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Lancia a lot to return

HPE sauce: Delta concept will morph into an all-new medium hatch by 2008.

Momentum surrounding Lancia’s Australian return is building but has a long way to go

3 Oct 2006

YOU’RE looking at the car that could provide the basis for the return of Italian luxury brand Lancia to Australian roads for the first time in more than two decades.

Ateco Automotive, which holds the first right of refusal for the Lancia distribution rights in Australia and hopes to introduce the first Chinese-built models here in 2008, is a long way from an official announcement, but admits it has considered reintroducing the Fiat-owned marque for an undisclosed period of time.

If Lancia returns to Australia, which won’t occur before 2009, Lancia would join Citroen, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Fiat and at least one as-yet-unnamed Chinese brand in Ateco’s stable here.

Lancia would also bring to 42 the number of automotive brands on sale in Australia, with DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge the most recent marque to arrive (in August) and Volkswagen’s Skoda likely to be relaunched in 2007.

New impetus for Lancia’s return to Australia comes from the fact Lancia will be reintroduced to the right-hand drive UK and Japan markets in 2008 – the same year Lancia celebrates its 100th anniversary.

As Lancia’s first model to be built for a global market, a production version of the mid-sized Delta HPE five-door hatch concept, revealed at Paris last week following its first public airing at the Venice International Film Festival in mid-September, is expected to form the basis of Lancia’s comeback in right-hand drive markets around the world – including Australia.

But Ateco officials say the company’s current focus is on Fiat, which returned to the Australian passenger car scene with the new Punto hatch in July, and that any potential Lancia models would only be considered if they didn’t compete with Ateco’s own Alfa and Fiat models. In Europe, Lancia is positioned as a luxury brand, Fiat targets families and Alfa aims at the performance market.

Ateco public affairs manager Edward Rowe denied the Sydney-based company was under pressure to relaunch Lancia here in 2008 as part of the Fiat brand’s global push, which hopes to attract 300,000 sales globally.

"If we can’t do it then nobody else can," he said. "But there has to be a solid business case and any sales in Australia would have to be purely incremental to Ateco business.

"It all depends on what the vehicles even look like. We have to see them… before we decide that there is an opening for Lancia (in Australia)," he said.

According Mr Rowe, Ateco will not revive Lancia in Australia until after it has completed its new model rollout cycle for the Fiat brand.

136 center image"Supposing that a suitable new Lancia model is released at the Geneva motor show in March 2008, and we decided to show it at the Sydney motor show in October (of that year), then it would not be able to go on sale in Australia before sometime in 2009 at the earliest," said Mr Rowe.

Lancia’s return to the UK in 2008 will end a 14-year absence. The company decided that the 700 vehicles it was selling annually in Britain in the early 1990s was not enough to justify the expense of engineering right-hand drive production cars.

In 1994 Lancia announced that it would only make left-hand drive vehicles – a decision that it only recently said it will reverse by 2008, after which new models will be relased in both RHD and LHD forms simultaneously.

The new potential for UK and Japanese sales is believed to be the main reason for the change of heart. Japan already imports between 150 and 200 left-hand drive Lancias annualy, so the company knows there is a ready market there.

Delta HPE is meant to recall the Delta Integrale 4WD Turbo of the 1980s and early 1990s, which achieved outstanding success on the international rally circuits of the time. Lancia’s original Delta was discontinued in 1999.

The show car is purposely aggressive as well as sporty, and offers a high level of electronic and entertainment equipment. With its family-sized proportions, Lancia says that the Delta HPE Concept also has hints of the company’s golden era of motoring.

The production version would bridge the sizeable gap between Lancia’s latest-generation Ypsilon, which was released in 2003 and has been the main driver of the brand’s recent European sales success, and the Alfa 156-based Lybra sedan, which is expected to be replaced soon by a 159-based successor.

With its striking design, elegant interior and luxury trim and fittings, the Ypsilon has carved out a niche as a stylish and premium light-car contender. Yet underneath the bespoke body and interior lie the underpinnings of Fiat’s last-generation Punto.

Other Lancia models include the Musa (a mini people-mover shaped light car derived from the Fiat Idea, on sale since 2004), the large Thesis luxury car launched in 2001 and the Phedra – a luxurious Tarago-style MPV available since 2002 after the Fiat group co-developed it with Peugeot (807) and Citroen (Ulysses).

Lancias were last sold in Australia in the mid 1980s, when the Beta Coupe represented it and when the Fiat group did not own Alfa Romeo. That happened in 1986, when it pipped an eager Ford at the Milanese company’s post.

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