A Niche Too Far?

Sometimes it pays to be brave. Sometimes. 

Image: motoimg

Editor’s note: A version of this piece was first published on 6 January 2014.

As the new Millennium approached, motor manufacturers, having established that engineering integrity would only take them so far in the quest for market leadership, would increasingly rely upon the spreadsheets and focus groups of their product planning departments. The key differentiator would henceforth be defined by one word: Segmentation. Departments sprang up in demographically significant hotspots such as Miami, London and Southern California, all tasked with seeking the elusive new market niche that enable them to steal a march on the opposition.

As world auto markets were becoming populated almost entirely by clones of one another, there was cause to suggest that genuine novelty had become the first significant casualty. Not that this prevented car manufacturers from making wild claims to have reinvented the wheel. By way of illustration we consider three distinct (and distinctive) explorations into product planning ‘white space’ and ask whether there really is such a thing as new.

Three coupés then, albeit wildly diverse derivations of the concept. All however share one characteristic: a quest for the new.

Image: autoevolution

When Mercedes launched their W219 CLS in 2004, many smiled wryly at the Swabian behemoth’s claims of novelty. The CLS was part of Daimler’s expansionist cause which saw the world’s oldest car manufacturer’s ethos diverge from its engineering-led roots into the realm of ephemera. Styling would prove something of a Rubicon, signifying a move away from Mercedes’ characteristic formality of line to a more emotive language.

Its appeal lay primarily in its otherness. Lacking the studied rationality of its forebears, it appealed to buyers who might hitherto have eschewed the three pointed star. The CLS was to prove both significant and successful (with 170,000 built), something that couldn’t necessarily be said of other niche products the carmaker produced during this period.

1999 Renault Coupespace concept. Image: jalopnik

But just as Mercedes-Benz were preparing the concept that prefigured the CLS in 2003, Renault was retreating from their own adventure into niche-exploration. By the mid-1990s, the French carmaker had become known for brilliantly inventive and well executed concept proposals from Patrick Le Quément’s advanced studios. These concepts would be rapturously received by showgoers and the more enlightened cohort of the auto press, but Renault management’s risk-aversion rarely saw this translated into production reality.

So when Renault previewed the Coupespace concept in 1996, few at the time believed Billancourt would have the nerve to produce it. But when it debuted in 2001, the Avantime rather thrillingly proved to be a virtual carbon copy of the concept. Under the ‘Createur d’Automobiles’ tagline, Renault management, having taken some bravery pills, planned a range of individualistic, distinctly French upmarket cars with an emphasis firmly on design innovation and a very Gallic notion of luxury. The Avantime therefore was intended as a keystone of Renault’s ambition to reposition itself within the European automotive firmament and provide a palpable point of difference to its rivals.

Conceived along similar lines to the successful Espace model, the Avantime was pitched as something genuinely new – a tall-bodied pillarless monospace coupé. Utilising a steel spaceframe clad in composite and aluminium panels, the Avantime was to be a somewhat selfish device, for despite its size, it was strictly a (generous) four seater.

Style was all, from those pillarless side windows, elaborately engineered door hinges, to its aluminium roof and highly stylised tail-light graphics, the Avantime channelled French couture design, in capitals. The motoring world was suitably impressed and the reception was broadly favourable. But as with many French delicacies, not all palates would prove receptive and from 2001 to its withdrawal only two years later, only 8,500 examples were produced.

But did Renault’s product planners get their calculations wrong? The Avantime was after all a design people reacted to. Most of these reactions were wildly positive, however, this keen regard was slow to translate into sales. But did Renault have the required image to sustain the pricing? Did Matra build them well enough? There were perhaps more questions than answers with the Avantime, leaving us with a compelling concept but perhaps in retrospect, the wrong one. Several years on of course, it is increasingly viewed as something of a lost masterpiece, but then nobody said life was fair.

BMW X6. Image: motortrend

This is certainly true of our final example. BMW’s enfant terrible Director of Design, Chris Bangle tasked a selected group of designers to come up with a game-changer – “a leap of faith”, as he termed it. This brief brought forth a number of advanced concepts, but one which saw the light of day was a car that, like the Avantime and Mercedes CLS, was to answer a question, hitherto unasked.

The X6, much like the Renault and Mercedes, set out to test the appetite of the market for novelty. It wasn’t an attractive shape, more akin to a creature in the process of metamorphosis – a caterpillar forever denied its butterfly, if you will. However, the car proved an instant hit with buyers and the X6 can lay claim to creating an entirely new, if not entirely welcome niche. 

But to return to this question of novelty, were any of these concepts genuinely new? Certainly, the 4-door coupé concept can be said to date back to the late 1950’s; there having been several attempts to combine coupé styling and SUV go-anywhere capabilities. Indeed Porsche had been playing around with broadly similar ideas during the 1990s before they stole a march on everyone with 2001’s Cayenne.

Perhaps then it was Renault, despite the Avantime’s lack of commercial success, that can truly lay claim to genuine innovation. Hindsight is often very sturdy ground, but behind this irony lies a fundamental truth. Attempting something truly novel is fraught with pitfalls. There wasn’t a market for a monospace coupé, just as there wasn’t one for cars like the Mercedes R-Class or the BMW 5-Series GT – commercial failures all.

Of course failure is a relative term and Renault had prudently hedged its bets by collaborating with Matra over the car’s development and production. Losses such as they were would hardly have therefore been catastrophic (except perhaps for Matra themselves). But if failure is relative, so too is genuine bravery. Because surely, for any action to be considered thus, one must first have something to lose. In BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s case, their vast profits would provide a monetary buffer, allowing their supervisory boards sufficient wriggle room to take the financial hit, should the market disapprove.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW could therefore afford to experiment with segmentation and while matters are vastly different now to one these cars were born into, the fact remains that both X6 and CLS were to prove rewarding experiments for their creators. The key to both car’s successes however, had probably as much to do with the conservatism of the market as the fact that neither were particularly innovative. For true innovators, such as Renault/ Matra however, the real takeaway is this – fortune doesn’t always favour the brave.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “A Niche Too Far?”

  1. A lovely article Eoin, thank you. I am not one of those who consider the Avantime anything but misguided however. I applaud the bravery of Renault in their attempt to win over buyers with something truly novel, but it was also a flawed genetic combination. They added the worst features of the MPV and the coupe and created something even worse still. I still cannot understand why (aside from the hinges) anyone would be tempted to buy one. Imagine if it had been made by Kia, would it be so feted? No, it would not- but since it is French we can excuse such foolishness fondly rather than simply see it as a farce. The CLS and the X6 do have the benefit of strong badges as you mention, however the 5GT and R class also mentioned show that people don’t aspire to buy something suitable, simply something that can be adapted to suit. Better yet if it gives a sense of sporty individuality and risk (which can be determined via a matrix of peer approved predefined KPIs on your personality). The Avantime can’t be adapted because unlike the X6 it can’t pretend to go off road and unlike the CLS it looks about as sleek as a hippo in hosiery. What it could have done is acted as a halo model for a range of cars that embraced this odd design as a point of difference. But after this and the Vel-Satis, they lost their nerve and we now have French cars from Renault that are trying to be German cars from VW.

  2. The automotive world views the Avantime with the sort of retrospective regard that should have ensured its success when it was new. Renault’s problem seems to have been that it liked Le Quément’s vision, but lacked the nerve (or funding) to fully carry it through. In retrospect, amidst Renault’s many excellent concepts, I can think of several that I would have preferred to have seen built than the one they adopted.

  3. The Mercedes CLS was there first design in a long time that had caught my eye. The sleek “expressive” design coined the nick name “banana Merc.” I went to see one at the dealer when they were released. I found that I was attracted to the close coupled, cozy interior, not entirely practical as a family car but it appealed to me emotionally. Similar in my attractions to the earlier classic Jaguar XJ6 designs. There was also a Maybach sedan on display. This turned out to be a niche market that never materialized, What was the production like on these vehicles.

  4. I see Renault are going to re-manufacture combustion-engined cars with EV / hybrid technology. A really wonderful idea – I wonder which models they’ll convert.

  5. Good morning, Eóin. I would agree the CLS wasn’t particularly novel.

    The X6 on the other hand… I don’t know who mass produced something like this before BMW. In that sense it is as novel as the Avantime, whether you like the niche or not. And I would disagree it wasn’t a welcome niche. People bought these unlike the Avantime. Personally I have no need for an X6, but I’m humble enough to recognize my personal opinion doesn’t matter at all.

    I’m also not sure if I buy the argument that BMW and Mercedes Benz hadn’t anything to lose, because they had financial buffers. It just mitigates the risks, but BMW wants all their model ranges to be profitable. I think Mercedes Benz wants the same.

    Which leaves me with the Avantime. Personally I like the idea of a motorized verandah, which is how I would imagine a pillarless monospace coupé. I’m not particularly fond of the way Renault over-designed some aspects of it. I also dislike glass roofs, which turns it into a motorized green house, instead of a verandah. Another issue I have with Renaults is that they are not nice to drive, apart from the RS models. In general they don’t feel well made either. The only older Renault I regularly see is the first generation Twingo.

    1. “Motorized verandah”

      A brilliant descriptor! Chapeau, Freerk.

    2. Actually I was going for engawa, but I wasn’t sure if people now what it means. Then again, never underestimate the commentariat here at DTW 🙂

  6. Good morning Eóin. I wonder if there wasn’t a degree of self-serving hypocrisy in the critical reaction to the Avantime when it was unveiled? It was certainly a polarizing design, and those who professed to love it were often quite keen to tell the rest of us that we weren’t sophisticated enough in our tastes to appreciate it. If only a fraction of those who praised it so highly at launch put their money where their mouth was, the Avantime mightn’t have been such a failure.

    Meanwhile, the CLS, which was nothing more innovative than an E-Class in a slinkier and less practical body, flew out of the showrooms. The X6 was the inspiration for the current plague of ‘crossover coupés’ so has a lot to answer for. 😬

  7. I’ve said it before and i will say it again: i used to be a huge Aventime fan until i sat in the back of one.
    How one can design such a large four seater, yet still have no legroom for the occupants in the back?
    What is the point of a minivan based coupe if only the front passengers can sit in comfort?

  8. The Avantime is a mystery.
    First Matra gave up production of the Murena to create capacity forthe Expace, then Renault gsve them the Avantime as compensation for the loss of Espace production which was moved to Renault together with a change in technical concept.
    Then Matra couldn’t make the doors work and the car was delayed, then they couldn’t make the doors work and the car acquired a bad reputation which together with the reliability and quality problems of all Renaults from that era killed the product.
    MAybe they should have developed a successor to the Murena based on Renault mechanicals – if Renault would have let them do this, regarding they had the Spider which didn’t sell in too large numbers but wasn’t meant to.

    The CLS is a car I absolutely loathe. It’s one of the ugliest Benzes ever made with its flying banana side profile and terminally ugly ‘dirty socks’ headlights. And that’s before you look at its kitsch interior.
    Whenever I have an X6 next to me at a traffic lght I wonder what people do with a car that has its bootlid at he same height as the roof of my car. They for sure don’t look out of the rear window.

  9. The Avantime was very expensive and, using the same interior fittings than other contemporary Renaults, it was difficult to sell as a luxury vehicle. There were other more conservative options with more panache at the same price or even cheaper and not even in the France did the Avantime get some traction.

  10. The Avantime was very expensive and, using the same interior fittings than other contemporary Renaults, it was difficult to sell as a luxury vehicle. There were other more conservative options with more panache at the same price or even cheaper and not even in the chovinist French market did the Avantime get some traction.

  11. I wonder what these are like to drive, day to day – to manoeuvre around multi-storey car parks, etc and I also wonder how many people were put off by their apparent bulk. They look fine to be driven in, or to drive up large roads, but otherwise they look a bit unwieldy – more so than the average SUV, which tall rather than long.

    I found a review from 2001 by Richard Hammond, which is below. I don’t think it’s done very well – it’s not very informative and it flogs a weak joke to death – but I think that partly reflects the difficulty of reviewing something when it’s a bit out of the ordinary. His comment about forward visibility was interesting, though and the fact that it was launched with a manual gearbox and a large petrol engine combination was surprising. The video ends by RH saying that he thinks that the Avantime will sell well. Hmm.

    On the wider subject of innovation and new vehicles, I guess we’ll have to wait for batteries to get much smaller, lighter and cheaper before any magic happens.

    1. I can help you out there Charles. I have owned an Avantime for the past five years which is used regularly along with a Multipla which is my daily driver.

      Whilst both cars are almost identical in height and width, the Avantime is over half a metre longer and weighs considerably more which is most apparent when manoeuvring at low speeds.
      A seafaring man I am not, yet I feel as if I am the captain of a supertanker when pulling into tight spaces – it does take concentration to position correctly even with forward visibility as good as it is.
      I have no experience with multi storey car parks but assume that it would be somewhat of a challenge negotiating them as behind the wheel one is sitting rather a long way back, and tight spaces that exist in such buildings would demand full attention.

      As far as driving goes, mine – V6 manual, is always an enjoyable experience. The immense torque of the engine means it can be easily driven in traffic using first, third and sixth gears only, and whilst is certainly no sports or GT car I never find it unwieldy and was surprised when I first got it how well it equipped itself when driven with gusto on the open road.

      I won’t get into the rights, wrongs or otherwise as to why it was built in the first place but it does exist for which I am grateful.
      As Daniel stated it was a polarising design when released – as the owner of a Multipla I think that precludes me from commenting on automobile aesthetics…

    2. Hello Simon, you have two fine vehicles there and I salute your bravery! The Multipla must be pretty wide with its 3-abreast seating, which illustrates the width of the Avantime. I think it’d be interesting to hear more about your experiences with both cars – is your Multipla a pre-facelift model?

    3. The last two really brave cars, in one garage. That makes some sense. I like both of them alot. The Avantime is truly an original, despite it nominally being a “four seat pillarless coupé.” The styling is highly original. I read some contemporary reviews and it´s maddening how UK motoring writers reached for their lame school-yard name calling. If I had the spare cash and space, I´d happily have an Avantime, the diametic opposite to the boring but perfectly compromised and deadly professional 406 of which I am keeper.

    4. Please be assured, dear readership, that DTW’s editor in no way endorses the unctuous Mr. Hammond, the contents of this video clip or any of his works.

      Charles, please spare a thought for my blood pressure…

    5. Please accept my sincerest apologies, Eóin. It’s funny (peculiar) – you can almost hear the producer say, “Yeah, it’s a futuristic-looking vehicle, so – I dunno – let’s do something about the future and time travel. Dr Who, sort of, although it’ll have to be a knock-off version, as the BBC own the copyright”.

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