TURIN - Lancia received more nominations for Car of the Century than any other brand. Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ford, Jaguar and Renault received only four each from the jury of 135 journalists from 32 countries, while Lancia got six.
Yet no one at Fiat Auto noticed this tribute to Lancia's glorious past. Turin's attention has been elsewhere - first on the relaunch of the Fiat brand, and then on Alfa Romeo.
Lancia has been quietly dying.
Sales are half the level of seven years ago. The brand's share of the Italian market has slumped from around 10 percent in 1989 to 6 percent in the first 10 months of this year. Less than a quarter of production is exported. Technical innovation has stagnated.
Lancia has to be relaunched, said Fiat Auto President Roberto Testore. 'We need the brand. We see a well-defined space and role for Lancia. It will take time, as with any premium brand, but our commitment is strong.
'We will introduce a number of new products starting in 1999, and early next year we will begin to update and upgrade the existing range.'
Not all are as optimistic as Testore.
'To talk of a relaunch, a counter-offensive, is wishful thinking,' said analyst Peter Schmitt at Auto Industry Data in London. 'Fiat Auto can keep its two upmarket brands, although they compete with each other, as long as they make some money.'
Is it too late for Lancia?
Only one model is doing well: sales of the Ypsilon were up 17 percent in the first half. This year it will account for 70 percent of Lancia production.
The other four models, Delta, Dedra, Kappa and Zeta, have flopped. Their combined sales fell 24 percent to just 27,218 units in the first half.
Some Fiat Auto executives disagree with Testore. They say it makes no sense to relaunch a low-volume brand sold in tiny numbers outside Italy. Last year Lancia built just 150,200 units.
Lancia should be abandoned, said one Fiat Auto executive who did not want his name used. 'If I could stop importing Lancias into this country, I would be able to maintain Fiat Auto's share of the market, but spend less on marketing,' he said at the Frankfurt auto show.
'Lancia should not be a fully independent brand,' said another senior executive. 'It should have a corner of Fiat and Alfa Romeo dealers, where you find just two cars: the state-of-the-art, luxury supermini - the Ypsilon - and Fiat Auto's flagship, the future Kappa.'
Testore believes Lancia can be rescued.
'The success of the Ypsilon demonstrates that we are able to make the right products for Lancia,' he said. 'The Ypsilon customer - both in Italy and abroad - would never buy a car like the Fiat Punto, despite the price and size being close.'
The Lancia has to be 'an elegant, classy car that is comfortable, even chic,' said Testore. 'It is aimed at the customer who wants to distinguish himself from people who drive volume cars, but who doesn't want the strong, sporty image offered by Alfa Romeo.
'We showed how we were able to relaunch the Fiat brand. The work on Alfa Romeo is almost done. Now it is time for Lancia.'
The Dedra replacement, code-named 839, is due in the second half of 1999. After that will come a new Ypsilon and Kappa. Testore confirmed that there would be a second-generation Zeta minivan, but there are no plans to replace the Delta.
The Kappa replacement, code-named 841, may have a brand-new platform and V-8 engine.
'The current Kappa has great potential, which it has not yet achieved,' said Testore. 'I don't see the V-8 as a strong priority. Our competitors sell limited numbers of V-8 cars, mainly in Germany. In the rest of Europe they have excellent four-, five- and six-cylinder engines, as we already have on the current Kappa.'
Once Lancia was the technical showcase for the Fiat group, but the Kappa, officially described by Fiat as 'the flagship of the group,' still does not offer the five-cylinder, 220ps 2.0-liter engine that debuted on the Fiat Coupe a year ago.
Nor does it offer the common rail, direct-injection turbodiesels used on the Alfa 156.
Lancia distribution also is a problem. Lancia withdrew from the UK and Ireland in 1993 and does not export to the Americas.
'We do not plan make right-hand drive Lancias in the foreseeable future, but this doesn't mean we will sell them only in continental Europe,' said Testore. 'The more our globalization program advances, the more we will encounter opportunities for Lancia sales in selected emerging markets.'