At the 2010 North American International Auto Show, just six months or so after Fiat initially bought into post-Chapter 11 Chrysler, a lone Lancia Delta sat on display in Cobo Hall wearing Chrysler badges and a Chrysler grille. There was no press release or press conference. The rebadged Delta didn’t even get a proper name: officially it was simply called the Chrysler Design Study. And indeed it was just a design study, perhaps never intended for sale as a Chrysler in the US and merely a way of showcasing the American automaker’s new Italian ties. It did, however, become a Chrysler elsewhere.
The Lancia brand was ana-thema (pun intended) to British buyers. Their reputation had corroded because, well, their cars had corroded all too quickly. A massive recall of rusty Betas in 1980 was heavily publicized and, as the Betas were crushed, so too were Lancia’s sales and resale values. They gamely held on in the market until the early 1990s when parent company Fiat decided to stop development of any right-hand-drive Lancia products. The last Lancia product to leave was the Delta in 1993; British buyers never got the second-generation model.
The long-awaited return of the brand to the UK was to be spearheaded by a new, third generation of the Delta line. Lancia’s Golf rival had taken a leave of absence after its second generation ended production in 1999, leaving a gap between the B-segment Ypsilon and the Alfa 156-derived Lybra compact sport sedan. For 2008 the Delta was back, sharing a platform with the Fiat Bravo compact. Alas, Fiat’s plans to reintroduce the Lancia brand to the UK were scuttled in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Although it would’ve simply shared showroom space with Fiats and Alfa Romeos, it made little sense to spend money reintroducing a brand, especially one with a tarnished reputation.
The Chrysler brand, however, was less tarnished to UK buyers. The Voyager MPV enjoyed somewhat of an upscale reputation, counting among its owners Prime Minister Tony Blair. The PT Cruiser had been a modest hit, the Crossfire had brought some excitement to the range, while the Neon had managed to tank in a quiet and dignified manner that hadn’t tarnished the brand.
And so it was that the Lancia Delta became a Chrysler Delta when it finally reached the UK in 2011. Like the Delta, the new generation of the Ypsilon supermini also scored some Chrysler badging in the British, Irish and Japanese markets. Where the Lancia brand was stronger in Europe – meaning, everywhere except the UK and Ireland – the Delta and Ypsilon retained Lancia badging and were joined in showrooms by the Voyager (Chrysler Town & Country), Fulvia (Chrysler 200 convertible) and Thema (Chrysler 300). Although the two brands had dramatically different histories, by the new century they were both in the same quasi-premium, mid-market groove (or funk, depending on whether your glass was half full or not).
Those hoping for a wild Integrale version or really any technological advancements befitting a Lancia were out of luck. The Chrysler/Lancia Delta was a conventional, front-wheel-drive hatchback with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam at the back. It used the same engines as its Bravo stablemate: a 1.4 turbo petrol producing 120 or 140 hp, depending on the tune, and 1.6 and 2.0 turbo diesels with 120 and 165 hp, respectively. There was also a twin-turbo MultiJet 1.9 turbo diesel with 190 hp.
Fortunately, the Delta was distinctive in one respect: its styling. The Chrysler grille did little to dilute the effect of the Delta’s wedgy shape and waterfall taillights, the latter somewhat reminiscent of a ’74-75 Pontiac LeMans. In another parallel with 70s American cars, the Delta could rock a mean two-tone.
If only the interior could have been as distinctive. In the pros column were: an intuitive design; more rear-seat room than the Bravo thanks to a 4-inch wheelbase stretch; some nice soft-touch plastics; and optional Alcantara trim, panoramic sunroof and ambient lighting. In the cons column were some low-rent plastics and gaudy satin faux-metal trim unbecoming of a quasi-premium hatch.
Therein lied the Delta’s problem: it really wasn’t enough of a step-up from the Fiat Bravo, a decent C-segment hatchback but not a class leader. The Delta’s ride was a little too firm and the interior a tad too proletarian for the Delta to pass as a premium hatchback and, besides, Fiat had the Alfa Romeo Giulietta for that role. In Europe the Lancia Delta was positioned as a somewhat sporty hatch; in the UK and Ireland, advertising emphasized its luxury. It wasn’t particularly sporty to drive nor was it overly luxurious in feel, even if it had plenty of kit. Having arrived late to the UK and Ireland, it wasn’t around long before it was dropped from price lists. Even European sales were disappointing, the Delta being outsold 2-to-1 by the Alfa Giulietta. It was axed without replacement in 2014.
Had the Delta progressed beyond being a mere design study and actually been introduced to North America, odds are it would’ve been unsuccessful there, too. A daringly styled compact hatchback with a Chrysler badge on it that would have potentially cost more than rivals? It’s hard to imagine a type of vehicle that could’ve been less successful for the Chrysler brand. There was talk of a Chrysler 100 to slot beneath the 200 but it never eventuated. The 200 itself ended up disappearing in short order.
To Fiat, Lancia was just another mid-market brand, an Italian Mercury. That’s why they threw some badges on some Chryslers and called them Lancias. The Delta looked like it had had more effort put into it but it was still merely a Fiat in fancier duds. And in some markets, the Delta was a Fiat dressed as a Lancia with a Chrysler badge.
Photographed in Praha 2 in Prague, Czech Republic.