GENEVA -- Renault's futuristic Avantime hit showrooms in a flurry of media hype just over a year ago, lauded as the pioneer of a funky new image that would help the carmaker win market share and boost its profits.
So when Renault said it was scrapping the luxury coupe this week, the alarm bells sounded.
With sales of just 15 models per day compared to an initial goal of 60, the car's sudden death will do little to damage Renault's turnover. But as one of the shortest-lived ventures in automobile history, it augurs badly for the firm's sharp new image.
"The Avantime was a branding exercise, so obviously the fact that it has flopped does not bode well for the entire range," said one London-based analyst who declined to be named.
Some analysts wonder whether Renault's range of new cars which echo the Avantime's quirky design will prove to be too radical, including its profit-driving Megane and the Scenic minivan, unveiled at the Geneva auto show this week.
Are the daring cutaway back end and rounded rear window common to the Megane, Scenic, Avantime and larger Vel Satis just downright ugly?
Renault Chairman Louis Schweitzer doesn't think so.
"It is a regret, a sadness, but it calls nothing into question regarding Renault's strategy," he said when asked about the Avantime at the Geneva auto show this week. "The design was a positive factor, just as it is a positive factor for the Megane," he told reporters.
Renault has seen profits sag in recent years as rivals churned out new models, leaving its own line-up looking dowdy.
But the company hopes to shed its parochial image with the new range, spearheaded by design chief Patrick le Quement.
Renault launched the much-heralded Megane II, a key weapon in its style offensive, last September to replace its hit predecessor, and says that with orders for 130,000 cars so far, sales are already beating forecasts.
At the Geneva show this week, Renault unveiled the new version of its ground-breaking Scenic minivan, which created a whole new segment that proved a huge hit with young families in its heyday of the late 1990s.
The future of the firm, and possibly of le Quement, could be riding on the commercial success of these two models, which will account for around a third of sales by 2010. Schweitzer said this week that both sales and profits of the Scenic would match those of the smash hit original model.
"It's a high risk strategy," said one analyst. "They are completely reliant on the Megane and Scenic, with no other new launches planned this year."
"The quirky, innovative design could fail and if something goes wrong they are in big trouble,"
The jury is still out on whether the new style will work, with some betting the love-it-or-hate-it design is just what the crowded mid-sized market needs.
"It's a risk as the segment does tend to be conservative, but that's arguably why they had to do something different -- to grab attention and distinguish it from the conventional Peugeots and Golfs," said a second analyst.
Some analysts say the failure of the Avantime had little to do with its distinctive design.
Start-up glitches meant that until recently it was available only with one, less popular engine and transmission type -- a powerful petrol motor coupled with a manual gearbox.
Experts also blame Renault's daring, and ultimately doomed, bid to crack the ultra competitive luxury market.
The two-door Avantime, whose all-glass roof gives it a light airy interior, the luxury Vel Satis saloon and the stately Espace people-carrier were not just meant to spearhead the shift in style, but to steer Renault up market.
Renault said last week it was scrapping the Avantime after Matra, the company that assembled the car, called it a "commercial flop" and said it would halt production. Renault said it would be too costly to assume production itself.
Analysts said it was a flawed and costly exercise.
"If they thought they would get a foothold in the high-end market, they've obviously seen their hopes dashed," said the first London-based analyst. "If you've got a choice between a Renault and BMW, which are you going to choose?"