A few years ago, we were told that by spring this year those of us driving at all would be in penitential three-wheelers with bodies made out of recycled Slovakian suitcases powered by miniature engines running on gas emitted by chicken droppings. And they were wrong. So far from the hair shirt, the big trend in vehicle evolution is towards silk-lined cashmere trousers. An opulent eruption of hyper-luxury cars is coming onto the market, cars that make a big Mercedes or a 7-series BMW seem austere.
DaimlerChrysler led with the Maybach, a revival of an old brand, once the diamond-hard peak of German technocracy. The new Maybach looks as though it was conceived and executed by hungover amateur Tyrolean customisers. It does not actually have a cuckoo clock, but you probably get my drift. It answered questions no-one except BMW was asking.
The BMW response to its own question is the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, a pounds 250,000 debate about decorum that makes the Maybach look farouche. Created by the same team that made the brilliant Mini and the nearly brilliant Range-Rover, the new Rolls-Royce is the triple distillation of brand essence by people who really understand that voodoo of identity. Which, since Rolls-Royce's was a brand essence appreciated best by dodgy sheikhs and Enfield scrap metal merchants, may not be a good thing. Certainly, this is 'the Rolls-Royce' of luxury cars, but with too much of the gratuitous swagger for most of us.
I am suspicious about the Germans and luxury. Heidelberg offset printers and Heckler & Koch machine guns may be all very well, but the culture that made them is one dedicated to technique rather than vision. And, as Marcel Proust knew, style depends on the latter rather than the former.
The French, as Proust also knew, are comfortable with notions of luxury. A friend of mine, a mauvais garcon now reformed sufficiently to find himself running a unit of LVMH, says it is wrong even to discuss 'luxury'. For the French, he says, it is an everyday necessity.
Which is why I think the very odd Renault Avantime is one of the best luxury cars you can buy. Not the fastest or most expensive, not the most opulent or the largest ... just the most comfortable and delightful.
The Avantime is a futuristic concept car that defies definition. French wags call it the Aprestime because its introduction to the market was successively delayed by technical problems at the plant where Matra assembles the car for Renault.
Bigger than a people-mover but with less flexible seating and only two doors (three if you count the one out back), it can make no claim to practicality. It is smooth and fast, but its size and high centre of gravity mean handling descriptors excite maritime metaphors.
My daughter, who uses 'cool' as one word in three, says it looks like a spaceship. Which, I gather, is cool. Maybe, but the great thing about the Avantime is the access it gives passengers and drivers to what Baudelaire called luxe, calme et volupte. The accommodation is the most serenely gorgeous ever offered in a car: four of you sit in enormous chairs, with commanding viewing positions; almost all the roof is glass and all the sideglass can be made to disappear, leaving you in an upholstered open-air capsule. Intrusive instrumentation is banished; instead, all you get is light and air and broad sweeps of soothing emptiness.
Like all the greatest cars, the Avantime makes you want to travel. And is so comfortable you will find travelling better than arriving. And yet it has not been a commercial success; production of this adventurous car stopped in March, long before the quota was reached. Big-ticket throttle blippers, it seems, could not understand a socially indefinable vehicle that looks like an inter-galactic touring caravan.
The Avantime had no predecessors and will have no successors, but it emphasised that Renault is the most consistently innovatory of manufacturers. There is still a small number in stock if you want an instant future classic. And instead of that Maybach or Roller, you would have change for a studio in the Ninth and a farmhouse in Languedoc. I may be insanely Francophile, but this stratagem is closer to my idea of luxury than 12 cylinders and an attitude problem. I know: I have got one.
- Renault Avantime from pounds 24,050 to pounds 28,450.