In this concluding piece, we consider the Lybra’s appearance and ponder its ultimate fate.
So much for the underpinnings. The dealers’ main worry had been the styling, which had been a fraught process throughout. At the start of the project, proposals from the Enrico Fumia-led Centro Stile, Leonardo Fioravanti, and the I.DE.A consultancy had been evaluated. Team Fumia’s 1992 design was thematically similar to – if visually richer than – the outgoing Dedra, also marrying obvious cues from the forthcoming 1995 Y supermini. Elements of the design also reflected the Fessia era, but in a broadly contemporary manner. Overall, it was an attractive proposal, somewhat reminiscent of Peugeot’s subsequent 406, if perhaps a little derivative in certain respects.
I.DE.A’s proposal, on the other hand, was more rationalist, as perhaps might have been expected, yet also rather surprisingly, more ‘classical’ – especially around the nose. In the end, elements from both were melded, but it was broadly I.DE.A’s proposal that went forward, with the initial design frozen in late 1994. (DTW symmetry fans, take note – the symmetrical side DLOs, which dated back to the earliest Fumia sketches, were a brand hallmark and intended to recall the Aurelia.)
However, little at Fiat was ever straightforward or long-lasting. According to contemporaneous reporting, Fumia objected to the design that emerged, but was overruled by Cantarella. Writing in 1996, Luca Ciferri reported the inevitable: “After several arguments on the topic, Fumia was ousted at Lancia and made an assistant to Fiat Auto styling coordinator Nevio Di Giusto.”
Fumia was replaced by American Mike Robinson, who brought with him a vastly different visual palette. Nonetheless, there was only so much he could do, for by this stage, only limited changes could be wrought to the tooling. Three revised noses were drawn up, with the final production version drawing on alternative themes developed by Centro Stile even prior to the redesign being ordered.
More substantial changes were made to the interior, which emerged as one of the Lybra’s most impressive aspects, with particular care taken over the selection of materials and trims. With an emphasis placed on perceived quality, plush materials and a luxury feel, it was considered a success, and in more upmarket specifications, very attractive indeed, even if some of Flavio Manzoni’s alternative, more modernist dashboard designs seem remarkably prescient of later trends.
The effect of all these changes was to delay the Lybra’s eventual launch by over a year, the car finally unveiled in March 1999 and going on sale in Italy in September. Putting to one side its appearance (which most Anglophone correspondents filed under some variation of ‘Yes, but, consider this just a placeholder – wait for the Kappa replacement for the real Lancia revival’), the Lybra was generally well-received upon its debut, with press and customers particularly impressed by its refinement, interior trimmings, and fine balance of ride comfort and dynamic capability.
The majority of the engines were drawn from Fiat’s ‘Family B’ and ‘Family C’ modular family, with the 1.6 Torque rounding out the range. However, the fact that the top-line engine was only a 154-cavallino 2.0-litre unit served to underline – and, perhaps, undermine – its position in the Fiat Auto pecking order. In point of fact, the Kappa’s 170hp 2.4-litre in-line five was engineered for and, indeed, offered in the Lybra – but only in the armoured ‘Protecta’ version. In a market where a performance-oriented image was becoming indivisible from sales success – and where every competitor offered a medium-capacity six, or at the very least, a blown four – this cannot be considered anything other than a misstep, given the kind of clientele Lancia was aiming to attract.
Certainly, in comparison with its predecessors, the Lybra was far more of a quality product, an assertion backed up by it gaining a reputation for reliability and durability, and a positive reputation amongst owners. Yet success eluded it. What went wrong? It was available in two body styles (saloon and estate) with a broad range of engines and specification levels, but was up against a formidable in-house rival in the 156, a car which captivated both enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike with its finely-judged style and broad-based appeal.
Lancia’s non-Italian sector rivals were also plentiful and strong. In their midst, the Lybra was perhaps too self-effacing to present in its best light – a side which arguably required time and discernment to appreciate. Although sales in Italy got off to a promising start, life-cycle sales were disappointing at best and never came close to breaking Lancia out of the domestic-market corner it had painted itself into. Aiming for around 55-60,000 sales a year – itself a number tempered by a series of recent flops – Lancia managed to shift just under 165,000 Lybras in six years, half its publicly-declared target.
With Fiat’s finances under increasing pressure almost from the turn of the millennium, a proposed facelift scheduled for 2003 was axed – and bar a few equipment reshuffles, that was that. The whole affair was over by the summer of 2005, leaving it as the final mid-sized tre-volumi to bear the fabled shield and flag.
One cannot help but go back to the straitjacket that Fiat management created for themselves in considering the reasons for the Lybra’s market failure. In imposing a change of direction that was resisted by the overwhelming majority of Lancia’s contemporaneous customer base, the outcome was a mere formality – those customers went elsewhere, and not necessarily to Alfa Romeo.
It is ironic indeed that the Lybra, along with the Thesis – cars developed at not-inconsiderable expense, and with the might of a then-still-formidable Fiat Group behind them – should have represented perhaps the final proof of the group’s chronic inability to effectively entice customers in the upper levels of the marketplace. In the truest of Lancia tradition, they serve as reminders that the qualities of the metal-and-plastic construction in the showroom are but a singular element of enduring success in this game.
Ultimately then, the Lybra symbolises the eternal Lancia Charter: forever a day late and several million lire short. Prisma – almost. Dedra – nearly. The Lybra was a more substantive offering than either, only to be hobbled not only by the Scudetto in the room but the fact that by then, the gig was more or less up. Libra’s symbol is the scales, and while Fiat vainly attempted to balance its many conflicting imperatives, it always seemed weighted towards Lancia’s diminution.