Lancia is set to return to the UK midway through 2009, having departed ignominiously 14 years ago, its range of tinselled Fiats proving about as popular as gelato in a London winter.
The car that leads the charge back to to Britain is the new Delta, a quirkily styled five-door hatchback that promises new levels of luxury in the class. But does it have any chance against Audi A3s, BMW 1s and top-end Golfs? Or would be Lancia be better forgetting about the UK altogether (in 1994 it sold a risible 400 cars, and most of them discounted to fleets)?
So is the new Lancia Delta any good?
Yes it is and it’s a huge improvement on the mostly rather anodyne Lancias that last corroded on UK shores. Its main appeal is that it is genuinely different from anything else in the class. Now being ‘different’, of course, can be good (think Apple computers) or bad (think Michael Jackson makeover). But in the Delta’s case, it’s mostly positive.
It’s notably roomier than most C-segment hatches – thanks mostly to the 100mm wheelbase stretch over the donor Fiat Bravo platform – and the materials used within are pleasingly posh and luxurious. The leather trim on the seats and doors of our test car were almost Rolls-Royce soft and supple and the stitching looked hand-done by Italian craftsman (it’s not, but who’s to know?).
Lancia claims it is the first truly luxurious C-segment car and with its combination of space and plushness, it has a point. It’s aimed at those downsizing from an Audi A4 or maybe a Volvo or an upper spec Passat who don’t want any loss of luxury or ‘premiumness’ but want to lose some length and bulk and gain on fuel economy. As such, it’s well in tune with our carbon-saving times.
Click 'Next' below to read more of our Lanica Delta first drive
What about the styling?
The Delta also looks different and, to my eyes at least, appealing. This is one little hatch that genuinely stands out from the herd with its arrow-head nose, its sculptural flanks and those weird vertical taillights that wrap around the high rear haunches. Whenever we stopped in Italy on test, crowds soon gathered to ask questions.
But how does it drive?
Lancia has focused on delivering a luxurious experience and they’ve done a good job. The ride is good, helped by electronic dampers that can be tuned to a firmer ‘sports’ mode by the push of a button. Even in ‘sports’, the Delta rides with more suppleness than most small hatches.
There is, of course, a trade-off. There’s nothing too much wrong with the handling, at least not in ‘normal’ driving; but push hard on the secondaries and the Delta lacks the steering and handling response of an A3 or a Golf, let alone the class-leading Focus.
Our test car featured the new 1.9 twin-turbo diesel that is a gutsy if rather boisterous companion. Other likely UK-bound engines include a 1.4 turbo direct injection petrol unit, a new 1.8 direct injection turbo petrol plus 1.6 and 2.0 diesels.
The Delta is not really a ‘driver’s car’. As proof, you don’t actually even need to drive it – at least not all the time. An optional extra is automatic parking. It not only tells you when it finds a space big enough to park in, but then actually does all the steering in your reverse-park manoeuvre. You merely need to work the brakes, throttle and clutch to move and stop the car.
Click 'Next' below to read our verdict on the Lancia Delta
So will it sell? Or will Lancia’s return to the UK be the greatest non-event since Gazza’s premier league comeback?
Lancia has modest UK ambitions with the Delta – just 2500 cars in the first full year. This is realistic not least because the Lancia brand means nothing to the great majority of UK premium car buyers (and those who do know it will probably think Delta Integrale – a car about as far removed from this Delta as a Rolls-Royce is from a Lamborghini).
It is a worthy and distinctive small hatchback that will appeal to people who value space and luxury and yet want a small car that is also pleasingly economical. It’s bang in touch with the low-carbon zeitgeist and if Alfa and Fiat grow in the UK – as many industry pundits expect – then Lancia may follow in the halo.