By the 21st century, Lancia had become little more than a semi-premium marque within the Fiat stable. The Italian company that had once been known for its technical innovation – including developing the first V6 and five-speed manual transmission – was now selling cars that were little more than plush Fiats. The Phedra minivan, therefore, seems a fitting analogue to the Chrysler Town & Country, so much so that it was actually replaced by a rebadged Town & Country.
Fiat had taken over Lancia back in 1969 and quickly worked to share platforms and components between its eponymous division and its newest acquisition. Despite this, Lancias did retain some sense of identity even if they were no more innovative than their Fiat-badged counterparts. The run-of-the-mill Delta begat the wild Integrale, while there were some strikingly-styled executive sedans like the Lybra and Thesis.
(clockwise from top left) Lancia Zeta, Fiat Ulysse, Peugeot 806, Citroen Evasion
Then there was the Zeta, Lancia’s first MPV (minivan). It wasn’t all that unusual to see another rebadged minivan on the market considering Ford, Volkswagen and Seat shared a minivan and Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat had their shared Eurovan. Vincenzo Lancia, however, would probably have been disappointed to see his name used on something so pedestrian. The Lancia was differentiated from the other Eurovans in the same way they were differentiated from each other – minor trim details, a new grille and revised taillights. At least the Zeta was the plushest of the quartet and used only the more powerful engines.
(clockwise from top left) Lancia Phedra, Fiat Ulysse, Peugeot 807, Citroen C8
The second generation of Eurovans were fortunately much more distinguished from each other with unique front and rear end treatments. Although they used the same 111-inch wheelbase, they grew in other directions – around 10 inches in length (to 187 inches in the Lancia), an extra inch in width (to 73 inches) and an extra two inches in height (to 69 inches). They were roughly the same length and height as a short-wheelbase Chrysler Voyager albeit almost six inches narrower. More importantly, the new Eurovans were ever so slightly bigger than their Ford/VW rivals.
Again, Lancia’s version – now called Phedra with Lancia’s move away from Greek letters – was the toniest of the quartet and the most overtly luxurious of any European minivan. It avoided the styling excesses of the challenging Thesis but, aesthetically, it fit in well with the rest of the Lancia range; the second-generation Eurovans had all been styled to fit in much more harmoniously with their respective line-ups.
The Phedra’s interior was resplendent in leather or Alcantara while its suspension tuning was cushy. The Phedra also came well-equipped – satellite navigation, for example, was standard fitment. And like the other Eurovans, the Phedra received a full five stars in Euro NCAP testing thanks to a solid structure and a full complement of side and curtain airbags.
The Phedra sat five, six or seven occupants in comfort. The front seats could be equipped to swivel while the second and third rows could slide, fold or be removed as desired.
Unlike the Zeta, the Phedra used the same base engine as the other Eurovans – a 2.0 16-valve four-cylinder producing 134 hp and 140 ft-lbs. Optional were two common-rail turbodiesels, a 2.0 with 109 hp and 199 ft-lbs and a 2.2 with 128 hp and 232 ft-lbs, the latter available only with a six-speed manual transmission; both 2.0s were available with a four-speed auto or five-speed manual. The flagship engine was a 3.0 V6 with 201 hp and 210 ft-lbs, mated exclusively to a four-speed automatic. All engines were PSA designs.
From 2001 to 2008, 58,000 Fiat Ulysses and 42,000 Phedras were produced. The Phedra was warmly received in its native Italy and less so elsewhere, following the pattern of most modern Lancias.
Lancia’s position within the Fiat fiefdom had, for some time, resembled the Chrysler brand’s within the Chrysler Corporation. With the formation of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), one rationalization that was made was to effectively merge the Lancia and Chrysler ranges in Europe. In the UK, Ireland and Russia, the Chrysler brand remained and the Lancia Delta and Ypsilon were badged as Chryslers. Everywhere else, the Chrysler brand was nixed in favor of Lancia. This meant the Chrysler 300 became the Lancia Thema, resurrecting an old name, while the Chrysler 200 convertible dusted off an even older and more cherished name, Flavia. Finally, the Chrysler Grand Voyager – as the Town & Country was known – became the Lancia Voyager in 2011.
The renaming coincided with the Town & Country’s refresh. There was a thoroughly overhauled interior with higher-quality materials, at least in left-hand-drive markets (RHD markets soldiered on with the old interior). The old 3.8 V6 offered in Europe was replaced with the new Pentastar 3.6 V6, producing 279 hp and 254 ft-lbs. All Voyagers came standard with power-folding mirrors and power sliding doors and tailgate, as well as leather seats that were heated in the first two rows. Though there would be no Alcantara trim, the Voyager had a long equipment list befitting a Lancia. And, in a marked contrast to past Voyagers that had performed poorly in crash tests, the Voyager achieved a four-star crash rating with Euro NCAP.
The 3.6 Voyager was destined to be a niche model in diesel-hungry Europe. Much more important to the Chrysler’s Lancia’s success was the carryover 2.8 CRD diesel four-cylinder sourced from VM Motori. The diesel narrowly pipped the much larger V6 in torque (266 ft-lbs vs. 254 ft-lbs), although it produced only 161 hp. Unlike the Phedra, there was no manual transmission available – all Voyagers had a six-speed automatic.
The lack of a manual transmission or a petrol four-cylinder didn’t really hinder the Voyager on the continent, at least compared to the Phedra. It sold about as well as the Phedra had throughout Europe, around 4-6,000 units annually. Alas, this was well below the numbers the Chrysler Voyager had been posting throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. That’s likely due to the absence of a short-wheelbase version, Chrysler having ditched it for the fifth-generation minivan. Immediately after the introduction of the LWB-only fifth-generation model, sales plummeted from 20-40,000 annual units to under 10,000.
Though the Voyager was sized similarly to US-market minivans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, it positively dwarfed European minivans like the defunct Eurovans. A Phedra measured 187 inches long, 73.3 inches wide, and had a 111.1-inch wheelbase. A Voyager, conversely, measured 202.5 inches long, 76.9 inches wide, and had a 121.2-inch wheelbase. On the wide streets and mall parking lots of Dallas and Dubuque, it fit perfectly. On the narrower streets of Naples and Nuremberg, that extra size became a liability. Even though reviews were quite complimentary of the Voyager’s manoeuvrability and handling, sales targets of 11,000 annual units were never met. The best the Voyager could muster each year was half that.
The Voyager was no Lancia but the Phedra had been only marginally more of one, anyway. But this rebadged Chrysler was the least of Lancia’s concerns. FCA management, including CEO Sergio Marchionne, were increasingly blasé about Lancia’s future. Sales had skidded alarmingly in a short space of time – after remaining steady around 110-120,000 annual sales for almost a decade, they dived to 71,223 in 2013. After just a few years of the Lancia-Chrysler experiment, FCA threw in the towel. The Thema, Flavia and Voyager were all axed by 2015, the Chrysler brand withdrawn from the UK and Ireland and the Lancia brand relegated to a single model (the Ypsilon) sold only in Italy.
Perhaps the question isn’t which was more of Lancia but, rather, which was the better premium minivan? Was it the big American with more stretch-out room than everything else on the market, or was it the smaller, PSA-engined van swathed in Alcantara? Neither seemed to be logical heirs to the famous Fulvia and Flavia but if Lancia’s role was to serve as an upscale counterpart to Fiat, it needed an MPV that was fit for the job. Just like Chrysler.
Phedra photographed in Prague, Czech Republic in September 2018. Voyager photographed by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany in September 2018.
CC Capsule: 2008-14 Lancia Delta – The Chrysler That Never Was (Except In The UK & Ireland)
I’m actually in Italy right now, and yes, there is a surprising amount of these Lancia Voyagers. I also saw a couple of examples of the Chrysler Grand Voyager, which was pre-Fiat.
In general, there is a fair number of older Chryslers here. Some I’ve seen include the WK1 Grand Cherokee, PT Cruiser, Caliber, and Liberty.
The biggest surprise, though, was a current-generation Chevrolet Impala that edged past me on a narrow Roman street.
Chrysler was quite successful in Europe for several decades. They were a pioneer in the minivan segment, and the swb vans sold very well, and were built in Austria, as was the Jeep GC. The fact that they were built there, and to higher standards, helped them considerably, as well as having diesel engines.
The other models rode on their coat tails.
Chrysler was by far the most successful of the Big Three in Europe from the 90s until recently. But the ever-increased competition from European brands and the lack of a swb van has really dinged them. Of course they’re making it up with the various Jeep models.
When I was in Austria in 1999, the number of Chrysler minivans was an aye-opener. Each time I’ve been back since, the numbers have decreased.
So – the thing that killed Chrysler minivans in Europe was elimination of the SWB version, which was the doing of – Daimler? How ironic.
Only in part. What really killed it is much more competition form the European brands and the decline of the minivan market. The Chrysler minivan was of course the pioneer of the segment in Europe (along with the Renault Espace) as it was in the US. That gave it a huge boost, hence the production in Austria. But the competition obviously wasn’t going to just stand by, hence all the brands soon developed their own van, like these in this post. And all the European vans were a notch smaller, about the length of the swb Chrysler, but with a bit less width. That turned out to be a better package for Europe, so the Chrysler was almost destined to lose market share, as its width was always something of a compromise in Europe.
Which probbaly explains why Chrysler dropped the swb version with the major redo for 2008; by that time the European sales of the swb version were already in decline. DC saw the writing on the wall. I would have made the same decision.
Why? Because of the meteoric rise of CUVs, which have largely destroyed the minivan market both in Europe and the US. It’s a drastically smaller market now in Europe; without looking it up, it may well have shrunk even more than in the US.
European families are also getting smaller (and fewer) and the options are much greater. What really hurt the established minivans (and the Chrysler version) was the growth in passenger versions of the little cargo vans, like the Transit Connect. These simpler, more basic vans are cheaper, and appeal to those young families that want that kind of room. FCA has the Fiat Doblo (Promaster City) in that class.
Even though the SWB minivan was killed off, at the same time they started selling the Journey with a tax-friendly VW 2.0 TDI on it, and it sold quite a bit. I still see them occasionally
It is interesting how stubbornly the two size classes have remained. Narrow body cars do not do well in the US and wide body cars do not do well in many European and Asian markets.
It will be interesting to watch how developing or potentially large markets in places like China and India go – wide or narrow? How those two places go might affect what is available in the coming decades.
Follow the money. That will determine what size gets produced.
After such a long time being produced, it seems that there has been no adoption of a “standard’ size, so why keep trying to make one?
It seems that simply deciding to go back to the ideas used before “globalization” was the buzz-word, and producing items in the market where they are sold rather than importing/exporting would make more sense. Localization, as it were. Components can always be built anywhere and shipped to where needed, such as engines, transmissions, etc. but the actual models would probably be better designed and built based on where they sell. Narrow, smaller cars in places that buy them, and wider, larger cars where they sell. Import the niche models where needed, but build the “bread and butter” ones locally.
Your observation applies essentially only to vans. Yes, the Europeans generally prefer more space efficient vans/MPVs, for obvious reasons, as they are popular with young families and they just don’t like such a large van.
But in other classes, I don’t see it. The CUVs are largely global now. There are so many classes of CUVs, and we pretty much have them all here now too. The Buick Encore (Opel Mokka) is a a good example, as it’s quite narrow but sells well here. There’s others too. The Japanese CUVs sell well on all continents, especially the Nissans.
And the bigger SUVs like the Mercedes and BMWs and Audisand Jeeps sell well on both continents.
And of course the German premium brands have been selling a full range of sedans on all the continents for many decades.
I’d say it’s limited to just a few body styles, mainly the vans. In Europe, they’re still actual minivans; in the US they’re now full size vans.
I’ve gotta say, I really like how those big wheels (I’m guessing 20s) look on that street parked Lancia Voyager. Gives a ho-hum minivan a little bit of presence, in my eyes.
@MagnumSRT8Brian: I logged in to say the same thing. I would loooove to rock a Lancia Voyager here in the States, it would mess with so many people’s minds.
But that van has some serious presence.
The only expensive things would be the wheels and the steering wheel airbag, otherwise it’s perfectly possible to just get a T&C and do it, would look great
That Phedra interior is awfully nice! Comparing it to the Voyager’s interior, on the other hand, is depressing. To answer your final question, my vote would go to the Phedra for the better European premium minivan… in North America, where big cars are more practical, I might not make that choice, but in Europe, the Phedra would win hands-down.
+1 on the Phedra’s interior. It looks like I imagines a Lancia should look.
I often find the badge engineering that goes on between European makes passenger and commercial vans a bit amusing. I really wanted a Renault, but I’m getting a Fiat, whether I like it or not…
Imagine if we did this in the States? Maybe I could get a new Chevy Venture, disguised as a Dodge Grand Caravan…
Well, for awhile there you could get a Nissan commercial van disguised as a Chevy, and a Dodge Grand Caravan disguised as a Volkswagen.
But nothing like the platform sharing that goes on across the pond, that’s for sure.
Don’t forget the Mercury Villager & Nissan Quest! These vans are awfully thin on the road now too!
Go to my old neighbourhood in Manhattan. Even just last year, you were guaranteed to see one on every block.
Voyager–it’s the Lancia of minivans!
Well : just in Brazil your beloved Dodge Journey is rebadged Fiat Freemont for regular market .
In Europe it is too, and with a Diesel!