The upmarket Lancia Delta looks very different from its competitors, but a fake aluminium dashboard and basic heater knobs mar the interior
A name returns from the past. You will probably remember Lancia, for good and bad reasons.
Some of the best are the company's wonderfully original engineering features in the years before Fiat took it over in 1969, the era from which my own Fulvia Coupé originates. Lancia was the first in production with a unitary chassis/body construction and independent front suspension. It pioneered the V-engine design and was the first company to produce the V6.
Model: Lancia Delta 1.4 T-jet 150
Price: £16,500 approx. On sale from July 2009 through 22 Alfa Romeo dealers in separate Lancia showrooms
Engine: 1,368cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 150bhp at 5,500rpm, 152lb ft at 2,250rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 131mph, 0-62 in 8.7sec, 40.4mpg official average, CO2 165g/km
Then there were the rallying exploits, most memorably with the Fulvia, the mid-engined, Ferrari-powered Stratos and the Delta Integrale. Two world rally championships pressed home Lancia's sporting genes. Then, in 1994, Lancia's last car was sold in the UK.
That's the background. This is the new car. It's a Delta again, named partly in memory of the last one, partly for the mathematical symbol of change. For Lancia, we are told, has changed.
Although the cars have remained on sale in most Western European markets, Italy has accounted for the bulk of the sales. The Ypsilon supermini and the Musa luxury mini-MPV are big in Italy, the strangely likeable Thesis a splendid car for magnates who don't qualify for a Maserati Quattroporte.
Now the 100-year-old Lancia company is looking to double its sales by moving into new markets, including Russia and Japan. And the UK: the Delta arrives in July next year, to be sold through 22 Alfa Romeo dealers who will have separate Lancia showrooms and sales staff. After the Delta, the next-generation Ypsilon and Musa, followed by a coupé or coupé-cabriolet inspired by the Fulvia, will be on sale here.
So what is the new Delta really like? It certainly looks different from any rival. The nose is low, rounded, brought to a focal point via swept-back, slanty headlights to a remake of the 1950s Lancia front grille. The roof, in satin grey, seems to float above the tapering side windows, and the frameless rear window likewise seems to levitate above the surrounding bodywork, flanked by wrapover tail-lights.
The Delta has a short nose and a long body, thanks to a wheelbase 10cm longer than that of a Fiat Bravo on whose underpinnings the Delta is based. This gives a roomy rear cabin, the legroom is a trade-off with boot space according to where you position the rear seats. (Unfolding them calls for strong arms.)
There's a feel of past Lancias inside, the headlining a fine-chequer pattern like an old Y10's, with pale seats and inner door panels set against a dark dashboard, window sills and carpets. You can have it all in dark materials if you prefer, but a light leather option with contrasting piping not only gives the required luxury-car ambience, it also diverts the eye away from the Delta's less savoury details.
Examples? Cheap-looking, fake aluminium on the dashboard, hard surfaces with obvious moulding marks on the centre console, basic-looking heater knobs if you don't go for the automatic air-con option, hard plastic windscreen pillars, a messy underbonnet layout at odds with a brand steeped in neat engineering. And I dislike the convex head restraints that seem to repel your head.
Three diesels and three petrol units will make up the engine range, the last a 1.8-litre twin-turbo with direct injection and 200bhp. I tried a 1.9-litre twin-sequential-turbo diesel with a remarkable 190bhp and a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine with 150bhp.
The diesel feels smooth and strong, as expected, but the drive is tainted by a mushy clutch and accelerator action that makes a flow hard to achieve. The petrol engine, by contrast, is a joy: crisp, muscular far beyond its size, a great match for the Delta's perceived character.
There are more negatives here than I'd like, but the idea of the Delta is admirable. So are the first impressions of its upmarket trim options and how it looks. But more attention to detail and less obsession with gadgets would make it the car it should be.
Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TFSI: £16,850
Probably the closest conceptual rival, the five-door A3 combines turbocharger and supercharger in an engine with a big heart and a small thirst. A genuine quality car.
Fiat Bravo 1.4 T-jet 150 Sport: £15,005
Same engine as Lancia, similar underpinnings, cheaper fittings, fewer gadgets, less room, lower price, Fiat badge. A more rational choice, but less heartwarming.
Mercedes A170 Classic SE: £16,430
Another compact-but-roomy five-door hatchback, this time vertically extended. Understated quality inside, unexceptional but frugal engine. A surprisingly good drive.