Curbside Classic: 2002 Lancia Lybra SW 2.4 JTD – Not Knowing When To Quit

Pity the poor Lancia. Some of the most beautiful and technologically advanced cars bore this name throughout the 20th Century. From the groundbreaking Lambdas of the ‘20s, the sublime Asturas of the ‘30s, the advanced Aprilias of the ‘40s to the gorgeous Flaminias of the ‘50s and the sweet little Fulvias of the ‘60s/‘70s and even the sporty Deltas of the ‘80s, the marque made Italy proud with its uncompromising commitment to technological innovation and design excellence. By the time the Lybra came along tough, Lancias were but a quaint reminder of a bygone age.

Yet the Lybra is not without its charms. Based on the Alfa 156 platform, it is just as competent dynamically and just as engaging as its stablemate. Sure, this was a dark period in Fiat’s history, but they still knew how to design cars (building them was a different matter). Compared to its predecessor, the dreaded Dedra, the Lybra was positively beautiful. The retro styling language it employed was not overdone and, for once, I’m inclined to give it a pass. After all, Lancia had little else to work with than nostalgia, by this point in time.

The Lybra was unveiled in March 1999 and hit the streets in September. Under the hood, options included a 1.6 and 1.8 litre 4-cyl. and a 2-litre 5-cyl. for petrol engines, and a 1.9 4-cyl. or a 2.4 5-cyl. turbo-Diesel. This last engine is what our feature car has. Not knowing which MY it is exactly (2002 is the mid-point of production, so it’s as good a guess as any), I’m also unsure whether the power output is 136hp (1999-2000), 140hp (late 2000-2002) or 150hp (late 2002-2005). It’s interesting that the later 2.4 JTD has the same power output as the 2-litre petrol, making the choice between the two rather obvious for many Continental Europeans: the thriftier turbo-Diesel was most probably the more popular choice.

After the debacle of the Kappa coupé (about 3000 made in four years), Fiat product planners likely wrote off that kind of body variant from Lancia’s lexicon altogether. The Lybra therefore only had two variants: a three-box saloon and a wagon, dubbed SW. I have no data to back this up, but from anecdotal and empirical evidence, I’d say the wagon sold as well (if not better) as the saloon, which is rarely the case.

One reason for this is that the wagon offers decent enough cargo space, whereas the saloon was criticized for its small trunk. Besides, both cars were identical in terms of engine and interior options, so the wagons made a bit more sense. And, though this is completely subjective, but I’d say they were also somewhat more attractive than the saloons.

Only the SW got an extra Lancia badge on the side, up on the C-pillar. Quite a nice little touch. Counting the ones on the wheels and on either end, we’re up to eight Lancia shields on one car. Add the one on the steering wheel and on the ignition key, and we’ve got an even ten. Just in case you were wondering what marque this car was, it screamed its Lancia-ness to the world. Trying too hard? Just a bit.

I kind of screwed up this photo, but it still gives out a feel for the cabin. This car did not have the optional leather, which Lybra owners seem to feel is worth the price as it’s much more durable. However, this cloth interior looks like it’s still in extremely good nick, so maybe it’s just a case of being careful with it.

Here’s a better shot of the dash, courtesy of the Internet. The interior seems like a very nice place to be, with those wood inlays on the doors and the console. All the same, we’re pretty far away from the character and daring of Lancias of old. Does this say “high-end Italian” to you, of merely “generic wannabe-luxury turn-of-the-century Euro-anything”? Yes, that question is both leading and rhetorical.

Only the Lybra’s front end shows some attempt at giving it identity. The round headlamp and turn signal combo is nicely done, with those classic chrome surrounds channeling the Aurelia – there are worse sources of inspiration. The flagship Lancia Thesis (2001-09) took this a bit further (some would say “a bit too far”) by using a much narrower and longer grille, along with an edgier headlight design. While I happen to like the Thesis, I can understand those who find it a bit too retro for its own good. The Lybra is more balanced, perhaps.

With only about 160,000 units made in six years, the Lybra performed less well than its predecessor, the Dedra. That was a rather disappointing turn of events, even if it wasn’t as bad as the Thesis’ 16,000 units in eight years. This is probably why the Lybra, when it disappeared in 2005, lacked a clear successor. Lancia’s range then only included the big floppy Thesis, two dull badge-engineered MPVs and the Ypsilon city car. That last one is all that remains of Lancia today.

The future of the marque was already in serious jeopardy when the Lybra was part of the range. However, Lancia’s darkest days were yet to come, with the re-badged Chryslers of the 2010s. The year 2020 will probably be the marque’s last, but Lancia should have gone ten years ago, when FCA was created, so that we could have been spared the travesty that followed. At least, the Lybra has the appropriate heritage. It might be considered the last upper-mid-range Lancia (and the last wagon) worthy of the name. Not the best by any means, but it still should be granted its own fifteen minutes of CC fame.