the last 18 years. That original contract called for Matra Automobile to make all the investment while Renault guaranteed a minimum sale. With the Avantime, though, both investment and profits are being split 50/50. The contract with Renault is several inches thick says Philippe Guédon, chief executive of Matra Automobile, but it is best left on a bookshelf saying: "If you have to open it, that's a bad sign."

Approximately $97.5-million has been spent on engineering, $68.5-million for tooling used by suppliers, and $27-million for tooling, making a total of $193-million, a reasonable sum for a new model. Investment was kept low to keep the car profitable at prices between $32,500-$35,000. Should demand ever push production to around 30,000 units a year, says Renault product planning manager Philippe Cohen, the profits would be significant.

The new model is being built at Matra's Romorantin plant in France, and shares the line with the Espace with which it shares almost 50% of the components. In fact, it was hoped that the percentage shared would be even greater, but the Avantime's many unique design features prevented that.

"We wanted to have 60% parts in common, but we needed to change more than we first thought," says Guédon. "The chassis needed to be stiffened because there is no B-pillar, and the double-hinged doors were more complicated than engineers had foreseen."

In an initial stage the different steel parts of the platform are welded together before being hot-dip galvanised in a zinc bath. The aluminium sections¾the cantrails and cross members¾which are painted and clear-coated in a second production unit, are welded in the Romorantin plant. This upper structure is then attached to the rest of the body. To optimise resistance to shocks, the cantrail/chassis is carried out by both bolting and adhesive bonding. The end result is a structure whose torsional stiffness is 60% greater than the Espace.

The use of aluminium for the two upper pillars has also resulted in a weight saving of 10 kg in the upper part of the vehicle, contributing to the lowering of the center of gravity. The SMC (sheet molding compound) composite skin, hot molded and made, like that of the Espace, of resin, fiberglass and calcium carbonate, is subjected to powerful ultraviolet rays, reinforcing the adherence of the basecoat. It is then assembled to the metallic structure using a two-pack polyurethane cement. Both malleable and compressible, easy to cut and drip-free, it is heated by electromagnetic induction to bring its polymerization time to 90 minutes. Another advantage of this technology is that it prevents any geometric dispersion of the structure by simply acting on the thickness of the bead of cement.

The structure is then moved to the painting stage, followed by its placement on the actual assembly line, where the vehicle is fitted with its powertrain, suspension systems and interior and exterior trim and equipment.

Initially, the Avantime only has one engine option¾a 24-valve 3.0-liter V6¾but it will be joined by a new 4-cylinder, 16-valve 2.0-liter turbo unit and, next year, the 2.2-liter dCi diesel engine currently found in the Laguna II.

Renault and Matra plan to build 9,000 units this year, reaching a rhythm of 100 per day at full production with breakeven occurring at around 18,000-20,000. Should the volume increase, it will not cause too many problems, as the next-generation Espace is going to be produced at a Renault plant.

With around 350 units a day being produced, this model has now become far more of a mainstream rather than a niche vehicle, and with the structural changes planned for the forthcoming model, such as steel stampings rather composite body panels, the Romorantin plant simply cannot accommodate it. Anyway, says Guédon, Matra's role is more that of an innovator than a large-volume vehicle builder.

Sales start in September in Europe, and will extend next year to Singapore, South Africa, Japan and elsewhere. Whether the Avantime will ever have the sales appeal of the Espace is difficult to assess. Its distinctive looks will not appeal to everyone, but on the other hand, 20,000 units is hardly a large number of vehicles to sell.

Renault has been very clever in hedging its bets so that it is not too exposed should the vehicle fail to attract buyers. However, such is this company's track record in producing successful quirky niche vehicles that it will be an odds-on favorite to succeed.