(first posted 9/9/2016) We started the working week with a unique Chrysler 300 sold only outside North America, so let’s end the working week with another foreign Chrysler 300. In 2011, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles decided to effectively merge the Chrysler and Lancia brands in Europe, creating badge-engineered models like this Thema, photographed and uploaded to the cohort by T-Minor.
As bizarre as it sounds, it almost made sense. In some markets, like the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Chrysler brand was stronger. Lancia had withdrawn from the UK in 1994, the brand having never recovered from reliability and durability scandals almost two decades prior. Conversely, in continental European markets like, of course, Italy, the Lancia brand was much stronger while Chrysler was a minute presence. Therefore, the Lancia Delta and Ypsilon became Chryslers in markets where the American brand was stronger, while in Lancia-friendly markets the Chrysler 200 convertible, Town & Country and 300 became the Lancia Flavia, Voyager and Thema, respectively.
Lancia’s range had become rather stagnant by 2011, with the exception of the B-segment Ypsilon and C-segment Delta. The Phedra minivan was almost a decade old, the cute Musa MPV was barely any younger, and the Thesis executive saloon had been discontinued. The Chryslers had all been heavily revised for 2011 with vastly improved interiors, and the Voyager and Thema both were available with diesel engines. The Thema was offered with the Pentastar 3.6 V6 and a VM Motori 3.0 V6 diesel in two different states of tune: the first with 190 hp and 320 ft-lbs, the second with 236 hp and a very impressive 410 ft-lbs.
Interestingly, the brashest and most American of the three Chrysler products was arguably the best fit for the brand. The Thema was Lancia’s flagship, a car for politicians and dignitaries and a rival for other executive saloons like the Volvo S80. It featured the beautiful leather-laden interior of the 300C Luxury Series including that model’s leather-wrapped dashboard and soft, two-tone color scheme. Reviews were rather positive, with praise from Italian, German and French journalists for the Thema’s refinement, interior quality and powerful diesel engines, although there was some criticism of the car’s ride quality as a result of its big 20-inch wheels. The positive reception must have impressed FCA: here was a big, bold, full-size American sedan that could compete on the world stage and wasn’t ridiculed mercilessly for daring to wear a European badge. American cars had receded in Europe and those that remained were generally off-roaders or niche vehicles; passenger cars like the Chrysler Sebring of a few years prior had received a frosty reception from critics and consumers alike.
But despite the influx of new, competitive product like the new Thema, Lancia sales continued to slide. The Delta was discontinued in 2014, while the Chrysler-based models were axed by 2015. All that was left was the little Ypsilon, Lancia’s volume seller. In 2015, Lancia was yanked from all markets bar Italy; the Chrysler brand was also axed from the UK and Ireland. FCA hasn’t officially signed the death warrant for Lancia but, given the money they are pouring into the much more global Alfa Romeo brand and considering the sprawling portfolio of brands in the FCA family, it seems to be only a matter of time.
It’s tempting to say these rebadged Chryslers were part of the ignoble demise of a brand with such a rich heritage, but the real tragedy was the dearth of fresh product afforded to the brand. A fairly large, V6 convertible was a less appropriate car for the European market, but was it really worse than selling two ageing people movers long past their due date? The Chrysler-Lancia cross-pollination was an intriguing if failed experiment. Only a sustained development and marketing program could save Lancia, and there are bigger priorities for FCA.