Something of a quest this, to drive as many Lancias as possible. So finally I am behind the wheel of a rather miley Kappa 2.0 with its transversely aligned five-banger.
So far DTW has driven and documented the Trevi, Lybra, Delta Mk3 and the Thesis. I did also drive a Kappa coupé a long time ago but have forgotten much of the experience except the deep disappointment about the ashtray. The coupé is also the car I most regret not buying.
Now, the time has arrived for another Kappa experience as I have had another chance to test one, this time the four-door 2.0 litre petrol five.
Well, sir, what’s it like to drive? Before I get to that I need to say I feel a burden on my frail shoulders. Nobody has reviewed this car in the English language since Car magazine devoted a couple of pages to it in 1994, which is a good quarter of a century ago now. So, I have to get this right.
The Kappa arrived in 1994 and bowed out six short years later, never really building on the success of its predecessor. Most likely the problem didn’t lie with the car but the marketing and the market; during this time the Scorpio and XM withered and several manufacturers abandoned the large car segment.
The Kappa’s mediocre market reception did not come from a lack of effort on Lancia’s part. First, Lancia had an estate and coupé as well as the saloon, one more bodyshell than the Thema had (is the Kappa one of the last mainstream cars to have a coupé version?). Lancia offered a delightful range of engines: a 2.0 litre four-cylinder, a blown and non-blown 2.0 litre L5, a 2.4 L5 and a V6. Did any firm ever offer more choice in configurations at the one time than Lancia and Fiat at this time? That range of 4s, 5s and 6s is rather impressive? And one could burn diesel too.
The kerbweight didn’t crush the scales, coming in under 1500 kg. And if you experience the car it does not feel flimsy either so the Lancia engineers handled the weight efficiency chore with skill.
Outside the Kappa is very much in the Lancia tradition of dead plain saloons, almost flamboyantly unadorned. The IDEA Institute gets the credit (Ercole Spada at the helm); I’d be curious as to what else Lancia considered and rejected. I think this 1994 car has aged well and has become more distinctive as time slithers by; I saw one drive by at a long distance a few weeks ago and noticed how strongly the car’s identity carried, being easily identifiable from its overall profile and distinctive side-glass pattern.
The lamps front and rear are enclosed by a clear boundary line of panel edges in a logical position, a pleasing coalescence of graphics and engineering. A little chrome lifts the front and the rear; the C-pillar says formal and the profile is packaging-led with a low-nose such that inside the car you can’t see anything below the base of the windscreen. The side profile does not do the car justice -it looks sleeker than the photos suggest.
Inside, you step over real metal kick plates and settle into comfortable, supportive seats. Points get lost for the manual seat-height adjuster. No car in this class should have manually adjusted seats. The instruments are below the line of the base of the window (really low) and the dashboard is a long way away.
The fake wood isn’t all that good even if you like fake wood (and I love it), sorry to say. I don’t think there was the possibility to delete the wood. The problem is that the shapes do not support the argument made by the finish. The austerity that informed the outside did not make it into the car. The rest of it is quite okay though.
The gear lever can be reached easily; the pedals well-placed and drivers will enjoy a supernice indicator of supernatural smoothness. Iffy ergnomics haunt the speedo whose top is clipped by the binnacle and the button-controled HVAC system is annoying. There are great seats at the back with scads of legroom. The centre armrest falls to the right height. You would not mind spending a good many hours as a passenger in this vehicle. Built into the C-pillar are reading lamps, like eye-balls. The centre ashtray comes as a let-down: a one-piece horizontally hinged plastic bucket of minimal dignity. It’s pretty civilised otherwise.
To the driving: you turn the key and try to ignore the noisy starter motor and reluctant first and second gear. The light clutch helps. And the super light steering is delicious. I really liked this characterisitic. Why do people want heavy steering? The Kappa has clear and clean turn-in such that the car reacts to what you do, as you’d expect.
Acceleration is decent if not awe-inducing but the car is noisier at speed than I’d like. It has triple door seals but perhaps the 5-banger sounds like this and it can’t be helped. It’s not a bad noise but it’s there, the engine, and not wind noise. The outside mirrors are a bit too small.
What impressed me is the ride quality, courtesy of the suspension set-up, the relatively high-profile tyres and the stiff shell. This car is a smooth saloon, relaxed and cosseting with conspicuously well conceived suspension settings. Yet it does not feel inert or wallowy. If you want to throw the car around a bit it does as instructed, feeling more agile than you’d expect a formal saloon ever to feel. Does it do it better than a 406 though? It does it differently, being a bit less reserved than Peugeot’s acknowledged mastery of the ride-handling compromise.
The Kappa’s boot is big and deep. The pursuit of shell-stiffness has probably led to the aperture being a bit on the small side. It’s not a very big price to pay; I am not sure how many trips to Ikea will be confounded by the small dimensions of the boot’s opening. But maybe that is also a signal and a hint: stay away from Ikea, it just shrivels your immortal soul and no quantity of cheap donuts and processed sausage can restore it. The Lancia man does not go to Ikea, he does not need a wide boot to get things from the hardware store.
Quality: overall it’s very pleasing with deep carpet, cloth (velour!) seats, plenty of features and is palpably well-constructed with the lamentable exception of the flimsy radio cover. Nodding to Robertas P, we must ask if the Lancia Charter has been enforced. Lancias always seem to have one duff feature in plain view. It’s an infuriating thing, a flimsily hinged panel which spangs open with a click of plastic on plastic. So, leave it open the whole time. It is like an otherwise nice person who happens to have a compulsive need to block toilets with all the spare toilet rolls whenever the chance arises. Needless.
Matters of taste: there is one colour too many in this interior and it is probably the light-grey carpet. It ought to have been dark blue, black or grey. Many of the Kappas were like this. The Thema did it better and so did the Thesis. At the back and front we find a rather oddly designed door card. What exactly is that light grey form under the arm rest for? It only holds the window switches and gets in the way of the flock-lined door bin. The colour break up of the B-pillar is also a bit on the cheap side.
Overall, the Kappa is a comfortable, refined and well-made car with three gripes: the 1st and 2nd gear change is a bit cumbersome, the centre console’s flaky panel is an irritating oversight and it’s noisy at speed.
The rest of the car is very pleasing indeed and once you are on the open road you discover a beautiful ride quality and a deliciously light and sensitive tiller. The Kappa is spacious yet wieldy and is an intriguing shape to behold. I find myself unable to get bored of the exterior design.
I realise now that I have driven the Kappa what a strategic blunder the Thesis was. The Thesis was clearly not a replacement for the Kappa, not in the same way the Kappa replaced the Thema. The Kappa asks to be driven and is a very manageable size (and compares well to the 406, for example). The Thesis was far too aloof and bulky – beautiful and smooth but up a class and too pricey.
A revised Kappa was what they needed: a car which did everything the Thema and Kappa did but better, such as improved ergonomics and possibly updated engine technology but not something so radically different in scale and ambition.
Post-Script: the RWD Kappa.
It’s very easy to sit back in one’s armchair and criticise other people’s design. It’s easy because you don’t know the constraints. The proportions of the Kappa were driven by its FWD architecture and, probably, the wish to have lots of room inside. With that caveat in mind, I have taken the liberty of remodelling the Kappa to make it look RWD and I took about 3% off the roof height, simply by compressing the glasshouse above the waistline. The image is a standard one from Wikipedia.