Lancia’s Partial Comeback Postponed – Again
By Andy Bannister
The on-again, off-again prospect of a major expansion in Lancia sales, with a return to selling cars in right-hand-drive markets, has been postponed indefinitely due to the current economic gloom.
Earlier this year, Fiat was bullish about plans to grow sales of its premium luxury band, which has for far too long been in the shadow of its sportier brother, Alfa Romeo. There was brave talk of 300,000 Lancia sales globally by 2010.
Unfortunately, Lancia only shifted 110,000 cars last year and is currently unhealthily dependent on its Italian home market, which accounts for a whopping 80% of sales. With Italy’s new car market shrinking fast in the last few months, that spells very bad news.
The return of Lancia to some of its abandoned markets was meant to be a new start which would lay once and for all the ghost of a terrible rust scandal that blighted the marque in the late 1970s. With its stylish Beta family, Lancia in the UK up until that time was – amazingly, in retrospect – selling as many cars as German rival BMW.
It fell spectacularly from favour, however, when a consumer survey which got huge prominence on British TV news laid into the make’s corrosion protection,. There were sensational allegations that the cars were rusting almost as soon as leaving the factory (which, to be fair, was a big problem with quite a few makes from that era, and not all of them Italian).
The mud stuck like glue though, and – despite the importer buying back the worst affected models – Lancia’s reputation collapsed overnight, with its remaining cars becoming virtually unsaleable. In desperation the Beta was restyled and renamed the Trevi, but it fooled no-one.
Unfairly, every subsequent Lancia introduced by a succession of optimistic (but doomed) British importers failed to shake off that rust prone stigma. In 1993, faced with stagnant sales of the uninspired and ill-named Dedra model, Lancia decided to cut and run, abruptly stopping production of right-hand-drive cars for markets like the UK, Ireland, Japan and Australia. It has, however, continued to enjoy a marginal existence in mainland Europe.
The dodgy reputation for rust and unreliability aside, Lancia’s main problem in the last two decades is that its models have – often with good reason – been seen as thinly disguised Fiats. Even today, two of its MPVs, the Musa and Phedra, are simply plusher versions of the Fiat Idea and Ulysse, respectively.
Lancia does have a genuinely good premium city car, the ageing Ypsilon, but was pinning its hopes for sales growth in countries like Britain on the much bigger and potentially more profitable Delta, introduced earlier this year. This revives a famous name from a few years ago.
With slightly extravagant, curvaceous styling and a fancy interior with lots of leather and chrome, the Delta has successfully distanced itself from its Fiat cousin, the more humble Bravo. It hasn’t won many plaudits from the journalists who’ve driven one, however.
Given that lukewarm reception in some quarters and the risk of launching as a single-model company, the decision to hold off wider Delta exports could be a wise one. Certain commentators were already gleefully predicting disaster.
One problem that still hasn’t been resolved is what the company actually stands for. A production version of the Fulvia coupé concept of a few years ago, harking back to a delicate little Lancia sports car from the 1960s, would be easier to market as a niche model in many ways than a largish five-door hatchback costing up to £20,000 ($30,000). Except, of course, it could just as easily wear an Alfa Romeo badge and save needless duplication of dealers and marketing effort.
Lancia has also singularly failed to exploit the excellent reputation of its Integrale badge, once appended to a rally-winning former version of the 1980s Delta, which remains a cult car years after its demise.
As things go, assuming Fiat as a whole weathers the current storm, expect more noise about yet another semi-global Lancia relaunch in about three years’ time.
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