The new Avantime represents the first bold step in Renault's bid to become a manufacturer of "innovative and exciting" cars in the executive sector. The coupe, on UK sale from January, is the first of three E-sector models - the others are Vel Satis and new Espace - that will be launched next year.
Renault is planning to take 4.7% of the executive sector in 2002 on the back of 1,500 Avantime sales, 3,000 Vel Satis and 5,500 Espace.
Nick Harvey, Avantime product manager, said: "The Avantime is part of our non-conformist strategy that marks Renault's comeback in the top range. Together with the Vel Satis and Espace, it will demonstrate our ability to build unique vehicles."
Dealers will need to prove their credentials if they wish to stock Avantime as Renault attempts to differentiate the car from its rivals by taking greater control over the sales process.
A spokesman said: "Dealers will need to meet set criteria if they want to sell Avantime. This includes having adequate space to display the vehicle. We hope most dealers will want to stock the car and will invest in their showrooms if necessary."
Renault will play a larger role in the sales process by promoting a national 'platform' number that customers can call to request a demonstrator. They can also e-mail a request via the www.renault.co.uk website.
Demonstrators will be delivered direct to the customer by an Avantime salesperson who will be responsible for the entire sales process.
"Sold cars will still be delivered through the dealer, who will receive financial payment," said the spokesman.
The scheme, similar to Vauxhall's dotcom programme, also ensures that dealers without the facilities to sell the car will also receive a payment if they pass on an enquiry to Renault.
The spokesman added: "Customers can also use the platform number to book servicing and repairs - Renault will liaise with the dealership."
Renault's return to the executive market reflects growth in the E-sector, where carmakers have sought to differentiate their models through the choice of new concepts, such as sports utility vehicles and estate cars.
Saloon cars continue to dominate the sector across western Europe, accounting for 50% of the 1.9m units, but they face growing competition from coupes (up 53% since 1995), cabriolets (up 114%), estates (+29.5%) and monospaces (+69.2%).
This evolution led Renault to make a three-pronged attack on the sector with the Vel Satis 5dr saloon, Avantime 2dr coupe and new Espace monospace.
Remi Deconinck, Renault senior vice president of product planning, said: "Our studies show that a premium-priced car is no longer simply a better equipped or more powerful saloon, but rather a car which, while reflecting the fundamentals of a top-range vehicle, has a stronger personality."
New model for the 'modern customer'
Renault believes the new versatile Avantime, on UK sale in January, will compete against four body styles in the executive sector: coupe, cabriolet, sports utility and MPV.
Nick Harvey, Renault product manager for Avantime, said: "We believe there is a new type of customer who isn't satisfied by the current market. Avantime will fit their needs through its design and technological innovations.
"This modern customer will be roughly aged 35-45, possibly with a small family. They are looking for a car that breaks from the norm and will correspond to the values of the non-conformist."
The new Avantime is a vital car for Renault not because of its sales volume - it is expected to sell only 1,500 units in the UK - but for the new image it is designed to establish in the executive sector.
Avantime, officially described as a coupe, has been built with Peugeot 406 coupe, BMW 3 Series, Volvo C70 and Lexus RX300 customers in mind. Sales are likely to be split 50:50 between private and user-chooser sales.
"We don't want to push demand out to the market, we want customers to do the pulling, so we are encouraging dealers to step back and wait for them to enter the showroom," said Mr Harvey.
"Avantime offers unique technological innovation which is key to its positioning in the market. We believe it offers customers a new experience in driving and travel pleasure."
The design includes no b-pillars to create the illusion of greater space and brightness, twin-staged parallel opening doors for easier access and seats with integrated safety belts.
Avantime will be launched with two petrol engines, both with the six-speed manual gearbox from the new Laguna. The 2-litre turbo Dynamique, expected to take most sales, will be priced around £24,000 and the 3-litre V6 Privilege will cost £27,000. A five-speed automatic will be added later in the year.
Renault has decided not to bring the diesel option to the UK because current volumes are too small to justify developing a right-hand drive version.
Jean-Loup Huet, Renault vice-president, F-series engine projects, said: "The diesel debate in the UK is quite interesting. There is definitely potential for growth and if UK consumers demand a diesel option, then we will introduce one."