Many years ago I saw a magnificently idiotic film in which Sylvester Stallone played the part of a tough cop who was cryonically frozen for a crime he had not committed. Then, at some point in the future, he was defrosted so that he could rush about punching people in the face.
Every single thing about it was idiotic, especially the director’s vision of what the future might look like. People drove around in cars that were satellite-controlled to keep them at the speed limit. The radio stations only played silly little ditties from television commercials. It was illegal to swear or make fun of anyone because of their colour or their creed or the state of their mental health. It all seemed bonkers. And yet here we are in 2012 and it’s pretty much the Labour party manifesto.
There was something else as well. Capitalism had run amok to the point where there was really only one company that controlled everything. I seem to recall it was Taco Bell. That isn’t in Ed Millipede’s head, of course. But it’s almost certainly coming anyway. In fact, in the car world you could be forgiven for thinking it’s already here.
You might think when you buy a Seat that you are buying something with a bit of Spanish flair but, actually, you are buying a Volkswagen Golf. You may think when you buy a Skoda that you are buying 15ft of sturdy Czech ingenuity. Nope. That’s a Golf too. Audi A3? Golf as well, I’m afraid.
So what about an Aston Martin Cygnet? Surely, you’re thinking, that can’t be a Golf. You’re right. It isn’t. It’s actually a Toyota. The Subaru BRZ? That’s a Toyota also.
I am particularly excited at the moment about the new Alfa Romeo 4C. Which is a Mazda MX-5. Then you have the Ford Ka, which is a Fiat Panda. The Fiat 500 is also a Panda. And the subject of this morning’s missive is a Panda as well, even though it doesn’t say so on the back. It doesn’t say Lancia, either, which is strange because that’s the company that made it. And that’s why I’ve been trying for two straight years to get my hands on one.
I firmly believe that in the past hundred years Lancia has made more truly great cars than any other brand. Ford gets close. So does Ferrari. But Lancia edges it, thanks to the Stratos, the Fulvia, the 037 — the last two-wheel- drive car ever to win the world rally championship — the Delta Integrale and other, more elderly models with running boards that exist now only in the minds and garages of people who played the drums with Pink Floyd.
Even when Lancia was not very good, it was still rather brilliant. The Gamma was a classic case in point. We all knew that on full left lock, a design fault meant the pistons could meet the valves in a head-on collision, causing the engine to explode. But we didn’t care because it was so very, very pretty to look at.
Then you had the supercharged HPE. Made from steel so thin you could use it as tracing paper, and sold as an estate even though it was no such thing, this was a triumph of style over absolutely everything else that matters and I loved it.
Some say that Lancias were unreliable and while this is almost certainly true, it’s hard to be sure because they had usually rusted away long before any of the mechanical components had the chance to malfunction. Fans didn’t mind, though, because of those bite-the-back-of-your-hand-and-faint looks.
The trouble is that in the 1980s the Italians handed the styling department over to someone who plainly went to work with a box on his head. The result was a range of cars that oxidised and blew up. And didn’t look very nice in the process. With hindsight this was not a good idea. We can tolerate bad-tempered lunatic girlfriends if they are pretty. But not if they look like the Beta saloon. Or the Dedra.
The result was disastrous. Sales plummeted and Fiat, which owns Lancia, decided to pull its problem child out of Britain. And that, we thought, was that. Only now, almost 20 years later, Lancia is back with the car you see in the pictures this morning. The Ypsilon.
Let’s look at the obvious problems first of all. Number 1: the man with the box on his head is plainly still in charge of styling because the list of things I’d rather look at includes every single thing in the world.
Then there’s the name: Ypsilon. The company may argue that this is a Greek letter but it sounds like another Greek letter, epsilon, and as anyone who has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World will know, an epsilon is synonymous with idiot. It means lavatory attendant. It means loser. The manufacturer may as well have fitted a swastika badge, arguing that it’s an ancient Buddhist symbol. It is, but . . .
I’m afraid things get much, much worse. This is a horrible car to drive. The 1.3-litre diesel engine feels as if it’s running on gravel. The driving position is suitable only for an animal that doesn’t exist. The dials are so far away from where you sit you can’t read them, the handbrake sounds like it’s been made from bits of a 1971 roof rack and, as a result of the materials used to line the interior, it feels like you are sitting in a wheelie bin. Still, at least it’s slow and devoid of any excitement whatsoever. And fitted with a gearlever that has been shaped specifically to make it extremely unpleasant to hold.
There are two settings for the steering. Nasty. And Very Nasty. The latter makes the system so light that you daren’t open the window for fear the resultant breeze would cause you to do a U-turn. And Nasty means you drive along, suffering from a nagging doubt that the wheel has nothing at all to do with your direction of travel.
Ride? That’s dreadful. Noise? Awful as well. And then we get to the brakes. You get what looks like a pedal but actually it’s a switch. So you are either not braking, or braking so violently that you are going through the windscreen.
Other stuff? Well, it’s got back seats that fold down, a boot and a big button on the A-pillar that, so far as I can tell, does nothing except distract you from the rest of the terribleness.
It also has cruise control, for no reason that I can fathom. Still, you might be thinking: at least you can go to parties and tell everyone that you have a Lancia. Well, yes, I agree, that would be good. Except you can’t because this car is actually sold here as a Chrysler.
This is because Fiat recently bought Chrysler and reckons that in Britain that badge is better than the Lancia one used on the other side of the Channel. That’s the sort of thinking that resulted in a car this bad being made in the first place.
Still, at least there’s a solution. You simply buy a Fiat 500 or a Fiat Panda or a Ford Ka instead. They’re all exactly the same as the Ypsilon. But much better.
The epsilon minus of motoring
- 1248cc, 4 cylinders
- 94bhp @ 4000rpm
- 148lb ft @ 1500rpm
- 5-speed manual
- 0-62mph: 11.4 sec
- Top Speed:
- 74.3mpg (combined)
- 99 g/km
- Road Tax Band:
- L 3842mm W 1676mm H 1520mm