Créateur d’Automobiles: that’s how Renault styled themselves for a while. And indeed some of the concept cars have been very good. But, we can’t help noticing a gap between the promise and reality.
Just before the turn of the 21st century, Renault had successfully re-invented itself as a maker of one-box or ‘monospace’ cars of various sizes, from the Espace that started it all in 1984 to the Scenic of 1995, through Patrick Le Quement’s masterpiece: the Twingo Mark I of 1992.
Then in quick succession came three large concepts which promised a lot but, unsurprisingly, delivered very little and left Renault fans reeling and weeping at what might have been – another 3 to 4 cars to top the range and further redefine Renault’s unique place in an overcrowded market. First came the Vel Satis concept at the Paris motorshow of 1998. It meant to herald the dawn of a new era and outline Le Quement’s vision for a new Renault flagship, barely disguised as a coupé in this instance.
It also paid tribute to Renault’s glorious past as a luxury car maker between the wars, and the imposing 40CV in particular, with sharp straight lines and carefully chosen styling cues like the pointy front end and slits in lieu of grille.
While those details made it on the production model of 2002, the rest was a more pedestrian package which crucially failed to deliver on the promise of one-box in all sizes.
By losing the soft transition between bonnet and windscreen angle, Renault ended up with a saloon which failed to translate the elegance of the concept while giving no clue as to the priority given to passenger space. That was missed opportunity #1.
Renault’s failure is all the more staggering that the two concepts that followed the Vel Satis showcar further demonstrated the coherence and the versatility of the approach. Even more surprising was that the concept that followed a year later – the Avantime of 1999 – was production-ready. Proof that Renault was capable of exploring unknown territories and take its totemic monospace where no other manufacturer had ventured before.
The lineage with the Vel Satis is obvious from the side and rear views, and spoilt only by a front end which is strangely reminiscent of a face-lifted R11, circa 1985. For the rest, the beauty of the Avantime is that the production model was hardly more subdued and in both cases the pictures speak for themselves:
Missed opportunity #2: the Avantime was doomed even before it even hit the showrooms, because it was conceived as a standalone model where product planning should have dictated that it shared a platform with the Espace (current or future) as well as the Vel Satis. So unless sales figures greatly exceeded the board’s wildest expectations, it was unlikely to outlive its sagging doors and dodgy ignition coil.
Last one in the series and most easily forgotten is the Koleos of 2000. Missed opportunity #3 not because of the ghastly production model that bore its name and nothing else, or because it could have been a forerunner of the SUV boom we are witnessing today. Mainly it showed once again how tidy the lines drawn by Le Quement are, and what the Vel Satis and an umpteenth generation Espace could have looked like.
So with a bit of imagination and production planning, by the late noughties Renault’s top-of-the-range line-up should have consisted of a 5-door saloon (Vel Satis), a 3-door coupé (Avantime), a MPV (Espace) and a SUV (Koleos) – all sharing the same platform, one-box architecture and fine styling. Instead the Avantime had already disappeared after only 2 years in production, the Vel Satis was all but dead, the Espace was experiencing the first hiatus of its illustrious career, and Renault dealers were left looking with envy while their Nissan counterparts’ SUV offering sold like hotcakes.
Meanwhile Ford is giving us a glimpse of what might have been had Renault had the courage of its convictions – albeit in a dour yet competent package.