Tilting the Scales (3)

In this concluding piece, we consider the Lybra’s appearance and ponder its ultimate fate.

(c) Quattroruote

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.

(c) Lancia press

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.

(c) HYTS autós galéria

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.


Fiat Press: Lancia Lybra

13 Fiats of the future

Lancia dealers dislike new Dedra design

Lancia Dedra redesign delays launch one year

Bruno Cena, D Platform Director, Fiat Auto

Lancia needs Lybra to reverse sales slide

Fiat hopes Lybra will fix Lancia’s ‘confused’ image

Frankfurt auto show brand-by-brand

What’s the verdict

Bertone’s driving force

Fiat losses force product cutbacks

Italiaspeed: Lancia Lybra

Avanti Tutta

Ipotesi di Complotto

Così si Lybra la nuova Lancia

26 thoughts on “Tilting the Scales (3)”

  1. The photographs in this article highlight the Lybra‘s weird looks. In the topmost picture the Lybra appears to be one size smaller than the others but the possible immediate comparison shows that it is roughly the same size.
    It also is very colour sensitive and very dependent on the angle of view. The light coloured car shows excessively thick door window frames, something which also didn’t work on Utah Mk1 or Sierra Mk1.
    There’s something wrong with the DLO. The top of the front and rear screens aligns with the outer circumference of the door pressings instead of the side windows, making the side windows look smaller than they are. The Alfa 156 looks much better because the edges of the windows are at the same height.

    1. I think Dave has hit the nail squarely on the head regarding those one-piece door pressings, which look heavy and definitely “non-premium”. I think the thickness of the window frames and, specifically, the radiused corners look more suited to an economy small car than a luxury saloon.

      Interestingly, when handled differently, one-piece door pressings can instead dive the impression of engineering integrity and solidity, as was the case with the Mercedes-Benz W201:

    2. “It also is very colour sensitive and very dependent on the angle of view.”

      Fiat at this stage was very much into ‘variable volumes’, with the standout example being the Bravo and, especially, Brava – the notion that a design can look smaller or larger contingent on the perspective. The top photo illustrates one of the main reasons it looks more compact than rivals, I think – the front end in particular has a lot of tapered corners, and the wings standing proud of the grille reduces the visual width of both the bonnet and grille.

    3. During the same period, Mercedes-Benz saw fit to apply doors not unlike the Lancia’s to the then-new S-class.

      One way to view this would be to argue that what’s good enough for an S-class is good enough for a Lancia. Or one could add the doors to the long list of cheap features this particular generation of S was bestowed with initially.

  2. Regarding the radiused corners, Ford transformed the look of the Sierra simply by reducing the radius of the corners of the side windows, without any reduction to the width of the frames:

    1. For all these years I hadn’t realised that it was just the radii that had changed; the visual impact was really significant.

      The S Class has black B pillars, which give a single DLO effect, and the 190’s don’t look like single piece pressings at all, so maintain a strong horizontal lower DLO edge. The Lybra has always looked unfinished by the standards of others to my eyes.

      Pre and post-facelift 406s illustrate what a little bit of black in the right location can do to a DLO. I much prefer the original.

    2. Did you ever notice, though, how the black-pillar delete on the 406 facelift was solely for the sedan? The estate facelift carried across the black pillars unaltered.

      You can thank me for every time you can never now un-notice that and it keeping you up at night forthwith.

    3. Sadly 406s seem to be rapidly disappearing in Devon, in any form, but I’ll thank you every time I spot an estate, Stradale!

    4. Adrian and Stradale, that’s PhD level spotting on both your parts regarding the 406. Well done!

      The deletion of the blacked out B-pillar had previously escaped my attention. Together with the unconvincingly split tail lights, oddly widened headlamps and cheap looking black plastic front grille, the facelift was a wholly retrograde step.

    5. Agreed. The point of the new bumpers was to integrate them more smoothly. It did not work though because the new radius between the wings and bumpers had to be crossed by the panel gap. The coupé did it much better. The split lamps were also quite poorly done. It´s still a magnificent car though from all other viewpoints: reliable, efficient, spacious, lovely to interact with, and comfortable.

    6. My pre facelift 406 is one of only a couple of cars I regret having parted with (sniff). Don’t get me and Richard started on the cream velour or we’ll take this thread completely off on a tangent.

    7. Almost a decade ago I had a fleeting glimpse of a 406 in bronze metallic with, I think, a greenish interior. I saw it in Viborg, Denmark. I have never seen one like it since. And in Grenoble recently I saw one in mid-metallic green. Both colours looked very good which makes the default dark grey colour which makes up 90% of the cars here the harder to understand. In the non-monochrome colours the 406 really comes alive as a shape. In dark metallic grey it´s nigh on invisible. As I said, a very fine car whose brilliance is in the compromises. It´s a bit paradoxical that at least for me, a car whose conception is so carefully calculated should produce such an emotional response. Do we call this being passionate about reason?

    8. Good morning, Richard.

      “Do we call this being passionate about reason?”

      That’s an interesting question. I think that, amongst those who pay attention to such things, there can be an innate perception of holistic “rightness” that is not always easy to deconstruct and anslyse. It is especially satisfying when a mainstream model like the 406, the design of which is subject to so many financial and practical constraints, achieves this stylistic nirvana. It might also explain why it proved impossible to improve on in the facelift.

  3. Good observation.
    About the Fumia re-style, the one that looked like an Ypsilon. The angle of the lamps makes the car look sad which is a no-no. The Alfa 166 had a similar depressed look. It reminds me of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

  4. Also, I can attest to the fine interior of the Lybra, particularly the one´s with leather facings. It had a very charming and substantial feel. I am not bothered about the one-piece door pressings – in the context of the time it was a normal and unremarkable choice.

    1. Lancia made some very interesting interiors by using innovative materials.
      They pioneered the use of Alcantara and they re-discovered Zegna’s pannò Lancia. The best move for me was cast magnesium for the Thesis’ dashboard.
      The Lybra’s interior only had minor details that didn’t work. The wood on the centre console was fake (though not nearly as bad as that on the ‘wooden’ 156s or 166s) the steering wheel was clumsy (at a time when Fiat started to show the world how slim that a steering wheel centre with an airbag can be by making the airbag from thinner material sourced from Fiat medico. See barchetta’s or 156’s steering wheel) and the inner door openers were unforgivable shiny black plastic where they managed to give the 156 some proper chromed metal items.

  5. Well, these images certainly illustrate the Lybra’s problems.

    If choosing between these six, who would rank the Lancia first? Vauxhall / Opel face a similar problem today: making a car one of the top five in its particular segment is not enough, because each sale relies upon a customer picking your car first above all others. If the car itself isn’t good enough, you need to incentivise the sale via a discount or other inducement.

    The 156 might not have been much better, but it had beauty and charm. Might I suggest that the Lybra failed because it simply wasn’t good enough.

    Did they really produce an armoured version?! Was the small town Mafiosa market worth it?

    1. This isn´t a rhetorical question: in what way could it have been better other than the styling which in the end alienated more people than it charmed. The engine range was large – did it need a manic turbo? Apart from the glovebox the interior was miles better than cars from the class above from Ford, Opel and PSA.

    2. Jacomo,

      I suggest you try and remember that it wasn’t just prime ministers that were target of assassinations/assassination attempts in Italy for decades. Even regional members of the of law enforcement agencies were under considerable threat, hence the demand for armoured cars that weren’t exactly head of state limousine-like.

      In Sicily, any mayor of a larger city prepared to stand his ground would have needed protection, but might’ve found it hard to justify the purchase of an armoured Maserati Quattroporte.

    3. It is interesting looking at this grouping of six cars 20 years on. Unlike some I am not bothered by the door frame kerfuffle but I do agree the Lybra is quite colour-sensitive and that darker shades probably suit it better. But to your question, Jacomo – who would have preferred the Lybra when new? I agree it is not an overly-obvious choice in that class in some ways. But (while acknowledging the following is not much help to Fiat’s product planning department circa 1999), I would argue that apart from the Alfa, which is an absolute high point of post-war styling in my opinion, the Lancia’s styling has held up on par with the Audi and better than the rest. Sad to say, but I rather suspect this is a function of essentially two decades’ worth of largely irredeemable tat being let loose on the roads since and my inner aesthete seeking refuge in the comforts of more classical solutions.

  6. Surely those door pressings are from the comtemporaneous Bravo/a? The whole centre section/passenger cell seems very similar to that of the Fiat. It’s odd how the Alfa on the same platform managed to look so different. Could there have been a greater budget for the Alfa

  7. Also, could I have remembered to add in the question mark at the end of my sentence? Duh…

    1. Hi Michael. No, actually, the Brava’s doors were different, having slim separate window frames that were blacked out:

      Moreover, that rear three-quarter panel, encompassing the separate tail lights, looked expensive for a cheap(ish) car. Perhaps Fiat should have reversed its priorities between these too models, especially as, stylistically, the Brava was rather less than the sum of its parts, looking rather like a Citroen Xsara that had been fattened up for Christmas?

  8. The front of the Lybra reminds me strongly of the W210, although the Lybra’s design would have been frozen before Mercedes unleashed their horror into the world.

    Daniel, the Sierra’s windows corner radii were reduced because the car was criticised early on for having small windows. Ironic, because they were actually larger than the outgoing Cortina’s, so beloved of the British motorist.

  9. I stand corrected! So much for my visual memory, although the unfortunate Lybra still looks Fiat-alike to me. Not that this need have damaged its prospects: it doesn’t seem to hurt all the VW group SUV variants…

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