Lancia: The Death of a Marque?

Cars

Car companies die. Like the great lost cities and civilizations of antiquity, what once seemed vast, vibrant and permanent can soon end up as ruins. While I don’t mean to compare Lancia to ancient Rome, I think they’re going the same way.

Why does it happen? Usually because the brand loses its mojo; the cars aren’t as exciting as they once were, quality slips, investment drops. We buy fewer of them, the investment falls further, and soon a famous badge is in a fast, fatal, vicious cycle.

It’s not unusual. The recent recession did for Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn, and very nearly killed Saab and Chrysler, among others. The list of famous British marques that went to the wall is too long to recount. Disappointed enthusiasts blame everyone from the management (often with justification) to the press (are we supposed to advise you to buy a bad car?). But the car-buying public is the guiltiest. We’re fickle. If something better comes along, we’ll buy it. And if we don’t buy the marque we love, its parent company can’t keep making it.

But sometimes, a car company needs to be allowed to die. Lancia is owned by Fiat. Fiat was on its death-bed until the Canadian-Italian business guru Sergio Marchionne took over. Now it makes a healthy profit. But Marchionne thinks that a car group needs to make six million cars a year to get decent economies of scale, and have a future. Fiat makes just over two million. So when the US giant Chrysler went into bankruptcy protection in 2009, Marchionne took a stake in it. It didn’t cost him anything; he just provided the small car and small engine tech that Fiat does so well and Chrysler needs so desperately to satisfy US buyers with a newfound interest in fuel economy.

Marchionne makes no secret of the fact that he’d like to merge Fiat and Chrysler, but he’s already working hard to rationalize the weirdly diverse range of cars he’s wound up with. Some of the cars on the edges of his new empire are so distinctive that they won’t be compromised; small Fiats, Jeeps, the big Dodge pick-up trucks.

But Lancia, stuck in the middle, its sales slow and its distinctiveness long lost, is suffering. There will be a new Ypsilon supermini, but the other three cars in the range will all be rebadged Chryslers, built in the US or Canada. One will be the Mondeo-sized Chrysler 200C, recently introduced but based on the old Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger, the very definition of dull-driving automotive white goods, and the kind of unimaginative fodder that got the US car industry into such strife in the first place.

Next up is a Lancia-badged version of the new Chrysler 300C. This was a great car when it first went on sale in 2004; it probably saved Chrysler. But even then it borrowed some of its underpinnings from a 1996 Mercedes, and it’s unclear just how new the ‘all-new’ 300 Chrysler showed at this year’s Detroit motor show actually is. It’s certainly a lot more insipid-looking than the original.

And lastly, there will be a Lancia version of the Voyager people carrier, which is quite good as people carriers go. But what do any of these cars have to do with Italy, or Lancia’s storied past? Nothing, other than the badge stuck on the nose. Nobody who loves Lancia will buy them. You might suffer one as a rental car at Turin airport, or buy one if you just don’t care about cars and a dealer makes it so cheap you can’t refuse; even in 2008, desperate dealers were offering a buy one, get one free deal on the Dodge on which the mid-size Lancia will be based.

Nobody is fooled by cheap, cynical rebadging. This kind of farce has produced some of the worst cars in history. Like the ‘Saabaru’, officially the Saab 9-2X, a weird-looking mash-up of a Subaru Impreza with a Saab nose that US buyers didn’t suffer for long. Or the Alfa Arna of the mid-eighties, a car that famously attempted to marry Italian passion to Japanese reliability, but got it the wrong way round to the lasting shame of all concerned.

I’d actually rather see Lancia put into suspended animation than suffer this. It could always be resurrected when Marchionne’s plans for world domination have worked out and he has the cash to develop a real Lancia. At least we won’t have to look at them on UK roads, where Chryslers will stay Chryslers. But elsewhere, I worry the damage to Lancia’s image will be terminal, and ruins will be all that remain.

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