The Cormorant Rethinks

Much was made by Lancia of the Delta’s symbolism: change and continuity at the same time. Before it came the Lybra. Read on to see what that was like.

DTW has had a chance to rewind the years and test a 2002 Lybra SW, the Delta’s predecessor. This puts in perspective the step-backward that was the Delta and reveals a car that probably deserves a wider audience. Lancia produced about 165,000 Lybras between 1998 and 2005. Production began at the Rivalta plant and shifted to the Mirafiori plant in 2002. The Lybra shared some basic elements with the Alfa Romeo 156 but you’d be hard pressed to spot anything overt.

The styling story is one of changed directions. Enrico Fumia began the project, developing themes expressed in the Ypsilon but Michael Robinson took over and revised Fumia’s proposal in the light of critical clinic responses. Flavio Manzoni handled the interior work which seems to have had an untroubled gestation.

Like the Delta, the Lybra replaced a car many viewed as insufficiently succesful: the Dedra. In eleven years Lancia sold 400,000 of them.

The Lybra moved the game on from the Dedra: it had a good basic platform, a range of five engines, each distinctly different from each other plus two had interesting L5 arrangements. Interior quality was very much improved.

Nearly everything is too a markedly higher standard than found in corresponding Opels, Fords and Renaults. A good poke around the car interior reveals high quality design (the mock wood was optional) and impressive solidity. The seating is comfortable and decidely better than peers in the same class. On the outside: a form tending towards idiosyncracy but not wilfully odd. The Lancia grille and round lamps are a pleasant evocation of older cars without being retro.

So: one opens the hefty chrome door handle, pulls open the solid doors and sits inside. The interior, as I said, feels premium. The driver’s seat is well-shaped and your relation to the wheel, window and bonnet feels like being in a Mercedes 190E. The driver armrest is well-located and easily stowed away. It’s a good sized car, a combination of handy and comfortable. That it feels narrow means it feels manoeuvrable.

The 2.4 five-cylinder diesel engine is not the quietest but not harsh. It propels the car easily, with untroubled gearchanges aiding progress. There is plenty of mid-range punch meaning that if you want the Lybra can transform itself into a rapid and effortless charger.

2002 Lancia Lybra interior, rear.

Lancia worked magic with the ride quality. The car handled bumps well and stayed upright during harsh cornering. Combined with the solid body, good seats and cosy trim, this is very much a fine mini-limousine.

Super quality almost everywhere.

I noticed crisp steering responses and responsive behaviour. The ancilliary controls worked well: smooth and light. The ventilation operated quietly and briskly.

Rear passengers are not short-changed. The Lybra has fine seats, the equal of the 406 I use at the moment even if there is a bit less legroom. The centre armrest is comfy and the view out pleasing. Further back, luggage will experience a neatly-trimmed, well-composed space with a roller cover.

Overall, the Lybra is a nicely-made, attractive medium-sized car that manages to channel its distant forebear, the Trevi. That’s a big compliment. The niggles are trivial: the glovebox lid is the wrong grade of plastic and the centre fascia is a bit confusing. The rest of the car is an unusually alluring mix of limousine quality and compact handiness. This is not a Focus, nor Golf and it’s more charming than any version of 3 or A4. One is offered a distinctly different proposition from the 156 too. The ride and appearance are quite Lancia.

The mediocre sales figures have nothing important to do with the car as it is: marketing let the side down. This may very well have been the best Lancia in decades and Fiat Group suffocated it, wasting the effort expended on a solid, classy and highly individual car. The Lybra also shows up the gross inadequacy of the Delta. Delta signifies change and not all change is good, is it?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

23 thoughts on “The Cormorant Rethinks”

  1. Interesting that your pix are of a leather interior. Usually it’s alcantara. And also that the 2.4JTD gives decent mid-range speed. The 2.0 petrol doesn’t, but it’s silent inside the car, unlike the diesels. I think the plastic timber is not optional unless you get a rare Intensa which had the dark grey metallic job that has become à la mode for many sporty versions of other makes.

    1. The “wood” doesn’t bother me. The glovebox lid really stands out as the show-room irritant in an otherwise decent car. I’ll go further and say this is far and away the nicest car in its class at the time. It should have swiped sales from the lower, poverty end of the 3/A4/C sector and people who went for Mondeos and Vectras.
      There’s nothing seriously amiss with this car plus it’s good to drive. Lancia themselves let it flounder.

    2. “Far and away the nicest car in its class at the time.”

      Wow, that is some statement, Richard. And not a view shared by customers, clearly.

      The customer is not always right. But marketing is probably not the sole reason for Lancia’s demise. (Oh sorry it is technically not dead yet, but surely will be soon).

    3. Jacomo: customers probably loved the car. The problem lay in getting peope to become customers. Cars like the Focus, Megane, Astra and Golf have a steady stream of people who buy on autopilot. The Dedra probably put existing customers off. Lancia marketing helped a little more with their sales strategy (they didn´t really have one). In 1998 the Lybra was up against at least four cars from the middle class, none of which were as pleasant as this. They all were consistent and well-engineered but none of them have the same feel-good character of the Lybra. A hatchback Lybra might have been a good idea to increase sales. But remember the SW was effectively the same thing as a five door hatch. I think people simply never saw the car and didn´t get a chance to compare it to the worthy but dullish stuff on offer elsewhere. Lancia could at the least have sold double the number of cars.

  2. Surely the rosewood laminate inserts on the interior are real wood in as much as the laminated wood in a Jaguar or Rolls Royce are real wood. I distinctly remember the rosewood on the dash of my Dedra was real wood – open grained unlike the glossy Lybra’s wood which does look fake.

    1. The “wood” is all fake. Some people would rather chop off their ankles than have such a detail. I really don´t care. I have seen versions without it. It´s not a deal-breaker like the Delta´s appalling quality and rotten rear seats. Getting past that, the Lybra is a solid car. The engine-out requirement on the diesels is unfortunate. A factor like that hammers sales by hammering residuals.
      I had a look at the Dedra interior: it´s square and flat (which is fine by me) so they can use flat panels of real laminate. To be honest, the Lybra would be better without the “wood” from the point of view of not scaring the anti-“wood” fundamentalists. It´s not important though, is it?

  3. nice review, Richard. thanks for it. down in South America, the tail lights of the Marea saloon were harshly criticised both by the press and some customers, then Fiat found a good solution at its own parts bin and performed a buttlift:

    1. That is quite horrible. I am ambivalent about those lamps on the Lybra; on the Marea they are a fright.
      I’ve asked an Alfa specialist about the timing belt. 8,000 kr is the rough answer.

    2. I’m not sure it’s the tail lights that frightens the most. I think it’s the chrome mustache that attracts too much attention to a messy rear end. The original version was much more harmonious, although the back certainly didn’t match the subtle agressivness of the front end, that was the main criticism at the time, I recall.
      Other thing the faclifted Marea brought from the Lybra (and Kappa) was the 2.45 liters version of the 5-cylinder Pratola Serra, but slightly tamed to 160 bhp and ~215 Nm (from 175 bhp and 230 Nm originally).

  4. I have to say, I thought the wood was standard, at least initially. Certainly, I’ve never seen one without it. Maybe they deleted it on some of the later trim revisions.

    On more pertinent issues, the Lybra really didn’t have a smooth gestation, did it? The exterior got a top ‘n’ tail pre-launch facelift, limited by the changes they could make to the already-ordered tooling, but the interior also got an emergency upgrade – it was reported at the time to be a fairly significant rework.

    I do remember the Lybra got some token coverage in the British press when new. It goes without saying it was basically given short shrift. Doubtless this was for a few reasons, but mostly, one suspects, because the aspiring Damon Hills on the press junket wanted a new-age Delta integrale and this wasn’t it. On them falls the blame for not assessing the car in front of them rather than the one they wanted it to be in their heads.

    Having said this, Fiat really screwed the pooch in a macro sense. Let us consider the overall approach to relaunching Lancia outlined here:

    “‘Alfa’s troubles were only caused by the lack of suitable models, while Lancia had much deeper image problems,’ said Roberto Testore, Fiat Auto’s president and chief executive, at the Lybra launch here. ‘Therefore, we had to decide on two different recovery programs for both brands: one short-term for Alfa Romeo and a long-term restructuring for Lancia.

    ‘Lancia’s image was confusing,’ Testore added. ‘It had won six world championships for rallying, although it was never a sports brand. Outside Italy, where Lancia is not so well known, it was not understood.

    ‘Therefore, we had to restore Lancia’s brand identity and explain its values in markets outside Italy.’

    Traditionally, the Lancia brand has stood for technical innovation, comfort, elegance and refinement. Alfa Romeo is primarily considered a sports brand. Fiat’s own mainstream models are seen as popular and functional.

    Giuseppe Perlo, head of product management for the Fiat group, said the company will not ‘allow overlap between the three brands, which should be complementary.'”

    In five paragraphs, you have the core reason why Lancia was doomed. Fiat did not then and still does not understand that a brand’s image is defined by customer perceptions, not what marketing executives think it should be according to a spiffy PowerPoint. You work with what you have in reality, not arbitrary notions that came out of that morning’s meeting. In actual fact, Lancia’s image was not confusing at all. Testore effectively admits this himself – in anything approaching recent memory, it was known for sporting success (which Fiat spent an absolute fortune achieving, it must be said). Fiat might not admit it, but they themselves made it an overtly sporting brand. No-one buying a Delta or Y10 was deluding themselves that they had anything in common with a Flaminia, or Aprilia, or Lambda. The sporting connotations were far more relevant in a marketing and brand identity sense for the contemporary customer base than anything Fiat themselves wanted to attach to the brand. What Testore meant was that Lancia’s perceived image was not the same as what Fiat wanted it to be, because that is what Alfa was supposed to be. Their mistake was abandoning the buyers they did have for a target that was only achievable within the minds of product planners at Lingotto, not the real world.

    I have seen it said that the Lybra failed for similar reasons that the Rover 75 did – that it was too stuffy and too genteel in an era when everyone was trying to replicate the 3 Series’ template for success. There is, perhaps, something to this, but I fear it oversimplifies the point. I think a more influential factor was that the Lybra fundamentally was being sold to customers that did not exist. It is important to note that this is not the same thing as saying there was not a market for this type of car. There was and is, but it wasn’t the demographic that was frequenting Lancia dealerships at the end of the 1990s. They were frequenting Mercedes-Benz and, perhaps, Jaguar dealers instead.

    Richard will probably hate me for suggesting this, but I believe the Lybra would have done notably better if it had not been pitched quite so overtly as a ‘soft’ option, focusing on comfort – and I say this as someone who likes the Lybra for what it is. The rear suspension is not just unique to the Lybra in Fiat Group terms; I’ve never come across a similar design on any car. It was also expensive to manufacture because there’s quite a lot of metal in it and they used a lot of aluminium in an effort to keep the unsprung weight down. At one level this is very admirable. And yet you wonder if keeping the 156’s rear struts (which, ironically, trace their origins to the Beta) and tuning the whole enterprise a bit more aggressively might have yielded a car that was more in tune with what contemporary Lancia buyers were looking for.

    1. Stradale, these are thoughtful and well researched comments that in themselves provoke thought. I think the parallels with Rover do exist, albeit, as you say (and as ever) there is a degree of oversimplification in making them. For me, the parallel of the Lybra is more with the Rover 400/ 45 (which later also became the MG ZS post the Pheonix acquisition) than the 75. I write that as both cars felt like their styling and indeed concept was obviously forced late on in their development into an artificial sense of what ‘management’ had decided the brand needed to be. I think DS and Citroen have been suffering from a similar malaise. It meant that some of the details – lamps and grilles on the outside, wood and finishings inside – sit a little awkwardly on basic forms which were designed with something else in mind. Add in a lack of meaningful ongoing development and they faded pretty quickly.

      For the 75, I think that brand concept had matured somewhat and so the design and engineering brief comes through more clearly and works better. I’m unusual in really liking the 75 for what it was when it was launched – a very different and alluring alternative to pretty well everything else and which nailed its conceptual brief. Unfortunately, pronouncements around the time of the launch cast doubt as to its build integrity and the long term
      viability of the company itself. Add a few unfortunate TV-based reviews and its image was dented from the outset. See a nice one today and Richard Woolley’s design looks rather lovely (albeit the headlamps are too obviously a late afterthought). The sculpting of the flanks is a particular stand out, and the silhouette has been reused by a number of makes ever since … witness the current crop of Mercedes saloons.

    2. I also liked the 75 upon its launch, but it did become rather quaint once the Bangle Age had come to define the automotive styling landscape.

      Incidentally, I came across a pristine example the other day and had to conclude that even though it’s ‘not for me’, it’s a rather accomplished piece of styling. Build quality also appears to be above average. But it’s certainly a car that’s been violated to such a degree that its original merits become almost unrecognisable. Those Phoenix facelifts certainly give Fiat’s best/worst efforts a run for their money.

    3. 100% agree with you Kris on those face-lifts of the 75

    4. It’s possible to form a cogent argument that Lancia had always been a sporting brand, in a similar manner to which Alfa Romeo were. The difference is that today’s definition of ‘sporting’ is rather different to what it was. Both companies carried forward extensive motor racing programmes – indeed it was partly Gianni Lancia’s Grand Prix ambitions during the mid-1950s which saw the company wrest from his control. Lancia competed in sportscar races with the D20/24 series, in road races like the Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamerica with the Aurelia and of course the Fulvia’s rally successes are well known. In short, racing was in the firm’s blood well before its second and decisive collapse in 1969.

      During the 50’s and 60’s, roadgoing Alfa Romeos weren’t more overtly sporting than their Lancia equivalents. I don’t imagine a Giulia 1600 berlina would have offered a radically different driving experience to a contemporary Flavia. Both after all, were ‘driver’s cars’.

      Fiat’s acquisition of Alfa Romeo was probably the point where Lancia’s ultimate demise was triggered, but Fiat could have made the marriage work with a little imagination. They certainly had the hardware and there was no shortage of engineering or styling talent. What was missing was vision and courage. If two rank amateurs could co-create a cohesive product plan on the back of an envelope a couple of years ago, what in heaven’s name is Fiat’s excuse?

  5. I still like the 75, and also prefer the original headlamp layout. The later one is much the same as many other cars of the time, including my Kappa. The 75 is much like a Kappa, just a bit smaller. And I’m not sure it does anything quite as well except avoiding Kappa’s agricultural bump-thump. The 75 also had stronger competition in Britain compared with Kappa’s competition in Italy. In Europe as a whole, of course, Rover did much better.

    It’s almost as if Rover thought: “Well if those fools at Fiat aren’t selling such a good car in Britain [which, remember, had been Lancia’s second biggest market in Europe, thanks to Beta and Delta] then we’ll nick many of its good ideas.” So they did, but about five years too late really. Even so, there are still plenty on the roads of northern France, and owned by the French, not UK ex-pats, usually diesels — it’s the French way. A bit odd, as I’ve never come across a Rover dealer to maintain them.

    The Lybra is a completely different animal. An exceptionally good car in many ways. But: “Lybra fundamentally was being sold to customers that did not exist.” Well, 160,000 did, but that was nowhere near enough. I won’t go into the Fiat/Lancia management decisions, it’s a hall of distorting mirrors where what’s said depends on the audience for each bit of PowerPoint blabla.

    Given the car wasn’t sporting as so many Lancias have been down the decades, most of the 160,000 were probably over 60. It suited them well. But the German trio were so dominant in that demographic by then that Lybra had no way of standing out. And Jags’ S and X types had a wider range of engines and chassis. Actually whenever I look inside one of those, there’s such bulbous upholstery you wonder where the space for, eg, rear passengers is supposed to be. It’s almost as if some of the airbags have already gone off.

    If Lancia had been allowed to overhaul Lybra, you’d have a refined, luxurious kind of Giulietta.

    Meawhile, ploughing its lonely furrow so successfully is the Y, which is strangely less popular in Britain (fears Lancia won’t last?) than elsewhere. Mito is as close as Alfa are allowed to get to that.

  6. Oh, on Giulia and Flavia, the driving experience is quite a bit different. Giulia needs revving, noisily so. Flavia will rev, but so smoothly you don’t notice so much. Giulia is a more conventional car, well executed but with little to give to future generations. Flavia begat so many things we take for granted now.

  7. Much of the debate here hinges on whether Lancia was or was not sporting. The rally successes are offen dragged out as evidence along with the Delta Integrale. I don’t think that the rallying was supposed to do more than demonstrate engineering prowess. Citroen and Peugeot fielded strong rally and cross-country cars at various times. So it was entirely possible for Lancia to have the specialty car, the Delta, and still focus on refinement and some form of comfortable style and still enter races to show the engineering off to customers who might only go shopping and drive to work. Lancia (I mean Fiat Group) made the mistake of thinking that if Alfa was a “sporty” brand then Lancia had to ape Mercedes classicism. Actually, even if Alfa was sporty it has not fielded modernist cars since the mid 90s. The 90s and onwards Lancias needed to be modernist in appearance and major on robustness and driving character. The Lybra did the second two but clothed in Rovery/Jaguary traditionalism. The 70s cars showed how to do modernist interiors (Gamma coupe and then the Trevi, later on). All the pieces are there for a car for progressive customers who don’t want aggressive driving character. Would Italian Saab be a handy way of thinking about it?

  8. Lets cast our mind back to 1986, and the merger of Lancia and Alfa Romeo. It was widely described as Fiat’s takeover of Alfa, but not in the eyes of the Italian tax authorities. Lancia, let us not forget, were embarrassingly profitable at the time.

    Anyway, the Ghidella-led plan was for Lancia to major on luxurious premium saloons, while Alfa’s stock-in-trade would be sporty hatchbacks, coupes and convertibles.

    Within a year Alfa had launched a successful and well regarded luxury saloon, after decades of abject failures in this sector. Meanwhile Lancia presented the Delta Integrale, an object of reverence to this day.

    The best laid plans…

  9. Vis a vis timing belts, I have decided to see how much it costs in Germany. There’s a Fiat-Lancia workshop near the border who might be able to do it for less than in my area.
    Having read the literature on the suspension I am more convinced of the car’s merits.

  10. Late breaking news: €850 for a timing belt replacement on the 2.4 diesel. That is a suicide pill for a car. This car is worth €0 in Germany or possibly -€400. In Denmark the asking is nearly €6000.

  11. Somewhat prompted by this test, I was motivated enough to go back and had a look at what Quattroruote said about the Lybra at launch. (Who am I kidding, I needed to find a reason to procrastinate on a particularly nasty funding proposal.) Anyhow, the long and the short of it is that they rated it fairly highly – notwithstanding home team bias etc, QR has traditionally been reasonably good in breaking down its assessments and scoring by category so you can at least see why they come to the conclusion they do. If you are sufficiently motivated they have a nifty tool where you can compare the scores of the Lybra to its main rivals in this group test under the ‘pagelle’ tab:

    The main takeaway is that they seem to deem it as least as good as any of its rivals of the time. The interesting comparison for me is with the 156 – the only significant areas in which the Alfa bests it are in steering and engine.

    1. That might be an underestimate. The Lybra is definitely a cut above the C-class of car (Focus, Astra, Golf). I’ve never driven a 156. The two cars do different things. “better” will be relative to the intended role.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: