Why I wouldn’t swap my Lancia Integrale, by Rowan Atkinson: CAR+ archive, December 1989

Published: 09 December 1989

► One-time CAR columnist Rowan Atkinson
► Extolling virtues of his Delta Integrale
► A 1989 column from CAR+ service

New improved … how many times have you owned a car or a steam iron or a vacuum cleaner that has turned out to be a wonderfully good buy – an utterly reliable and trusty companion, which you’ve used and abused over many miles of roads, creases, or deep-pile shag, and which you’ve come to regard as potentially a life-long friend – when they announce the New Improved Version.

More power, more warning lights, new colours, new facilities. A better version altogether. You ruminate, you hesitate: but you can afford it, so you buy it. And it turns out to be a complete turkey. 

I’d had an impending sense of doom for some months about the 16-valve Integrale that Belsyre Garage in Oxford finally delivered last week, its interior suffocatingly aromatic with the newest, finest Italian plastic, its bulbous red flanks mirroring my doubting face in the deep, deep shine. 

It had been four months since I’d relinquished the eight-valve Integrale that had been my everyday hack for two years. All I’d read since on the subject of Integrales had been some decidedly catty and dismissive articles about what a misjudgement the 16-valve had been: over-rated, over-priced, and very soon over here. Sitting in my driveway. A 2800lb oven-ready turkey. 

Well, I’ve now driven the Lancia Delta HF Integrale 16-valve for 1000 very careful miles, followed by 600 less careful miles, and I’m afraid I think it’s a cracking good motor car. 

It is pricey: £21,000 on the road is a lot of money, even when it includes the optional ABS, but as a rapid coverer of ground, the 16-valve Integrale can have few peers, If you believe as I do, that the essential requirements of rapid transport on normal, unpredictable, congested roads are an abundance of power, a total predictability of handling, and an absence of bulk, I can’t imagine any car at any price getting you from P to Q faster than this one.

The most glaring deficiencies of the eight-valve seem to have been successfully addressed. The huge, homologating wheel-arches, which previously looked rather undernourished housing bandy 195-section Michelin MXVs, are now fleshed out with 205-section Pirelli P700s. They’re significantly superior in both looks and grip. I always found the MXVs a bit soft, and certainly squealy when hard pressed, but the Pirellis feel very firm, and very sharp. The resultant ride is worse, as is road noise, but the extra assuredness is welcome. 

The turbo lag, which was always intensely frustrating, particularly in town, has been partially improved by the use of a smaller Garrett T3 turbocharger. But the Integrale is still a surprisingly deficient town car, just not at its best getting from 0-40mph.  

Most turbos find it difficult to shine on standing starts, but the Integrale is additionally hampered by a very high bottom gear. When attempting to get away quickly from the lights, it seems to take an age to stoke the thing into action. Then suddenly it all happens at once and you’re frantically clawing at the ground with all four paws like a frightened leopard. And, of course, within less than a second of the action starting, the rev counter is at the red line, and your right hand is desperately trying to snatch a bigger cog before something goes pop. It’s all a little unseemly; not what one calls progressive power delivery. 

Into second and beyond, things are a lot more controlled, each gear feeling nicely long-legged. The turbo lag during the power-on-power off of a gearchange is considerably improved with the 16-valve set-up, as is the resilience of the power delivery at higher revs. 

The eight-valve’s oomph fell off disappointingly above 5000rpm, and an aggravating resonance at about 5600 made you change gear, whether you wanted to or not. New improved Integrale, however, delivers biological power right through the wash cycle. 

One of the most surprising aspects of the car, in both new and old guises, is its sophistication. When I ordered my original eight-valve, I was expecting the car to be cruise, but effective: just what you might expect of a 5000-off homologation special – a sort of four-wheel-drive Renault 5GT Turbo. What you actually get, in both normal and multi-valve versions, is a machine of considerable solidity and quietness, which, mechanically, feel as though it has been carved from a single ingot. 

The same cannot be said of the interior, which is essentially no different from much humbler Deltas. It feels flimsy and is poorly specified: feeble interior lighting, no delay on the rear wipe, woolly manual mirror adjusters, creaky dash, all, I suppose, a result of the Delta range being in a development vacuum. Any deficiency not directly hindering Lancia’s winning of the World Rally Chapmionship for the 728th time has to await rectification until the Delta’s replacement comes along, presumably soon. 

However, build quality of the bits that matter is superb: the engine, transmission, drivetrain, steering and tyres impart an extraordinary sense of invincibility. The steering continues to make a mockery of any theory that a powered system isolates you from the action. The 16-valve gearchange is much slicker, almost Ford-like in its smoothness and lightness, ditto the clutch, now hydraulic instead of cable-operated. And, as you might expect of a car that was designed to be thrashed through the world’s forests at death-defying speeds by Scandinavians with unpronounceable names, it takes a lot of punishment. 

After 20,000 miles, my eight-valve Integrale still felt completely solid – there were no unseemly clunks or rattles. A marked contrast to a previous shopping basket of mine, a Peugeot 205GTI, which, after only 10 laps of Silverstone developed countless squeaks and groans, and never worked properly again. 

A Golf exhibits durability similar to the Integrale’s, but it’s somehow more surprising to find it in a Lancia. The only mechanical deficiency I ever detected in the eight-valve was that the tracking continually went out of adjustment, resulting in some very wobbly handling until you got it sorted out. I haven’t heard of any mods to the 16-valve in this area, so I’m sure I can look forward to further periods of wobbliness. 

All things considered, it really is a very good car. Its petrol tank is too small (12 gallons is not enough for a car that has this one’s capacity to guzzle), its wiper blades cover an inexplicably small proportion of the screen, its new-found bonnet bulge looks a bit odd, and its ventilation is pathetic. 

But it is a great driver’s car, and terribly quick. Much quicker than the eight-valve, perhaps not measurably in the 0-60 range for the reasons already discussed, but it really gets its act together on the move. I happen to like its dated looks, I like its ABS (if you ask me, the greatest automotive safety invention since the seat belt), and I like the little bit of plastic they’ve inlaid in the carpet, just where your clutch foot used to make it every so grubby. 

Would you swap New improved Integrale for your old power? Frankly, no. 

By Rowan Atkinson

Actor, motoring fanatic, part-time racing driver - and former CAR columnist