Cohort Classic: 1998 Lancia Kappa 2.0T Coupe – Trying To Recapture That Something

Lancia Kappa Coupe. A successor to a series of storied cars carrying a combination of the automotive style only Italy can do with a level of ingenuity and technical complexity that compares to Citroen and with a thoroughness that Mercedes-Benz would recognise. That sounds like a recipe for peer respect and envy, for customer desire and premium market success. Low volume, high margin type success. If only the recipe could be that simple.

The post Fiat takeover history of Lancia is a tale of three parts – a sort of the Good, Bad and the Ugly.

The Good part was the 1979 Delta compact hatchback – OK, it was derived from the relatively humble Fiat Ritmo/Strada and the styling could be described as “evolved Golf” if you wanted to, but then it was one of the finer pieces of work from Giugiaro’s rather impressive portfolio, and much easier eye on the eye than the Golf Mk 2. The full story of the Delta will have to wait for another day – I have a great example in the files – but to suffice to say it was a car that just got, if not better, more admired and respected with every passing year, became the benchmark for the premium compact hatchback (what were you looking at Rover 200, Audi A3, posher Golfs, Volvo 440?) and spawned one of the most successful, admired and bedroom wall credible rally cars ever – the Integrale and, ultimately, the S4.

The Ugly is easy to spot too – the Beta saloon and the corrosion disaster, played at an extreme level in many markets, not least the UK. Whether it was inadequate steel, poor preparation, design flaws, lax manufacturing standards or some combination of all four, the damage was done to the name and the brand, and to other Italian brands. Lancia did what every consumer lobby told them to do, up to and including buying back serviceable cars at above market rates, and was then totally pilloried.

And the Bad – several of the cars of 1970s,  1980s and 1990s set themselves to fail in the eyes of the non-believers. Naming one Dedra didn’t work in English; the Gamma was too complex for the level of execution Fiat and Lancia were willing to offer it and was handicapped by having a four cylinder engine in a six cylinder market; the Thema may have had a version with a Ferrari V8 driving the front wheels but was too obviously a Fiat Croma in disguise that it was submerged by the ordinariness of a Fiat, even with SAAB (9000) and Alfa Romeo (164) joining them in the gene pool. True Lancias were about more than smart interiors on a Fiat; they were not a Brougham any more than 1960s Rover, Peugeot or BMW were. They were cars for engineers who appreciated the technical solutions and executions, who may otherwise have chosen a Citroen, a SAAB or perhaps a Mercedes-Benz if funds allowed. The interiors were stylish and truly Italian, but not opulent in any wood and leather or velour way.

But the larger 1970s cars, despite their appeal to the technically aware through their ingenuity, thorough engineering and detailing and links to Lancias of old, and their undoubted appeal to the style conscious and huge brand enhancing potential of cars like the Gamma Coupe and Beta Monte Carlo (Scorpion), were commercial failures. In 12 years, just 15,000 Gamma saloons and 6,000 coupes were built; sales ended two years after production stopped such was the stock of unwanted cars. Linked to the failure of the Beta to recover from the corrosion episode and comparative success of the more openly Fiat based Delta, the bean counters at Fiat made the inevitable decision.

The brand that had first given us front wheel drive, monocoque construction, independent front suspension, five speed gearboxes, V6 and V4 engines (with just one cylinder head) and cars like the Flavia, Fulvia, Aurelia, Appia and Aprillia would now be offering Fiat based products across the range, from city cars to executive (E class) cars. The Gamma was succeeded in 1986 by the Thema, closely related to the Fiat Croma, Alfa Romeo 164 (by then part of the Fiat family) and SAAB 9000, and this was in turn succeeded by the Lancia Kappa in 1994.

The Kappa, launched as saloon in 1994, followed the same formula, though this time the recipe was only shared with Alfa Romeo, for the 166, which arrived in 1996. That hints at one of the issues for the Lancia – it could not be a sports saloon to avoid clashing with its cousin, so the focus had to be on luxury. Nothing wrong with that, and of course a perfectly familiar choice for many, but it does rightly or wrongly drive the image. Lancia were tasked with selling a car that didn’t visually match the Alfa Romeo 166 (few saloons do, frankly), and had a much staider, softer and older image. All things we know do not sell cars, even to staider, older drivers.

Style wise, this was a competent if unexciting execution of contemporary themes – it could just as easily carried a Fiat, Rover or Ford badge to be honest. Personality was not a major factor, to the extent that Lancia stated that the car was styled to have little “visual noise”, to be discreet and not brash. I think we can agree they succeeded but anonymous might be easier to explain. The styling was accomplished by IDEA, under Ercole Spada, a man with a varied portfolio that does not usually reference discretion but whose name is linked to much of Fiat’s 1980s and 1990s catalogue.

The engine choice was a complex mix of 2.0 litre and 2.4 litre petrol engines; some four cylinder, some five, some with a turbo, some not. The original four cylinder was the old Fiat Twin Cam engine first see in the mid 1960s but in 1998 it was replaced by the newer Pratola series. At the top of the range was the 3.0 litre 24V V6 more usually found under the bonnet of an Alfa Romeo 164 or 166. Outputs ranged from 146bhp for the 2.0 5 cylinder, 175 bhp for 2.4 litre and to 204bhp for the V6. There were also 2.0 and 2.4 turbocharged engines, offering up to 220 bhp in more tax efficient ways for certain markets. But you have to ask  – if you want a stylish Italian saloon with one of the most charismatic V6 engines ever, you’d stop by Alfa Romeo. You’d see a 166, go weak at the knees, and sign…..

In 1996, Lancia offered an estate car, converted by Pininfarina and clearly based on the saloon, sharing the doors and rear lights, and clearly aiming at the style over capacity part of the market. Just over 9,000 examples were sold in six years, alongside 80,000 saloons.

The Coupe came in 1997, designed by the Centro Stilo Lancia and built by established coachbuilder Maggiora in Turin, and which differed much more from the saloon than the estate did. The wheelbase was shortened from 110 in to 102 in, the height trimmed by inch or so as well. Despite using the same basis back to the A pillars and the same windshield, the roofline was completely different and doors carried pillarless glass. The sweep to the rear echoed the classic Floride style of Lancias from the previous thirty years, and was capped off with Lancia Delta taillights and some unusual stainless steel trim lines. Many parts of this worked, but personally I think a more greatly raked screen could have helped a lot. Expensive to engineer I know, but it might have avoided some of the “Thunderbird after boot camp” look. YMMV.

The feature car was seen by Roshake in Budapest, Hungary and he has pinned it as a 1998 model. Possibly, it was first registered in Italy or Germany, the main markets for this, rather than Hungary, but I’d be speculating. It’s a 2.0 litre Turbo, so 217 bhp from the 5 cylinder engine and theoretically 150 mph. The handling of the Kappa, in all variants, is usually considered to be competent but with some roll; traction was good with a viscous coupling keeping the hard working wheels in line. The ride was smooth and refinement high but the interior was let down by some more anonymous style and cheaper plastics in more remote places.

In three years, Maggiora built 3200 (or 3600 depending who you ask) copies, and they were mostly sold in Italy, though some ventured over the Alps, notably Germany. All were left hand drive.

It was the first Lancia coupe since the Beta and Gamma were put out to grass in the mid 1980s, and also the last Lancia coupe. Many of us hope that it is not the last Lancia Coupe – somehow, the world is a better place with such cars.