Lancia and Chrysler – an Automotive Frankenstein’s Monster?
By Andy Bannister
From a European perspective, one of the stranger aspects of the emerging picture of how Fiat and Chrysler operations will function in the future is the prospect of the Chrysler and Lancia lines merging.
Lancia, for those who might have forgotten its existence, is the Fiat Group’s “other” Italian premium car brand, which for the last couple of decades has been perpetually in the shadow of its more successful and glamorous sister (and former arch-rival) Alfa Romeo.
While Alfa is, theoretically at least, a global brand, Lancia has in recent years been confined almost exclusively to Italy and a few other European countries. The company quit America in early 1980s and gave up on right-hand-drive markets like Britain and Japan in 1994.
Having not apparently known what to do with Lancia for quite a few years, merging it with the struggling Chrysler marque apparently makes sense to Fiat’s bosses, even though the two brands are hardly obvious bedfellows.
For all its hard times in its recent history, Lancia still clings to a certain aura of luxury and has kept a select few buyers lulled by its distinctive styling and very upscale interiors. By contrast, popular consensus suggests many recent Chryslers have not exactly been well received.
Having made a modest comeback there in the last few years, Chrysler (and Dodge, for that matter), will apparently disappear in Europe by 2011, leaving Jeep as a stand-alone. The end may come earlier, as sales are already in freefall.
Chrysler designs will live on in the old continent, however, with a future badge-engineered Grand Voyager set to replace the elderly Lancia Phedra MPV, and the Dodge Journey to succeed the Phedra’s more basic sister, the Fiat Ulysse.
So far, so good. Lancia’s MPVs are its least authentic products, and the Phedra is merely a dressed-up version of an old minivan design shared with Peugeot-Citroën, which markets them in Europe as the 807 and C8 respectively.
Lancia also sells a small MPV, the Musa, which is an upscale version of the Fiat Idea, a fairly unsuccessful competitor for the likes of the Renault Modus and Opel Meriva. It seems far too small to have a future Chrysler equivalent.
The real problems will come with Lancia’s mainstream car models. The top of the company’s range is the extremely eccentic Thesis, a left-field rival for the likes of the Mercedes E-class and BMW 5-series. Introduced in 2002, it has sold in tiny numbers but is the archetypal big Lancia and certainly has an unmistakable presence.
A replacement based on a restyled next-generation Chrysler 300C would possibly sell a few more units but would almost certainly lose that unmistakeable Lancia character. It would probably also lose that All-American appeal that has made the 300C one of the company’s few success stories on this side of the Atlantic.
If Chrysler and Lancia eventually end up selling the same designs in different markets, what will become of Lancia’s other current models, the Delta hatchback – a stretched and rebodied version of the Fiat Bravo, which competes with cars like the VW Golf – and the elegant but low-volume Ypsilon city car?
Both seem miles away from anything which Chrysler might expect to ever offer in North America, so will they be allowed to die?
Theoretically a Lancia-badged Chrysler Sebring replacement could make more sense. It would sit above the Delta and give Lancia a mid-size saloon for the first time in a number of years, if (and it’s a big if) the quality and style is spot-on.
In Europe, the problem will still remain of what Lancia is for and how to market the marque without undermining Alfa Romeo, or cannibalising sales from Fiat.
Meanwhile, with no Fiat, Alfa Romeo or Lancia cars sold in North America for many years, will customers there take to future Italian-based Chryslers, particularly given the lingering poor reputation of Fiat among older customers?
It would be churlish to be too critical at this early stage when many details have yet to be revealed, but at first sight the prospect of bringing two tarnished but once-proud brands like Chrysler and Lancia together could easily be a recipe for disaster for both of them.
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