Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.
At the Lancia Ypsilon international launch in Torino this week, I sat down with Chrysler and Lancia CEO Olivier Francois to discuss the merging brands’ strategy.
The product portfolios of Lancia and Chrysler will be virtually identical, and there will be a clear market separation, he says. No market will offer both brands. The U.K. and Ireland, e.g., are going to be Chrysler markets, and therefore the Ypsilon, as well as the Delta, will be sold as Chryslers there. Neither of these models will be offered in the U.S., says Francois. The styling language will merge, with the grille of the Ypsilon serving as an indicator for future products.
Francois wants to take Chrysler and Lancia upmarket: “We want to compete better with the imported European brands,” he says, explaining: “There is a share of Chrysler’s market that has gone to the imports. We want to own it again.” So will the next 200 be a 3-series competitor and the 300 a 5-series fighter? Yes, he says—not exclusively, but also. In fact, Lancia will somewhat pull up Chrysler: The interior of the 300C Executive Series is molded after the 300's Lancia counterpart, the Thema.
Europe won’t get a Thema V-8 with either of the 300's V-8 engines: “The Thema is all about silence,” says Francois. On the other hand, Chrysler won’t offer the 300 in the U.S. with the V-6 turbo-diesel. But these variations are an option at a later stage: “We could consider it, but it is not in the plan right now.” An Imperial? “Possible, but not a priority.” What’s not happening is a station wagon; the segment, Francois feels, is dead.
What about downsizing engines? Not happening immediately. “The U.S. market is about V-6 and V-8 engines,” Francois is convinced. Downsized, turbocharged fours will come with the next generation of compact and mid-size sedans as Chrysler integrates Fiat Group platforms.
Meanwhile, the 200, which was shown as the Lancia Flavia concept at the Geneva auto show, will only be offered in Europe as a fabric-top, V-6–powered convertible; the lack of a diesel would render the sedan unsaleable.
There is no interest in using Michael Stoschek’s Stratos concept to increase the Lancia brand’s visibility. It is too far removed from Lancia’s current lineup, and it would raise expectations the brand can’t fulfill. But the unbelievable fact that the Stratos nameplate was lost years ago haunts Lancia executives today. “It would not happen today,” I am told.
Behind the Wheel of the Lancia Ypsilon
So what does the Ypsilon drive like? A lot better than I expected. It has moved from the Punto platform to the smaller Panda architecture, and, compared to its predecessor, it grows only very slightly in size. At around 2100 pounds, the Ypsilon also is rather light—and it therefore feels quick and alive both with the torquey 1.3-liter turbo-diesel (148 lb-ft of torque, 94 hp) and the 0.9-liter, turbocharged two-cylinder gasoline engine (107 lb-ft, 84 hp). I did not sample the entry-level, naturally aspirated 1.2-liter four (75 lb-ft, 68 hp). The diesel is surprisingly smooth, and the noise level of the engine and the entire car is low even at autobahn velocities. The two-cylinder gasoline engine, by contrast, is acoustically always present. It emits a low, raspy note, and you are always aware of what is going on under the hood—although you tend to underestimate the rpm. This rev-happy engine constantly hits the limiter if you don’t watch the tach. The throb at idle reminds me of the Citroën 2CV—a questionable historic reference, but fun nevertheless. The chassis is clearly on the comfy side. Moreover, the stability-control system kicks in early, and the Ypsilon never encourages spirited driving.
In typical Lancia fashion, the seating surfaces and trim parts use stylish and expensive materials, but there is evidence of cost-cutting as well. For a competitor of the Mini, the Audi A1, and the Citroën DS3, the overall execution is not quite there. On the other hand, this is the cheapest of the quartet, undercutting the competition by some €3000.
A Faster Audi Q3?
Audi will launch the Q3 compact shortly, with a 211-hp TFSI four-cylinder as its top-of the line engine. But I’d be surprised if Audi doesn’t have something very interesting—and far more powerful—to add above it. I’ll keep you posted.
Under the leadership of Klaus Bischoff, the VW brand is reinventing its styling. You might feel that most recent VWs look too similar, but when asked which new models are most important from a design perspective, Bischoff pointedly tells me: “The Beetle, the Bulli concept, and the Golf, and you will notice they have very distinct faces, but share a common approach. All of them, in their own way, conform to our styling language entirely.” What is this styling language? “Precision and solidity with an iconic and purist quality. We strive to achieve extreme tension, but without any superficial effects.”
It is obvious that some of VW’s last models, particularly those styled under former chief designer Murat Günak, follow a rather different styling philosophy. This includes some Chinese-market models like the Lavida—”pure Günak,” according to a VW designer. When presented with the new, cleaner styling language, VW’s Chinese joint venture partners swallowed hard. But local product clinics have shown that customers actually prefer the new look.
Later this year, the CC will be relaunched. Alas, like the European Passat, it will remain a compromise, with the center section of the cabin and the daylight opening untouched.
Power? Ja, Bitte
At 132 hp for the first four months of 2011, cars sold in Germany are more powerful on average than ever. The reason for the record, ironically, is the high diesel penetration, which has grown to 46.6 percent. Most SUVs are equipped with powerful diesels, while entry-level compact and minicars are typically powered by naturally aspirated gasoline engines. On average, Porsches sold here are most powerful, at 349 hp on average, followed by Jaguar (301 hp) and Land Rover (231 hp). The wimpiest fleets are provided by Smart (70 hp), Fiat (84 hp), and Renault’s budget brand Dacia (89 hp). And the few electric vehicles sold here make a low 50 hp on average.
This week, I saw Porsche 911 and BMW 1-series protoypes testing around Stuttgart and Munich. The 911 still sounds great, and its proportions look very similar to the current model’s. The same goes for the BMW 1-series: For many people, the only way to tell new from old will be the new, distinct headlights (which I didn’t catch).