When French automaker Renault tossed a lifeline to a floundering Nis-san in 1999, rumors began to circulate about inter-brand product sharing, none more outlandish than the suggestion that an oddity called the Avantime would someday sail to the United States wearing an Infiniti badge. The car, revealed at the '99 Geneva motor show, employed Renault design chief Patrick Le Quement's radical "Coupespace" concept. (In America, such one-box architecture has a less avant-garde descriptor: minivan.)
The Avantime is at the pinnacle of the Renault range, topping out at more than $40,000. The biggest engine is a 204-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6, which drives the front wheels through a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Like the B-pillarless body, the cabin is show-car stylish. Except for a tiny digital tachometer that squints from behind the steering wheel, the instrumentation resides in a central swath of electronic bells and whistles, far out on the vast dashtop. Front and rear passengers enjoy high seating positions with generous head and shoulder room, although leg room in back is surprisingly tight. The doors are seriously long (and, at 120 pounds each, heavy), but the opening angle is kept modest by a clever double hinge that allows the panel to swing out and forward simultaneously, remaining within easy reach.
By far, however, the Avantime's greatest trick is its quasi-convertible striptease. A single button on the headliner drops the side windows and retracts the forward panel of the all-glass roof (power-deployable sunshades keep occupants from baking like brie). Pleasantly, the Avantime's structural rigidity is exemplary, despite all those wide-open spaces, thanks largely to a stiff upper structure of aluminumwhich, with Gallic flair, is left stark naked.
Just now appearing in dealer showrooms, the Avantime is still a novelty in its homeland. Reaction during our time with it mostly amounted to expressions of perplexity. To the French, it seemed, the big Renault's capsized-boat shape is like Jerry Lewis in a Speedo: They're compelled to look, but they're not at all sure they like what they see.
So, would an Infiniti-badged Avantime have legs in the United States? We'd say no. Although the black-and-white of vehicular body styles has progressively faded to gray, some design elements are simply too disparate to cooperate well in the same car. Le Quement is clearly an outside-the-box thinker, and the product of his vision is a fascinating exercise, but American buyers' utilitarian expectations of the one-box shape just don't jibe with the decadence and frivolity of a grand-touring coupe.