Lancia Needs to Copy Skoda and Stop Selling Chryslers

The last time I was in Italy was in 2008. I went on a summer vacation with the sole purpose of wearing flip-flops and getting a tan, but their cars still got me excited, more than the belle ragazze. I still remember seeing the Fiat Bravo for the first time at a gas station, sitting there looking all sexy with a black body and large alloys. It was, in my eyes, twice as cool as a Golf.
The Bravo hasn’t aged well, but at the time I was pretty much sure Italians could make cool cars, as cool as any Volkswagen, though that hasn’t really happened. The mainstream brands that Fiat currently owns have become stale, like a piece of old cheese. They no longer make any sense to me, and I believe other people feel the same as well.

Skodas sell very well across the world but especially in the Czech republic. Everybody buys VW Golfs because they’re German, especially the Germans. But only the Italians seem to be enjoying Lancia’s cars right now, and only because they are a bit cheaper there than everywhere else. Everywhere else they are as stiff as a corpse. Back in 2008 when I visited Italy, the Delta just came out and it looked amazing. It was worlds apart from the very ugly Thesis sedan and blew my mid with its amazing twin-turbo engine, but somehow they went back to making bad cars again.

In fact, they aren’t even making that many cars to begin with, since three of the five models they offer are Chryslers in flamboyant drag costumes.

Over the years, Lancia made a number of amazing cars: Gamma Coupe, Delta Integrale, Montecarlo, Fulvia and so on. But history usually forgets its heroes and doesn’t mean anything in the auto industry, where you’re pretty much dead once you fall off the ball. I think very few Audi buyers know about uber rally cars, and I think only about 1/10 of Golf VII buyers know the other six.

This is why I’ve always been all for cannibalizing Lancia and turning them into what they should be in order to be profitable. Marchionne tried this, but I think he had all his ideas during one lunch break, and they don’t seem to work very well.

“Adapt to survive” should be the motto of any car company, but Lancia has evolved from a mammal back into dinosaur. The Thema executive car and Flavia convertible do nothing for the brand, especially since very few people in Europe will to buy a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-banger or a 3.6-liter V6. Forget about opening the taps and letting the power out, nobody actually wants to do that on their daily commute to work or on the trip to the shops. That’s two Lancias out of five they sell, the third being a van which I’m not even going to talk about. That leads me to the Ypsilon and the Delta and also to one of the biggest points I must make.

Kia and Hyundai’s growth has been design-lead and it’s made them globally recognizable. It’s simple stuff like LED lights, contoured bodies and chrome grilles, but the Italians, who are supposed to be masters of design, just can’t seem to do it. The Ypsilon is supposed to be a supermini, but looks like it’s eaten too many pizzas and is bursting out at the seams. It’s also more expensive than the hugely popular Fiat 500 it’s based on and with only 245 liters of cargo volume it’s not even practical.

Right, I’ve made my point about why current Lancias aren’t selling, but that would be ranting if I didn’t have a solution. And that solution, I believe, should be Czech. Last year, Skoda sold 939,200 cars, and it’s likely to shift a full million in 2013. Needless to say, that’s very good, and I think Lancia need to copy them if they can afford to. Now, now, don’t laugh. The new Skoda Octavia is probably a much better luxury sedan than the stupid Thema (Chrysler 300), and they sold 400,000 of them last year so it’s also profitable.

The Italians should stop pretending to be special and should just focus on cheaper models, maybe ones with actual performance. Two Skodas led the pack, the Octavia and Fabia, though the Rapid and Citigo are probably bringing up the rear as we speak. Since Lancia already has a supermini, their best bet would be to develop a cheap-ish sedan like the Rapid.

To ensure it’s successful, it has to be light, fast, efficient, pretty and especially cheap, not all at once, but across a range of models. Two very good engines are needed to make it sell well, a 1.6 diesel and a small turbo petrol, like the 1.4 turbo used by the Abarth, though in a more stable state of tune that doesn’t squeeze and bang so much. Its success can only be design-driven, and I think they need somebody completely new to make their cars. He needs to be a bit 50% German and 50% Korean.

The Ypislon is, like I said, an Italian girl who’s had way too much pizza. Launched in 2011, it needs a major facelift for 2014. The wheels are too small, the grille too tall and the whole body is lacking character lines. To hide the horror, I’d create a sporty chin spoiler, a bigger grille that connects the headlights, a spoiler and some extra trim round the back. Even if it looked good, I’m not exactly sure people will buy it, but it’s a risk worth taking. They also need a way to make it look more manly because I wouldn’t be caught dead near one, and I’m a guy who thinks the Beetle looks good.

European carmakers are focusing on efficient superminis, city cars, crossovers and small sedans at the moment. Lancia has got none of that right, and I would send it to a corner to think about what it’s done. They’ve never made a soft SUV, they don’t know very much about front-wheel drive saloons and have no idea how cylinder deactivation works.

Oh dear! To make matters worse, I don’t think Lancia will ever sell sportscars again. Everybody was hoping the new Alfa 4C can underpin everything from Maseratis to fighter jets, but seeing the carbon fiber chassis that thing comes with, I began to to think it’s as versatile as a can opener.

Crossovers are an entirely different thing. Jeep has built the new Cherokee to replace some ugly box I don’t want to mention. It’s small and might be sold as an Alfa. Should Lancia find itself a talented car designer who doesn’t draw inspiration from photos of chubby girls, they might also make a Jeepster in disguise. I’d very much like to see that happening, because luxury is pretty much synonymous with SUVs these days.

Beyond that, Fiat needs to fundamentally change the way it creates its vehicles. Most Audi are previewed by one or two concepts that give ample time to make corrections and improvements, but the Italians have cut this corner repeatedly. From a journalistic point of view, their press offices aren’t strong enough, non giving the viral information usually offered to entice future buyers into a frenzy. Lastly, without hardcore Nurburgring testing in the summer and Polar testing in the winter, they don’t have the much of a reputation for reliability and performance.

Well, that’s it for this week from me. Two or three Skoda-like cars would benefit Lancia in my opinion, but I’d like to hear what you guys think they should do until next week when we discuss another subject.
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
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Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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