July 9, 2008

Is Lancia doomed?

Before I go any further, I should mention that I don't particularly dislike the new Delta. No, my problem is with the Fiat/Lancia marketing department.

With that said, if you're anything of a Lancia fan, you've probably seen this image (or something like it) before:

That is a Lancia Delta S4. This and the Delta Integrale largely dominated the rallye scene of the 1980s. Before that, Lancia had the Stratos which dominated the 1970s rallye scene. Lancia is a great name in rallye and the Delta, launched in 1979, was a great torchbearer for that reputation.

The original Delta was designed by Giugiaro and used drivetrains that were based on the Fiat Ritmo's drivetrain. They were modified for use in the Lancia range. Throughout the 1980s, the Delta was slightly redesigned. Production version of rallye cars were sold to the general public (for homologation purposes, mostly) and are today very sought after. In the early 1990s, when it came time to redesign the Delta, Lancia was starved for money and based the new Delta on the Fiat Tipo, a very mediocre car that is worth next to nothing today. It looked like this:

But, this wasn't the previous Delta. The Nuova Delta was a completely botched attempt at making a luxury hatch. The sport aspect of the car was abandoned in lieu of a more upscale model. That cancelled out the old Delta's customer base. But, the new model didn't have a redeeming quality to draw new customers. It limped on until it was phased out in 1999, a rather pathetic way to end the Delta's 20 year career.

By the mid 2000s, Lancia was screwed, to put it bluntly. Sales outside of Italy were minimal, its lineup consisted of redesigned, more "upscale" Fiats. Lancia played (and still plays) on that upscale image and it just wasn't working. Its lineup consisted of the following:

- Lancia Musa, based on a car that has its own issues, the Fiat Idea. Think Renault Modus, that sort of car.
- Lancia Phedra, based on a Fiat Ulysse, an all too expensive minivan that is rarely seen on the road.
- Lancia Ypsilon, based on a Fiat Punto, this little car is only available as a three door hatch and is very popular in Italy but mostly forgotten about elsewhere. Most of them are sold with an odd two tone paint to add to the luxurious feeling of the car.
- Lancia Thesis. Lancia's flagship sedan, reminiscent of the old Flaminias. This is actually a great car. Generously equipped, it handles well and in my opinion (though not that of the general public) a great looking car. Even with its qualities, it doesn't appeal to anybody aside from important government figures in Italy. If memory serves me right, forty seven of these were sold in 2007 here in France, it can't compete against Mercedes Es and BMW 5s.

To make it short: Lancia was going downhill, fast. Rumors of its demise started circulating around the press. Then came another rumor, a more hopeful one: just as Fiat was preparing a new 500, Lancia was preparing a new Delta. An opportunity to bring back one of the most fondly remembered names in rallye, generate sales, potentially enter the rallye scene once again and if they played their cards right save their name and company.

They took their time to design this car. A prototype was shown and they went ahead and build it. The end result is this, which just arrived in dealerships today:

What's this one based off of? Well, if you've ever sat in a Fiat Bravo, you'll recognize it right off the bat because they haven't bothered to do much to change the dash. Instead of bringing back an icon, Lancia has done it again and tried to upmarket a Fiat. They've tried to turn the Delta into a luxury car again.

Well equipped but rather expensive (starts at €21,000 or so), it's slightly odd shape makes it too small to be a compact car but too big to be a midsize car, two very popular segments here in Europe, and more importantly two segments that Lancia is all but present in. Some of the drivetrains are pulled directly from Fiat's lineup while others are specific to the Lancia brand. Like with most new cars, it's available with one airbag per bone in the human body and all sorts of high tech doo das. The sport past of the Delta isn't emphasized anywhere in this car, its only relation with the past is its name. No rallye future is planned for this one.

Lancia itself admits that this isn't a remake of the original. Or, as they'd like to put it:

"Delta is a historical name associated with a peak in Lancia’s motoring past but it is also a mathematical symbol that stands for change, difference and evolution. From this viewpoint, the Lancia Delta is the first product of the new Lancia philosophy. It has an original, unique positioning, the combination of two values that are fundamental for the brand, elegant styling and a daring, innovative attitude, that inspires all aspects of its marketing and communications activities."

But, was it the right thing to do? Can this car really save Lancia like it's supposed to? As a Lancia owner and enthusiast, I hate to say it but I don't think so. They had the opportunity to create a great small car and blew it completly. This Delta is the kind of crossover car a company launches when it can afford to make a market blunder, not when it's on life support, trying to bring back customers left and right in just about every market, horizontally and vertically.


rileyman2007 said...

You left out the Lybra, a forerunner of this Delta in having lots of tech stuff, including advanced suspension. As for supermini, Ypsilon sells well in Europe considering its high price. And “old Delta's customer base ” was not HF/Integrale buyers but those who bought the Plain Jane Car of the Year 1988 for its practicality -- then watched them rust away, before the mid-90s v thorough rustproofing. 2007 may have seen only 47 Thesis sold in France but I first saw one in a remote French village in 2004! The kappa, a superb car in coupĂ© form, was better built than the Merc CLK, which copied it.
Main virtue for me in Delta is seats slide to boost boot (not fold down as Independent reviewer supposed: no wonder he nearly broke his arm), and only a few other cars have this, which is why it can sit between two size sectors, and v powerful engines for their size and economical enough if the published figures are true. And it parks itself!.. which will make it behave (they hope) as if it was smaller than it is.
It's all very well to say it's Fiat-based, but these engines are new. as will be the ones to come in the next year, along with new gearboxes.
Downsides are that reliability is going to be watched carefully, the driver's seat does not apparently align with pedals and wheel, driver can't see out of the rear screen (never a defect in Italy where all look forward and drive on their brakes!) and the suspension doesn't match a Citroen C4. It took only 18 months to design - which may turn out to be its problem. I have not yet read a sensible road test of the car in either English or French or Italian...

andrew said...

That steering wheel looks so much like many of the newer GM wheels. Here's a mock-up of the Saab 9-4x:


Very interesting...