1992 Lancia Delta HF Turbo
The Forgotten Giant
Americans can be forgiven if the name "Lancia" slips our minds from time to time. The cars were only officially sold in the USA from 1975 to 1982, after all. Hardly Lancia's glory days. We can even be forgiven for not realizing they are still in business today, albeit seemingly on their death bed, pushing out small numbers of a (rather ugly) rebodied Fiat 500 called the Ypsilon. The powers that be at the reigning Fiat Group aren't convinced the brand has any remaining cache outside of Italy, and many industry insiders predict Lancia will be quietly folded over the coming years.
It's a decidedly depressing state of affairs considering the history and stature of the marque, because there was a time, not terribly long ago, when Lancia was one of the proudest car companies on the planet.
Take the Lancia D50, the F1 racer which powered Fangio to a World Drivers Title in the lairy 1950's. Or the Aurelia, the Flaminia, and the racy little V4-powered Fulvia. Self proclaimed "purists" tend to think of Lancia having their heart cut out by the Fiat takeover in 1969, but those people could be gently reminded of the terrifying Stratos, arguably the most exotic, potent, and downright mutant rally car of the 1970's. The magnificent 037, which was the last two-wheel drive car to win the World Rally Championship, and the Pininfarina-designed Gamma Coupe, as stylish a touring car as existed in the 1980's. Lancia even went Group C racing in the 1980's with the LC2 - more powerful and often quicker than the mighty Porsche 956.
These were not just interesting motorcars, they were excellent motorcars, developed to compete in every corner of the vehicular spectrum. Elegant, luxury touring coupes, innovative sports cars, and mid engined rally weapons, with jewel-like construction, involving drivetrains, and styling by legends such as Zagato, Touring, Bertone, and ItalDesign. This is Lancia's history, and during the 1980's, they introduced what can possibly be considered their last significant model - the Delta.
Styled by Giorgetto Guigiaro and powered by an evolved version of the Aurelio Lampredi twincam four-cylinder engine originally developed for Fiat, the Delta brought some traditionally big guns to the table, and was well received from the off. The razor-edge styling and short overhangs are typically Giugiaro, and give the car a purposeful, pugnacious stance. Similar to, but maybe angrier than, another one of my favorite Giugiaro designs, the Mark 1 VW Scirocco.
Named European Car of the Year in 1980, these days the Delta is primarily known by enthusiasts for its most potent iteration, the glorious Delta Integrale, which this car is not. Because it's a later 1992 model, it has the Integrale's quad headlamps, larger wheels, and bulging, vented hood, but this is the HF Turbo, making do with a 1.6L turbocharged engine and front-wheel drive to the Integrale's 2.0L and vaunted all-wheel-drive system. As Integrale values have exploded over the last decade, with the latest Evo II models sometimes bringing as much as $100,000, the HF Turbo is at risk of being forgotten in the shuffle. The perpetual little bother. The early 912 to Porsche's 911. The e30 325is to BMW's first M3. The 190E 2.3-16 to the wild Mercedes-Benz 2.5-16 Evolution...
Those cars are all well loved, and are becoming more and more collectible by the day. Is the HF Turbo the next undervalued "little brother classic?"
A Bristling, Crackling Bundle Of Barely Contained Normalcy
I have waxed poetic about Lancias before, such as when I recently drove a rally-prepared Fulvia across Spain (you can read about that adventure here), but whenever I encounter a fresh one, I am always struck anew by just how good they are. These aren't slapped together, rattly bits of junk. These aren't hastily rebodied Fiats with creaking dashboards. No, the Delta feels like a Lancia should feel.
Settle into the driver's seat and the door closes behind you with a heavy, reassuring thunk - every bit as reassuring as a BMW e30 or Porsche 3.2L Carrera - a reminder that Lancia has long been known for teutonic levels of build quality. The Recaro seats are covered in the same grippy alcantara fabric as the door panels, and the seating position is entirely normal and comfortable, with the steering wheel, gear lever and pedals right where you would expect them to be. What gives? Where is the nutty Italian ergonomics? The steering wheel canted like one on a city bus? Where are the weirdly offset pedals and the lack of headroom?
Twist the key and the engine fires eagerly, then settles down into a nice, quiet, and stable idle. No histrionics. No long crank times or strange noises. No crossing your fingers and praying. It just fires right up. Entirely normal.
Select first and away we go...
Right off the bat, there is a lot to like about the HF. The aforementioned Recaros are exactly what you would expect of Recaros (although, like almost all Recaros, they seem to work best with the backrest adjusted more vertical and your spine pushed back as far into the seat as possible.) The steering wheel is a chunky, wonderful thing that looks and feels like a Momo Prototipo, and the weight and feel of a steering is just perfect. Perfect. The seating position affords a very good view of the nose, and this, combined with the short overhangs, give you a sense that you know precisely where the corners are and can place the car wherever you want it. It's a very confidence inspiring vehicle to drive, particularly here in Europe where most streets and garages and parking spots are only 70% as wide at their USA counterparts.
Glance around and you start to feel some of the Italian quirkiness that makes these cars a little different. The dashboard is just awash in gauges, lights, switches and surfaces. It is complex and convoluted to look at, with the tach and speedometer split so wide to the sides that large sections of both are invariably obscured by the steering wheel rim. At first blush it's arguably the least intuitive control panel I have ever experienced, but everything you could ever want (and more) is there, so once you get used to it the absurdity kinda melts away and it starts to feel pretty informative.
Once the oil is up to temperature (there is a gauge for that, of course) it's time to give it the beans. Variations of this Lampredi-designed twincam four can be found in an ocean of cars, including things like the Fiat 131 Abarth and Lancia 037, so there is an expectation that it's going to snarl and roar like an old rally car, but in normal use, it really doesn't. The turbocharger acts as a fairly effective muffler, keeping things quiet. But as the revs build the rasp of the engine starts to make itself known, and at max RPM it has a throaty scream that sounds Italian and sporting, and makes me smile every time I hear it. Every gear change is accompanied by the wastegate letting out an almighty "WHOOSH!" so loud it will literally turn the head of any pedestrian within earshot. It's a little sophomoric, maybe, but it sure gets the blood pumping! The gear change is light and direct, and although first gear is a shade long (no drag racing in Italy?) the remainder of the cogs are perfectly spaced, allowing boost to build quickly and stay there, propelling the little Delta forward like a snarly, blood red missile.
162 horsepower may not seem like much, jaded as we are these days by 220 horsepower Volkswagen GTI's, 306 bhp Honda Civics, and 350 bhp Ford Focuses, but a quick blast though the gears in the HF feels alive, involving, and bloody quick. This little Delta weighs in at just 2200 lbs, compared to 3000 for the GTI, 3100 for the Civic Type R and 3300 for the Focus RS. If we apply the old racer's rule of thumb - ten pounds equals one horsepower - the Delta pulls like a new GTI with 250 bhp, a Civic Type R with 260 bhp or a Focus RS with 280 bhp. Now, there is obviously more to it than that, and the Delta isn't actually that quick, but it's amazing what light weight does to acceleration, particularly when you consider the engine here displaces only 1600cc. At full throttle, the nose pitches up a bit, the meaty Michelins scrabble briefly for traction, and the HF properly wails through the gears, hitting 100 kp/h in a jiffy, and pulling eventually up to 203 kp/h, according to my GPS. (The speedometer was pointing resolutely, yet optimistically, to 220...)
Steering is precise and perfectly weighted, with complete feel of the road surface yet no unnecessary kickback. Turn-in to corners, typical of front-wheel drive sports cars, is laser quick and body roll is minimal, so you can carry a ton of speed through the middle of bends and use the fat swell of midrange boost to pull you out one corner and off to the next. Brakes are another eye-opener, and are hugely powerful (also helped, no doubt, by the low curb weight), but the pedal arrangement takes a bit of getting used to. Italians favor a slightly different style of "heel and toeing," which requires closer to an actual heel and toe than the more germanic (and Anglo) roll of the foot, so matching revs on downshifts takes practice.
The tallish first gear means the HF Turbo is not going to win drag races, but get it onto a flowing, twisting stretch of road and it can cover ground incredibly fast. My belief that it could hassle much more prestigious cars in these types of situations was borne out early one morning when I encountered a Porsche 993 on the way to our garage in Sanet y Negrals. I came up behind him fast, and when he saw me approach he put the hammer down, so with that we set off on a chase through the Spanish countryside. On the longish straights, he could pull a few car lengths advantage, but there were precious few of them on this particular stretch of road, and in the flowing, twisting bits, I was all over him. By the engine note and singing tires, I knew he was working as hard as he could, but the 993 had nothing for this Delta HF Turbo. Not on that road. Not on that day. If it had been a race track, I could have gotten past him, I'm sure of it.
So it's a little screamer. A hoot. A ball of pressurized energy. But despite a few quirks here and there, it's really quite... normal. It's an incredibly livable motorcar. Four real doors, with five real seats and five real seat belts. The hatchback and folding rear backrests allow it to be as useable a cargo hauler as any other hatch, and whether on highway or around town, it never puts a foot wrong. The power windows (front only - it has old timey-time cranks in the rear) run up and down quickly. The lights all work. The gauges all work. It's easy to service. Just fire it up and drive the hell out of it. Nothing rattles, everything works, and it has been as trustworthy and reliable as my wife's Volvo.
The Lancia "HF" badge stands for "High Fidelity" (originally a club for customers who had proven themselves particularly loyal to the marque) but it could just as easily stand for "Happy Face," because the screaming little Lancia is my best kind of therapy. Drive it gently and it's as quiet and useable as any modern hatchback. Give it the business and it's a rally-bred little street scalpel that can leave mountain roads in tatters in your wake.
Recently, I spent a month in the Basque Country, just an excuse to get outta Dodge for a bit with my wife, kids and three dogs. When we returned, we were all packed into the XC90, a roof top box overhead crammed with luggage and HotWheels cars. iPads, stops for dogs, stops for kids, stops for fuel... it took us seven hours to complete a five hour journey home. When we finally arrived back in Javea I unpacked the car and went immediately over to the garage where I had left the Lancia, and collected it. Then I just took a drive. Even after being in the Volvo for seven hours, the thing that I needed most at that moment was a spin through the mountains in the little HF Turbo. Engine singing, wastegate whooshing... the whole bit.
Despite the looks, it's not an Integrale. But at one third the price or less it offers most of the fun for most drivers, and it'll make you feel like Miki Biasion when you take it out and run it like you mean it.
And that's my kinda bargain. Call me as "High Fidelity" as anyone.