CARte Blanche

by Philip Djaferis

Fast Forward to 2012 and where is the Fiat Group in Europe going?

Where is the Fiat group heading 2012 in Europe? The past year has been rather anti-climatic for them with barely anything new to show.  The New Lancia Ypsilon finally made an appearance with over a year’s delay.  Too little too late? Well, it definitely did not make a splash at the Geneva Show where it was launched as it was swamped by multitudes of other launches which were given much more press.  The ‘world’ has not yet accepted the forced marriage of Chrysler with Lancia and their incongruous and ill-fitting products.  The traditional Lancia ‘face’ has been ditched for an anonymous set of bars supposed to meet the requirements of both Chrysler and Lancia, why this was necessary is incomprehensible, and reading what their new design director and  Lorenzo Ramaciotti, 63, (formerly with Ferrari) state that he feels the need to differentiate the images of Lancia and Chrysler bears credence to this.  “It’s extremely difficult to succeed in a strategy of globalizing design,” said Roberto Verganti, a management professor at Milan Polytechnic. “The risk is making international cars with no personality. When you buy a Lancia, you are looking for a piece of Italy, and when you choose a Chrysler, you are getting a slice of America.” I could not have put it better myself! But I’m digressing…

It appears that just after a few months on the market special colour options are being offered, (as shown at the 2011 Bologna Auto Show which just closed its doors a few days ago) which does not surprise me, because at launch the offerings were drab browns, greys and blacks apart from white, a rather sad choice for what essentially is supposed to appeal to women primarily. So, let’s come forward to 2012. Apparently we are going to be served a Lancia Flavia Convertible in 2012 based on ‘positive’ feedback garnered from Geneva…hard to believe but then I am not an insider.  It will be powered by a weedy 175PS 2.4 Litre 4 cylinder engine, unlikely to set any enthusiast’s heart on fire but perhaps some well heeled women may be drawn to it rather than to an Audi A5 or BMW 3 series cabrio…

The Thema, neé Chrysler 300C id definitely an impressive piece of kit but with a limited choice of engines of 3L and more its unlikely to appear on too many people’s shopping lists.  If one compares the variety of engines that Audi offers their A6 with or Mercedes their E Class you will see my point.  It will be competing at the higher end where it will be interesting to see if it will appeal to earlier Lancia Thema/Kappa/Thesis owners or to die-hard American car fans who had fallen in love with the brawny looks of the 300C.

The promise of 8 speed gearboxes for the diesel engines is welcome but its a shame they were not available from launch.  Staying with the diesels for a moment, these are new engines and it will be fascinating to see how they will fare in comparison tests with the German competition.  The 3.7L Pentastar version would on paper be more competitive but the market for large displacement engines like that is very limited in Europe.  Which brings me to the Voyager. Lancia’s version of the Chrysler Town & Country.

It has been heavily refreshed, at least on the inside and the face receives the new insipid Lancia-Chrysler grille.  Engine choices are the aforementioned Pentastar and the venerable 2.8L and four-cylinder engine developed by VM Motori, now wholly owned by FPT. This is definitely not ‘state of the art’ and it will have a hard time to convince anyone that it can keep up with the competition in terms of performance and dynamics. This may give it a niche market for customers who need a large van with lots of gadgets and a cool looking interior, which undoubtedly is quite impressive and very versatile with its ‘stow n go’ seating.  I can’t see someone who is looking at a Renault Espace or Ford Galaxy comparing them to the Voyager which is more of a luxury cruiser than a family holdall…

Meanwhile the Delta soldiers on with minor updates and the revised grille.  It’s not easy for it as in comparison tests the only area it scores positively in is interior space.  Frankly this is not good enough for a Lancia – at least performance and handling must be the equal of the best in the class and its sadly not there.

With just the Mito and Giulietta carrying the brand forward till new products, promised for 2013/2014 make a bow Alfa Romeo finds itself in a very precarious situation at the moment. The Mito is somehow not fulfilling its promise and to my eyes lacks the aura that one expects of a true Alfa while the Giulietta although graced with a good mix of engines and equipment is still not top of the class in terms of handling…if cars like a Ford Focus overshadow it in that respect Alfa really needs to go back to its roots and reinvent itself .  The fact that it’s also limited to one body style is also a disadvantage.  No sedan, no convertible, no coupé, no station wagon… In Europe a very large percentage of sales goes to station wagons and the entire Fiat group does not even offer one at present!  A roomy, sporty Alfa SW could have been right on the money but investment in that area has been starved…The replacement for the 159 is delayed as is that of the 166 and promises of a soft-roader are still just that for now although the rumour mill is getting hotter – whatever comes out has to be world-class or else…would a design like this Kamal concept stand a chance against the avalanche of products from the German premium brands or the brand new range Rover Evoque?

The bar has been set very high by the competition and Mr. Marchione’s team have a lot to live up to…in the mean time, Alfa remains on ‘life support’ sustained by the quite credible if not perfect Mito/Giulietta duo.  We are likely to first see a sports car launched, which will be more of a halo car and not a volume vehicle.  In my opinion, something prices between a Mazda MX5 and a BMW Z4 would have had a pretty good chance of success provided it was rear wheel drive.

Fiat seems to be getting some traction again. The new Panda has the make up of a winner and shows up the new VW Up! and its siblings look weedy and small. The engine choices are adequate, quality is up there with the best and pricing very aggressive.  If it delivers what it promises Fiat is up to a good thing.  They have incorporated the Fiat ‘whiskers’ appearing on the 500 quite elegantly and they look as though they were designed in from the beginning.  Fiat is not giving up its lead here!

The revised and refreshed Punto also looks like a very attractive proposition and is bound to attract sales that it lost in the last year with a wayward restyling exercise which proved a mega sales flop – they planted ‘whiskers’ on its nose, but they looked like unwanted appendages.  Whoever signed off on that remake is hopefully no longer responsible for any design work at the company…

You can see how the 0ld and new compare and I am certain that this refresh will help revive flagging sales of the Punto Evo which had been sold along the Grande Punto for the past two years.

The Bravo soldiers on unchanged and is also rather lonely in the range, without a two door or station wagon to support it.  The ‘new’ Freemont, which is a rebadged Dodge is trying to be too many things and although in itself pretty competent, it does not compare too favourably with Europe’s best.

It’s task is to cover the gap left open by the highly praised and even more derided Multipla and the competent and trusty Ulysse – what the Freemont brings which neither of its predecessors offered is all wheel drive and that will appeal to buyers who wish the kudos of all terrain capability with family hogging qualities combined.  The economical and solid FPT diesels are key to its success and for those who have slightly deeper pockets the optional Pentastar V6 will be just the ticket!

What Fiat desperately needs in its lineup is a compact station wagon to compete with the likes of the Focus and Astra.  The Bravo is getting a little long in the tooth and with only one 5 door model on offer it simply does not cover enough of the relevant market segments. With the new C-Evo platform underpinning the Giulietta promising so much and the new CUSW (C U.S. Wide) spun off it for North American models such as the soon to be launched Dodge Dart there is hope that the Fiat brand will be profiting from these too.  As I write there is news trickling in that a new 5-7 seat people carrier will be unveiled in Geneva in March 2012.  This is good news as it is bound to be a fresh product to replace the less than successful Idea and perhaps cover some of the gap that the Multipla left open and not being addressed by the Freemont.

But where to with Abarth? Public awareness of the brand is not high, but the potential for it to grow to counter Mini Coopers and the like is significant. We need to see Abarth engaged more in sport and although this might be going contrary to accepted wisdom in terms of premium brands, it could perhaps be developed and make out of it something like the M division at BMW or AMG at Mercedes.  It definitely has the potential as well as the heritage to draw upon.  The potential casualty in this type of a scenario would be an even smaller chance that Lancia would be given back its ‘wings’ in the sporty arena…

Synergies with Chrysler are beginning to bear fruit both on the platform as well as the power-train side.  Multi-air technology is delivering what it promised and we await to see more applications of it other than on the twin-air and 1.4L engines.   Fiat’s outpost in Brazil appears to be doing very well and helps support the entire European operation.  There are grey clouds out there due to the economic downturn in Europe, but without new product to draw customers to the show rooms the future would be bleak.

We need to keep seeing more fresh and world-class products coming to us soon, or else the relentless advance of the German juggernaut will leave very little room for maneuver…

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