New Lancia Delta for Geneva show

By Gilles Castonguay

MILAN - Lancia, Fiat's premium brand, will present at the Geneva autoshow next month a new version of the Delta, a car whose name evokes the world rally championships that it dominated two decades ago.

Lancia, which first unveiled the car to journalists in 2006, hopes it will raise its profile in its drive to more than double unit sales to meet a target of 300,000 by 2010.

A cross between a sedan and a station wagon, the Delta will go on sale this summer.

The smallest of the Italian car maker's three brands, Lancia has been slowly increasing its sales thanks to a heavy marketing campaign to revamp its image into one of class and style.

It has sponsored events like the Venice film festival and used celebrities like Italian singer and former model Carla Bruni and fashion designer Stefano Gabbana in television spots for the Ypsilon and Musa, its two main models.

It is a tactic that it used with success years earlier when French actress Catherine Deneuve promoted an earlier version of the Delta.

Although it has made a big push into France, Germany and other markets, Lancia still makes most of its sales in Italy.

In 2007, sales rose 5.28 per cent to 103,710 units. Its share of the home market slipped, however, down to 4.16 per cent from 4.24 per cent the prior year.

For all of Europe, sales rose 4.8 per cent to 122,054. But Lancia's presence is still miniscule, with a market share of less than one per cent.

Competition is fierce in this stagnant market. And a lot more will be coming from Renault and Peugeot Citroen, Fiat's French rivals that are rolling out a slew of new models after having undergone a big restructuring effort.

Car of the year

First launched in 1979, the Delta won the "Car of the Year" the following year.

A sports version of the model later went to dominate world rally championships, winning six of them in a row between 1987 and 1992.

But its victories on the race track did not prevent Fiat from coming to have a bleak view of Lancia's future.

When the car maker was in the throes of a crisis earlier this decade, it was considering putting an end to the brand.

But Fiat's new chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, decided to give it another chance, figuring that the cost of reviving the brand would be relatively little.

Some of Lancia's cars are being built on the same platforms as the ones used by cheaper models under the Fiat brand. The Delta, for example, will ride on a platform similar to the one used by the Fiat Bravo, a mid-sized car.

Most of the other costs come from marketing and the expansion of its dealer network outside Italy.

After entering Turkey, Russia and Scandinavia in 2007, Lancia is aiming for Japan and Britain this year.

As for new models, Lancia's head, Olivier Francois, told the February 4 issue of the industry newsletter Automotive News Europe that he would decide on whether to build an SUV crossover or a coupe convertible later this year.

- REUTERS

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