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.