The Muse of Melpomene

Lancia’s 2004 B-sector monospace was that rare thing – a commercial success. But was it a better Idea than its Fiat sibling?

Image credit: car-info

It has been suggested that the Lancia Musa died prematurely, production ceasing when Fiat Auto’s Stabilimento Mirafiori car plant was idled in 2012; victim of the catastrophic fall in Italian new car sales in the wake of the financial crash, sovereign debt crisis, not to mention the legacy of Fiat Auto’s inability to stabilise its business. Like several other Fiat Group models similarly affected by the Mirafiori (partial) shutdown the B-segment Lancia monospace was still selling in reasonable numbers. In fact, the Musa proved a solid sales proposition from the off, outselling its Fiat stablemate within two years of introduction. Within three it eclipsed it, a situation which continued until its allegedly untimely demise.

2003 Fiat Idea. Image credit: Parkers

The basis of the Musa was the 2003 Fiat Idea, a compact MPV aimed at what was then, a growing sector of the European market. Based on a stretched version of the platform and mechanical component set of the second generation Punto, the car’s neat and functional bodyshape came courtesy of ItalDesign.

While no class-leader in critical terms, the Idea was given a broad thumbs-up from the press and with sales of over 61,000 for its first full year in production, it looked like being a commercial success. 2004 however would prove not only to be the Idea’s sales heyday, but also the year its upmarket twin entered the fray. Mechanically similar, the Lancia Musa was a centro stile Lancia take on the Idea template.

Styled under Flavio Manzoni to closely resemble the concurrent Ypsilon hatch, while also referencing elements of the larger Lybra estate, the Musa offered the same space, practicality and compact dimensions as the cheaper Fiat model in a manner Lancia described as ‘warm simplicity’.

Image credit: conceptcarz

It’s worth highlighting the following tract from Lancia’s press material which not only illustrates how far matters of taste have shifted in slightly over a decade but perhaps explains why for some of us, the Shield and Flag remains something of an open wound.

“This warm, sociable car that makes such a virtue of its welcoming, convivial atmosphere would not be comfortable in sombre or aggressive shades. Black and grey are therefore banned from the Musa’s palette of colours. In full accord with the best Lancia tradition, our stylists picked out contrasting colour matches based on warm shades (such as dark brown, reminiscent of fine woods such as Wenghe) and delicate shades (such as Ivory or Magnesium, reminiscent of a stylish sofa or armchair)”.

“A Room With A View” Image credit: cloudlakes

On reflection, the monospace concept was one that fitted the Lancia identity rather well. Indeed, one could quite easily make a case for Antonio Fessia’s 1960s berlinas – the Fulvia and Flavia – with their upright, rectilinear shapes, and light airy interiors as being ‘packaging cars’ of a similar idiom. With the Musa, Lancia made much of the car’s friendliness, of its interior being ‘a shrine’, of its sense of light and space. It certainly appeared to strike a chord with buyers, in 2006 and 2007 becoming Italy’s best-selling compact MPV .

In the autumn of 2007, Lancia announced a facelifted version. Changes were largely cosmetic, but the biggest was an enlarged boot area made possible by a slight increase in length. The nose received a redesigned corporate grille, with the revised (some would say, dumbed-down) shield emblem and additional external brightwork.

Image credit: autoya

2007 was also the Musa’s best year commercially, but nevertheless, sales remained stable despite the febrile post-crash domestic environment. Italy remained the Lancia monospace’s largest market; the Musa’s compact dimensions and punchy engines, coupled with the indulgent interior space and appointments of much larger models relegating the sibling Idea model into also-ran status.

By 2011, the eight year old model really ought to have been on run-out mode, but with Fiat in crisis, no direct replacement was in hand. That same year, Fiat Auto took the disastrous decision to market rebadged US Chryslers as Lancias across Europe.

The Musa was unaffected by this move – the word being that it would remain in production owing to continued demand, coupled to the fact that it was probably quite a profitable model line. Sales had started to dip by then but levelled out again the following year.

By 2012 however, the post-crash Eurozone recession had decimated new car demand in Italy. Mirafiori was Italy’s largest car-making facility, employing over 5400 people and facing unprecedented losses, Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne took the controversial and unprecedented decision to pay production workers to stay home.

Previously previewed in Fiat’s 2010 product plan, the 500L monospace was officially announced at the 2012 Geneva motor show. But rather than build it at Mirafiori, Marchionne elected to switch production to the lower-cost and less volatile former Zastava plant in Kragujevac, Serbia. With styling influenced by Roberto Giolito’s 2007 retro-Cinquecento, there would (mercifully) be no Lancia version.

But what the Musa illustrated was that in Italy at least, there existed a robust market for a compact luxury monospace, offering as it did some of the virtues of a large vehicle on a smaller footprint. While it’s clear that the Musa remained in production far longer than ideal, it retained its market – one which may not have been entirely satisfied by the clown-shoe aesthetics of the 500L.

Image credit: alvolante

Of course no market segment lasts forever. It’s obvious now the B-segment monospace has run its course – hollowed out by the compact crossover – a format to which Lancia might well have struggled. All academic now of course, with the marque locked in its current state of suspended euthanasia.

But the gifts of the Gods are not to be rejected, and Melpomene has spoken. So with matters as they are, what is left to us but to sift the fragmentary evidence and impotently muse upon the possible identity of the culprit?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “The Muse of Melpomene”

  1. I liked the Idea at the time, thinking it both practical and neatly designed, The Musa never appeared in the UK (to my knowledge), which is a shame because it’s a bit more characterful and posh than the FIAT. No one wants such cars in the UK any more, hoofed out of the nest by ‘baby’ SUV cuckoos that are less practical but more butch. I think my current favourite, KIA’s Venga is still on the price lists in the UK, but no doubt its younger sibling, the rather aggressively entitled Stonic will smother it some time soon.

    1. In fact the whole ritzy mini car concept has gone too: remember the Clio Baccara, Rover 114 Kensington or the Roland Garros Peugeots? I´ve seen the Musa in the metal and a jolly lush vehicle it is too. Perhaps the problem with it is that such cars seem very gendered – the typical buyer was not a man, I think. Yet presumably there are people of both sexes who want a comfortable and well appointed smaller car that is not a symphony in grey and black? I suppose we still have the Vignale Fords …

  2. Dead right about the gendering, Richard. It’s affected Lancia a lot; even the Lybra, definitely the Ypsilon. Strangely for my quite hip Normandy town, we have no Musas. They’re expensive still (c €7k), yet you could throw away the same money on a crude Dacia.

    Where did it sell so well?

    The Musa never appealed to me, as the boot was too small. Now I see the facelift made the inside very flexible, with sliding rear seats, so I might have another look.

    1. Unlike the Ypsilon for example, I never felt the Musa to be that much of a predominantly ‘feminine’ offering. I could have seen it appealing to affluent family men living in cramped medieval Italian towns and cities, for whom a more traditional Luxury car, (a Lybra or similar) while perhaps affordable, would have proved something of a faff to finding parking for.

      I’m less than convinced the market for upmarket compact cars is necessarily dying out either. For almost a decade, we’ve had inexpensive car credit and certainly for some years now, much cheaper fuel prices – both of which have made larger, more upmarket cars an attainable choice. By my reckoning, we’re only a recession away from some form of this market making a comeback.

      But even without those factors, it has become a way for the so-called mass-market marques to bolster their offer. Consider what Peugeot is doing, not to mention Renault with ‘Initiale Paris’ or indeed Vignale, as RH pointed out above. If anything, I’d view this as a segment with growth potential – one FCA are entirely absent from and Lancia could still potentially fill.

      And yes, I know – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would have had a field-day with me… still stuck at bargaining.

  3. I well remember the Lancia Y10 with the “designer alcantara interior” when others were rather basic and repetitive in their design ideas. Even the pivoting rear windows were electrical and remotely controlled by the driver.

  4. I remember a visit by a dealer of Alfas and Lancias about 10 years ago. And i must confirm, they had the best interiors at that time. The Alfa Spider, the Brera, the Thesis and the Musa – you could not find more cosy interiors elsewhere. Fine leather, bicoloured dashes, generous cloth on the door panels, warm colours – you all could have it in a Musa.
    I must say, i like this kind of interiors much more than the cold, technical black-and-grey-styled interior style of german cars. Compare a Musa to a Meriva or a Fusion of that time – puh….

  5. When the premium product is outselling its mechanically identical mainstream twin, the market’s telling you something. Did Sergio notice? Sometimes Marchionne-era Fiat Group seems to be almost as butt-headed as GM.

    Has anyone mentioned the ‘Dolce far niente’ automated gearbox option. Apparently it wasn’t much good, but what a gorgeous name.

    1. I think the auto box is like the Kappa’s, having a memory, thus “intelligent”, and Power and Ice options as well as Normal. MB have something similar today. It works fine, but quickly changing road conditions can make it less than perfectly smooth.

    2. I’ve been saying publicly that Marchionne was a complete and utter moron as far back as 2010. It almost looks like he was working for Volkswagen, not FCA.

  6. In Greece, it seems that the Musa was far, far more popular than the Idea. I don’t have – at the moment – figures, but I still see many more Musas than Ideas, and I remember this being the case even when both cars were in production. I’ll say it again: Marchionne was an overrated moron.

    1. Agreed, Konstantinos. Funnily enough I saw a Musa today (in Aarhus, Denmark). I always feel a little cheer when I see a Lancia. Quite possibly, the Musa would continue to have sold even if the b-class MPV genre was in decline. As Eoin said, it´s a format that suited Lancia. Also, Lancia customers probably don´t give a carp about fashion. If they get a nicely made and comfortable car they will buy it. Incidentally, a frustrated Lancia customer could turn to Opel who have usually gone to the trouble of offering some very warm interiors and the kind of nice, smooth ride that a Lancia customer could cope with.

    2. Exactly, Richard. You know, it was mentioned earlier that it was interesting how two mechanically identical and morphologically almost identical (Fiat Idea and Lancia Musa, in our case) received such different responses from the buying public. And this, despite the fact that both cars were saddled with the sadistic (at best) dealer network of the Gruppo/FCA/whatever-it-renames-itself-to.

      Although I’ve never driven a Musa, the only obvious flaws I knew it had were the Stilo-derived rear-view mirrors, which were nigh-on useless, and the sloppy-feeling rotary HVAC controls on the lesser trim levels. Still, I’m confident that a fully-equipped Musa with a 1.6-liter, 120HP diesel engine, or a 1.4-liter, 120HP T-Jet or Multiair, would be an excellent thing to have in FCA’s portfolio, as it would serve a reliable niche. As you and others pointed out, it would be extremely capable, welcoming, and comfortable transport for elegance-conscious buyers willing to spend more, but not willing to opt for a vehicle larger than what they need. Here, I’ll give you two extra factors as to why its compact size and upmarket styling and build would make it attractive: when people decide what car they’ll drive, they also take into account the maximum size of car they can put in their garage, and also the road conditions in their urban environment.

    3. The car industry is hard to follow sometimes. Received product planning wisdom suggests that the monospace is a dying format, and that buyers simply no longer want what these vehicles are offering any more. Sales data has appeared to back this up, with buyers departing in droves from the mainstream purveyors, notably Renault and Citroen. Yet, both Mercedes and now BMW have invested in new compact MPV models (B-Class and 2-Series Gran Something or Other), suggesting that the market is not as moribund as it might appear. In addition, MINI are actively considering a monospace based upon their recent Urbanaut concept.

      Now this suggests that there may have been other reasons behind the demise of the mainstream compact monospace. Perhaps it is a sector that Stellantis ought to (re)consider, since Lancia seemed to execute it rather well?

    4. Eóin, one thing I’ve noticed in the car industry is manufacturers’ tendency to jump on whatever bandwagon seems to be commercially successful at the time – much like what’s going on with Stratocaster copies in the electric guitar industry (from plywood, el cheapo, crapocasters all the way to high-end Superstrats by the likes of Blade, Paul Reed Smith, Schecter, or Suhr).

      In this sector, quality, aesthetics, timing, and product placement are crucial: Schecter and Pensa-Suhr (before Rudy Pensa and John Suhr split) became famous and popular courtesy of Mark Knopfler. On the other hand, in the age of spandex-legginged, poodle-haired, gym-going shredders, John Sykes’ work with Whitesnake wasn’t enough to help the Gibson Les Paul; neither was Mark Knopfler’s magnificent solo on “Brothers In Arms”. It was Gary Moore’s “Still Got The Blues” and Slash’s work on “Appetite For Destruction” (with a replica Les Paul, no less!) that rekindled buyers’ interest in this guitar.

      Let’s get back to the car industry: Lancia seems to be consistently getting its timing wrong: its retro-modern Lybra and Thesis were launched before this sort of thing became cool. In fact, I think the Lybra’s front treatment went a bit too far, and many people I know dismissed it on the spot as a car for old geezers and not a “true” (i.e. a Deltona) Lancia. As for the Thesis, it drove the “wrong” wheels, its engines were deemed “too small”, and it wasn’t “macho” enough. The Delta III itself, a long-wheelbase C-segment hatch, was stylistically solid, but it was poorly put together, and launched before this kind of design could be appreciated.

      The Musa, on the other hand, was a success. Perhaps not a runaway success, but a popular car that didn’t give Lancia a bad name, and made its parent company money by being a more or less steady seller. What did FCA learn from all this? Then again, maybe I’m expecting too much of “geniuses” like Marchionne and Olivier François?

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