When the Thesis was launched in 2002, Lancia wanted a flagship to re-position the brand as a maker of convincing luxury cars, an Italian Mercedes if you like. The Thesis’ predecessor, the Kappa, had been less successful than the Thema, despite receiving plaudits for its refinement, packaging and capable chassis. The Thesis was supposed to recover ground lost during the Kappa’s production run and also to re-affirm the company´s tradition of top-drawer refinement and visual elegance.
To this end, Lancia threw enormous resources at the Thesis such that it had its own unique platform and shared no pressings or interior parts with any other Fiat group product. As quoted in CAR magazine in 2002, the designer Mike Robinson said “People will be looking for reasons not to buy this car. We don’t want to give them any.”
Not so much has been written about the Thesis so I decided to see for myself what the car was really like and to find out why only 16,000 were sold during a seven year production run.
Technicalities: The construction of the Thesis was fairly conventional: a transversely mounted engine driving the front wheels. Given that the Thesis was intended more for comfort than handling the selected arrangement is, objectively, a rational one. Lancia’s reasoning was probably the same as Rover’s: most people are indifferent as to which axle is receiving the power.
A 2 litre soft turbo, a 2.4 litre 20 valver and a 3.0 V6 24 valve engine made up the petrol burning range. A 2.4 JTD diesel was also available. The suspension design was a mix of the ordinary and the clever. The routine elements consisted of independent five-link suspension with coil springs. The intention behind this set up was to minimise the distance between the wheel centre and the virtual steering axle to the advantage of accuracy and crispness. At the rear were installed multiple-arm suspension elements, designed to provide a good capacity to absorb impacts. In essence, these were just incremental improvements on the theme of multi-link suspension.
All the same, I do like the idea of bringing the wheel centre and steering axle together as these kind of refinements were what made Lancias steer so well in the ’70s. The clever part was the use of telescopic Skyhook adaptive dampers. These gadgets allow semi-active suspension in that the damper rates can be varied by computer management to suit the driving conditions and driving style. All this was done with microchips smaller than your thumbnail. A similar system is used on the Maserati Spyder.
These specifications were class competitive but don’t compare to the originality of Lancia’s 1963 Flavia: transverse leaf springs and double wishbones at the front and dead axle and transverse leaf springs at the rear, supporting a front-wheel drive four-cylinder boxer engine. The Flavia’s peers were at that time using straight sixes and eights sending power to the rear. The point here is that the differences between the Thesis and its peers are not insignificant but not very great either, and the chassis design was nothing like as ingenious as its ’60s ancestor.
The Thesis weighed from 1600 kilos for smaller engined versions to 1800 kilos, as in the 3.0 V6 tested here. By way of comparison, the 1999 Mercedes S-320 weighed less, having 30 kilos fewer to drag along. Given that the Thesis is smaller in most dimensions than an S, it was thus a conspicuously dense machine. Being 4888 mm long and having a front drive format meant the passenger compartment was spacious, with plenty of room in every direction. The boot holds a competitive 480 litres.
Whilst the chassis and power train of the Thesis were quite conventional, Lancia was in some sense leading the way by encrusting the mechanicals with a dizzying superabundance of extra equipment, digital trinkets and electric novelties, more than one could list fully in the space allowed.
The 3.0 litre tested was equipped with integrated satellite navigation (a novelty in 2002), an automatic gearbox, electrically-powered automatic parking brakes and four-way adjustable climate control. This can send chilled air through lushly damped louvres on the elegantly sculpted dashboard and through vents in the b-pillars. In addition, subtle perforations in a metal strip across the dash allow draught free ventilation.
Almost everything is powered apart from the front sun visors and the minuscule front ashtray. The multi-adjustable seats could be set to memorise the driver’s postural preferences. Servos even operate the front head restraints. This in itself is a wonderfully unnecessary refinement and speaks volumes about the painstaking efforts to create a truly luxurious saloon. The glove box opens with the push of a daintily chromed button (but amusingly, the glove box itself won’t hold more than a few packs of cigarettes).
A power operated sunblind performs impressive acrobatics: simply dab a switch on the rosewood veneered centre console. It’s worth pausing here to consider that engineering that sunblind probably involved a team of six engineers at a cost of several hundred thousand euros. Naturally, the boot lid is power operated, requiring merely nudge of a button to open and a slight push to close.
Exterior: The vehicle exterior is dominated by the gloriously confident Lancia grille, evoking the firm’s past triumphs. The diamond shaped headlamps are powerful Xenon units. Both the grille and the headlamps are set amidst quite large expanses of unadorned metal work. The intention, according to Lancia’s designer, was to create the impression of glittering jewellery.
The rear lamps – striking vertical slashes- are painfully intense and are simultaneously nostalgically chrome edged and ultra-modern with the LED technology. The theme then was of evocative classicism underpinned by the latest in automotive technology. All the panels were joined tightly and the vehicle was well surfaced, apart from an odd depression where the wing to bonnet valley fades into the plastic bumper.
Interior: I’ve mentioned the features but I haven’t described how they all work together. It’s no use loading a car with toys if they are not well assembled or made of the best materials. Are they? The Lancia’s interior uses leather, metal, wood and the finest plastic. And they are handled well. The interior is well sculpted and classic without being too retro.
The wood strip gracing the dashboard and doors is thick and very evidently real tree. It’s the kind of substantial slab of wood not seen since the solid door capping on 1970’s Ford Granada Ghia’s. All this adds up to lashings of comfort, warmth and quality. It is an effect very, very different from the cold, hardness achieved by Mercedes and Lexus. Even a Jaguar XJ seems a bit glacial in comparison while the similarly priced S-type is embarrassingly Crown Victoria.
The driver’s seat – hand stitched parchment hide- is beautifully supportive without being too firm. The Thesis passes the door slam test, by a factor of five. Pulling the door shut required a well-judged degree of effort, just enough to make you notice the heft. When the door clunked home it felt as if each element of the closure was machined to a fine tolerance. It made me think of a Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3, in fact.
In front of the driver is a classically styled instrument pack. The lettering is redolent of the labelling on a bottle of fine Italian wine and indeed it’s all in Italian. Rather surprisingly, there is an analogue gauge to display fuel consumption, scaled from 6 litres per 100 km to 20 litres per 100 kilometres. It isn’t more readable or effective than a digital LCD display but it is incredibly amusing as it sweeps from left to right like a deranged pendulum.
The rear of the car is a similarly fine place to reside. The legroom is plentiful, more than enough to sprawl out during a long trip from Rome to Cap Ferrat. The centre console features the display and buttons for the climate control so while the driver might require 17 degrees, passengers can opt for more or fewer independently. The stereo system can be operated by a remote control unit. Each of the finely trimmed doors has an ashtray of pretty respectable size and the door cards are unusually handsome, made of precisely the same high quality materials as those at the front.
In short, whether you’re up front twirling the steering wheel or being cossetted in the back, the Thesis is a terribly agreeable place to find oneself.
In motion: We’re 1200 words into this review at which point it really does become very necessary to start revealing what the Thesis is like to drive. Putting it very bluntly, the Thesis is singularly unobtrusive, resembling nothing so much as a really talented butler. I drove the car in a variety of different modes, ranging from tasteless dashing along narrow country lanes at one extreme and, at the other, driving like I had a hung-over primo ministro slumping in the back. Whatever it is asked, the Thesis does what it is told.
If you stamp on the accelerator pedal, the vehicle takes a tiny pause and then leaps forward. Very little vibration is felt and little noise heard. The Skyhook suspension coupled with the sheer weight of the car do a remarkable job at smothering bumps and potholes. The ride is impressively smooth without being floaty. Bad surfaces are simply ignored by the Thesis while changes in direction do not provoke annoying body roll. This is comfort-orientated suspension that respects the needs of handling to a commendable degree. Presumably the benchmark for Lancia was Jaguar not BMW.
With an automatic transmission, there was little to do but steer and brake. And the steering is pleasantly light, quite direct but not nervous and the car had a crisp bite to the turn-in. Of torque steer there was no sign. At the same time, the steering had no positive character either, being more a collection of elegant neutralities. I wanted to notice the steering character rather than to notice I could not detect anything either way. That’s my problem though, not Lancia’s. Like the good butler, it is keeping its personality, its means of operation, completely hidden.
When confronted with a sharp corner, it was best to brake, turn and accelerate again. The Thesis is not a go-kart. But the Thesis felt controllable and if you really had to cover 100 kilometres using b-roads, the car would do it without complaint. But at no point would you feel as if you were in physical contact with the car’s mechanical core.
That kind of road testing is, in the end, rather pointless except to say that the Thesis, could in extremis, make a good fist of getting you from Zurich to Lausanne decisively ahead of schedule, even if you avoided the motorways. But if driven as intended, the Thesis as a car simply disappears for both driver and passenger and instead the wealth of creature comforts come to the fore. In the end, the Thesis is a means not an end in itself. I’ve always said that if Vincenzo Lancia was still around he’d be making Lexuses (or do I mean Lexi?). These too, in their larger manifestations, are smooth and compliant servants rather than machines with which to take on 120 kilometres of coast road for the fun of it.
Sobering Thought: At 20 miles per gallon, the Thesis has a touring range of 333 miles. From Rome to Cap Ferrat would require a stop for fuel after 5 hours.
Concluding ruminations: Mr Robinson’s determination to avoid offering hostages to fortune failed at the first hurdle. By aiming for classicism the Thesis was immediately marked down as retro-design as were Rover’s 75 and Geoff Lawson’s Jaguars. I mentioned that the car was slightly smaller in most dimensions when compared to the 1999 Mercedes S-class. The Lancia is unfortunately taller, to the benefit of headroom but to the detriment of appearance.
The car looks slightly too short which is a huge pity as the car is in fact, actually very big indeed. The very plain side elevations (the c-pillar is the weak link) and the odd proportions evoke the 1960s Flavia but this is such an odd reference. I doubt it was intentional. When shaping the bodysides I presume the designers were hoping for cool restraint but instead achieved banality.
How you feel about the car’s appearance depends on which angle you view it from and whether you are sitting inside it or outside it. From the inside it’s simply lovely and says ‘Latin luxury’ without making you think of 1980s Maseratis or the Renault Safrane Baccara. But to get inside the car you have to get past the exterior, which presumably many people failed to do, even if they were only shown the front, its best aspect.
It’s the inconsistencies that puzzle: the striking front and rear contrasting with the Hyundai body side; the cast magnesium cover for the CD loading slot, not four centimetres above the fiddly flimsy lid of the tiny ashtray; incredible thought was put into the lovely details like the rear lamps and grille but the car’s proportions are just noticeably wrong. Perhaps this is because as a statesman’s car the need for maximum interior space trumped the requirement for supreme elegance. But if it was packaged as a statesman’s limousine why are there are no reading lights in the rear c-pillars and why is there not one single cigar lighter for the rear passengers?
Dynamically, the Thesis offers very good refinement and a generous turn of speed. And thus it lands between a few stools. It’s not as refined as a Mercedes E-class. It’s not as sporting as Jaguar S-type. Volvo’s S80 catered very well to the driver unconcerned with dynamics. For Lancia enthusiasts expecting sportiness, the Thesis is too smooth and aloof and not fast enough. For Lancia enthusiasts expecting the cerebral satisfaction of a car with palpable mechanical character the Thesis is too distant and inscrutable.
And finally: Perhaps it would have been better if the Thesis had been a car in the Mondeo class, rather than trying to offer S-class size for a less than E-class price. Think of it like this: if you want a better class of Mondeo, you are forced to choose a sporty German saloon. But what if Lancia had offered a more comfortable, more pleasant alternative? For the Mondeo driver, half the refinements of the Thesis would have been enough, so long as the car was at least as good to drive. And taking five percent of the C/D market might have been a lot easier than trying to take sales from the sector dedicated to serving Europe’s richest, least imaginative and least interesting people.
Considering the car as it is, rather than what else it could have been, it is a fine thing: well made, extremely comfortable and very well equipped indeed. It is even charming in many of its details. It’s when you triangulate the car against its peers and betters you realise that Lancia simply did a very fine job of making the wrong car.
Facts: Horsepower 215. Compression ratio 10:1. Maximum torque 263Nm at 5000 rpm. 5 speed automatic gearbox standard. Standard wheels were 215/60 R16 95W. Steering rack and pinion with variable rate power assistance. Front: Independent multilink suspension, coil springs with telescopic Skyhook adaptive damping, torsion bar. Rear: multilink with anti-roll bar. Ventilated disc brakes
Length: 4888 (Merc S-class: 5220 mm);
Height: 1470 (Mercedes S.-class 1444 mm)
Wheelbase: 2803 mm.
Rear track: 1541 mm; front track: 1569 mm.
Luggage room: 480 litres.
Weight: 1895 kg in 3.0 litre trim (Mercedes S-320: 1770 kg)
Fuel tank capacity: 75 litres.
How fast? How thirsty?
O – 60: 9,2 seconds
A kilometre in 29,8 seconds
Fuel consumption, claimed 31 mpg on tour, combined 20 mpg.
Tested Feb 6th 2011. Conditions: dry, windless, 2-4 degrees.
Ergonomics: test driver is 5´ 9″, 70 kilos, 50th percentile male (height).
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