The 1989 Dedra brought Latin style and a more competent package to the compact executive segment. Sadly, it left behind a few more pressing concerns.
Italians have never needed to be convinced that a luxury car could also be a compact car. With a land and cityscape which militated against corpulence and a taxation system which proscribed large-capacity engines, Italian carmakers made something of an art out of geographical and fiscal necessity.
As artforms went however, it wasn’t the most expressive, the post-war Italian upmarket berlina conforming to a degree of visual rectitude that was almost flamboyant in its subtlety. Foremost amongst its exponents was Lancia. From the Ardea, its Appia successor, to the seminal Fulvia, these saloons gave the upwardly mobile a refined, well engineered and reassuringly patrician vehicle – one which could be operated, parked and afforded – within the often narrow confines of Italian society.
It could be argued that the bloodline paused with the advent of 1972’s Beta, a larger and from a stylistic perspective, a more expressive car. A more direct replacement would arrive seven years later with the hatchback Delta, regaining both compact dimensions and a more sober style. But it wasn’t until the advent of 1982’s Prisma that the line was truly reanimated. By adding a third volume to the Delta’s silhouette (along with revised nose styling), Ital Design created a compact berlina which quickly became Lancia’s best seller.
The Prisma’s combination of sobriety and size proved a winning formula, proving not only a useful adjunct to the concurrent Delta, but also occupying the lower foothills of the Trevi range, following the latter’s demise in 1984.
For the Prisma’s eventual replacement, Fiat looked, not to Ital Design as before, but to the design consultancy shaping the pivotal Type Two programme, estimated at the time to have cost Fiat in the region of £1bn to develop. The Institute of Development in Automotive Engineering (I.D.E.A) was founded by Franco Mantegazza, a mechanical engineer and avowed non-stylist. Situated in an 18th century hunting lodge high in the hills of Moncalieri on the outskirts of Turin, IDEA brought a less romantic, more pragmatic approach to the design of motor cars.
Twinned with the Fiat Tempra, the Dedra’s design team, led by Ercole Spada, (reporting to Mantegazza) were briefed to create a car which Mantegazza described as, “not very modern, traditional, a car with discreet elegance.” The resulting shape was one with the kind of studied discipline of line and form, attention to detail and visual restraint that perhaps approached that of contemporary Mercedes’, but fell somewhat short in proportional terms – appearing overly tall and slab-sided from some aspects.
Reviewed in Car Magazine by veteran freelancer, Roger Bell, the former Motor staffer praised the Dedra’s cabin, describing its architecture as “soft, clean and integrated”. The check-cloth seat facings were also noted, “why pay more for suede?”, Bell regarding the interior as being “generally well finished”, there being “nothing low-brow or vulgar to deter the discerning.” Roomy too, with generous accommodation for five and their luggage in the “huge, flat-floored boot”.
The Dedra arrived to UK/ROI shores with a choice of a 1.6l 90bhp single-cam Fiat motor lifted straight from the Tipo. Median-range was a 1.8l twin cam with contra-rotating balance-shafts producing 110 bhp. Rounding out the choices was a 2.0l version of the same unit with another 10bhp and in Bell’s estimation, little else to commend it. Stick with the 1.8, he reckoned. Later in the car’s lifespan, turbocharged versions of the two-litre were offered to European customers in HF and Integrale (4WD) versions. Diesels too became available.
Bell enjoyed the 1.8, saying it “pulls hard, revs sweetly to its six-five limit and feels livelier than stopwatch figures suggest,” describing it as the “starring value for money” choice. However, there was a caveat. “Shut your eyes and it sounds and feels a bit like a Fiat; that is not in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not what buyers at this level seek.” Also on the demerit side was a soft-feeling brake pedal, an imprecise if accurate gearchange, cheap-feeling column stalks and a rhapsody of creaks and rattles on rough surfaces which “collectively tend to undermine the Dedra’s quality aspirations.”
Better news awaited when the Dedra’s chassis was discussed, Bell praising the Lancia’s traction in all conditions, the lack of torque-steer under power and its stability at speed. “The Dedra corners with an even-keel composure that encourages elan; the ability to tighten line on sharp corners when you expect understeer plough never fails to impress.” The ride quality “on the stiff and thunky side of supple” was not deemed “an impediment to comfort”, the firm, supportive seats, excellent driving position, low noise levels and “excellent” heating/ventilation all gaining approval.
“The Dedra extends no frontiers, sets no benchmarks, but is an agreeable, friendly, spirited car that’s not short on character”, is how his report concluded. But while Lancia were undergoing something of a sales renaissance in Europe (and especially Italy) at the time, they were on the edge of extinction in the UK. The Dedra therefore was pivotal to reverse Lancia’s fortunes, aiming to take a chunk out of the lucrative UK compact executive saloon market, with keen prices, sharp contemporary Italian style and generous equipment.
But in an addendum to the review, Car’s editor added: “After Roger Bell had passed the car on to our other testers, it broke down three times.”
Confidence is everything when it comes to the purchase of an expensive consumer durable and given Lancia’s already torrid reputation in the UK, this was probably the last thing the concessionaires wanted to see in print. Because whatever the truth of the matter, it underlined Fiat’s inability to get the fundamentals right. And in retrospect, it was probably this fear-factor, combined with a dealer network who was either unwilling or unable to satisfy the customer that finished Lancia in RHD markets.
That and a throw-away comment by the reviewer. Describing the Lancia as “a new sort of Euro-standard car”, Roger Bell, perhaps inadvertently, damned the Dedra more succinctly than any 500-word article could.