Road Test: Lancia Delta HF Integrale

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Wolf in sheep’s clothing

Lancia’s task in building the Integrate out of the HF 4 x 4 was to create a world-beating rallycar, which it has clearly achieved. The road car spin-off is that the agile and rapid HF 4 x 4 has turned into an automotive Clark Kent – a supercar in plain clothes. Or fairly plain; there are no roof-wings or shovel spoilers on Lancia’s super-saloon, but there are brawny wheel-arches looking ready to elbow through traffic, and a new bonnet with large louvres above the radiator.

Summarising the Integrale’s improvements, it gains a more powerful version of the 2-litre turbo twin-cam four, the same basic design which is shared with the Thema turbo ie, larger brakes, and wider-track suspension with room for tyres of anything up to 235 width.

More air is scooped into the engine compartment for radiators, intercooler and brakes by a broader and deeper bumper pierced by grilles, and narrow mouldings flare the new arches into the sills. It does look different, but the basic Delta shape is clearly visible, little changed since its arrival in 1979. Whether it is tight purse-strings or deliberate styling policy which have prevented Lancia from fiddling with the Delta shape, it remains a fresh and elegant form and all the better for the lack of interference.

Sales of sporting 4 x 4 cars have not been up to earlier optimistic forecasts, but Lancia banks on the performance aspect of the Integrale rather than its 4WD abilities. Naturally these are connected to an extent – 185 bhp would be far less manageable through the front wheels only – but the new purchaser of such cars looks for more and more technical sophistication: water-cooled turbos, inter-coolers, viscous couplings and Torsen differentials are all good talking points, and the Integrale has them all. It is also restricted to left-hand drive only, which has gained a perverse cachet in motoring circles and has not hindered the sale of the 55 which Lancar ordered for 1988.

In fact, these were sold immediately and only a further few have been obtained, so the car already has a rarity value well beyond its remarkably cheap price of £15,920.

Under the pierced bonnet, the twin-cam engine’s parentage goes a long way back, to the Lancia Beta and various Fiats such as 124, 125, 131, and 132. Revised for Delta and Thema and fitted with twin balancer shafts, it later appeared in turbocharged form with an “overboost” feature, allowing the super-charge pressure to jump, for 30 seconds only, from the normal maximum of 1.8 bar to 2 bar. This allowed brief extra-fast spurts for overtaking.

In 185 bhp Integrale form, a Garrett water-cooled T3 turbine of larger capacity forces intake air through a larger vertical intercooler alongside the radiator. Valves and seats, gaskets and water-pump are all uprated, the black boxes of the Weber-Marelli ignition/injection system tweaked, and the time-limit on the boost pressure control removed. Lancia still refers to it as “overboost”, with a little light on the dash to excite the driver when maximum pressure is reached, but it is now simply incorporated into the normal boost curve. Larger water and oil radiators and an asbestos-free clutch are also fitted.

Under those arches it is not merely a case of wider wheels: the MacPherson strut suspension system has been equipped with new uprights and links (a form of wishbone at the front and lateral rods plus fore-and-aft links behind) and tougher springs and damping. Wheel size goes up an inch to 15in, and 195/55 VR 15 tyres are standard. To offset the larger wheel diameter a shorter final drive is fitted, though the overall ratio is still slightly higher than before, making cruising a little more relaxed. However, with the increased torque the car accelerates faster (0-62 mph in 6.6sec) and reaches 135 mph.

Transverse engine 4WD packages have become very neat, and Lancia’s uses an epicyclic box to split the drive 56% front, 44% rear. This is restricted by a viscous coupling when traction is lost at one end, while the rear deferential is a Torsen unit with its advantages of no slip and full differential action. The front diff is free. There are no controls for the driver to use, because the system automatically makes the best use possible of the road traction.

Our test route for the Integrale was to Le Mans in hopes of Jaguar’s great moment, and very appropriate for this LHD car. Three up, we fitted pretty well into the little hatchback with an assortment of luggage, though the six-foot rear passenger was rather cramped.

Some London acclimatisation had demonstrated the taut feel of the car’s suspension and steering, and I wondered whether it would prove over-active on motorways; but as we navigated the traffic cones leading to Dover I found I could relax after all. Despite its short wheelbase, the Integrale is directionally very stable at high speeds, and any pitching is quickly swallowed by the uprated struts.

Taking a Friday afternoon ferry (much more relaxing that the hovercraft, and no doubt more so than the Channel Tunnel trains will be), we ended up sailing an hour and a half late. This meant that our schedule was upset before we even gained the autoroute, and consequently that our speed was to be higher than planned. Yet the Lancia responded without strain, squirting instantly into the gaps in the stream of two-way traffic which joins Calais to the A26 autoroute, and then whistling up to an easy 90 or 100 mph when the motorway arrived.

With some four hours between us and Le Mans, the driver’s comfort was going to be important; the nice thick-rimmed steering wheel fits well with the upright driving position, and though the gearshift is a little soft, its intricacies are soon learned, and in fact, the action is relatively good by the standards of most European transverse boxes. Almost all of the various dials can be seen by the driver (it is surprising how rare this asset still is today), while the usual pair of column stalks are joined in normal Italian fashion by one for the lights.

From Paris it is autoroute nearly all the way to Le Mans, but with losing an hour to continental time and then exploring the town for our hotel it was nearly midnight before we parked the car. After a couple of hours at very high speeds, I still have the habit of leaving the engine running for a minute or two to allow the turbo bearings to cool, but with the water-cooled T3 unit there is no longer any need for this.

Over the weekend we sat in a good few queues without any cooling problems, and the middleweight clutch and power-assisted steering eased the strain. There are more subtle power-steering systems, but steering feel is less crucial to a 4WD car with its much reduced chances of breaking traction under power, and the Lancia’s is fairly high-geared, making sinuous bends and hairpins alike easy going. In roundabouts it sticks like glue, with little if any adverse response to throttle variations, and it catapults off in the required direction with a low whistle. A torque peak of no less than 224lb ft at 3500 rpm means that the car will respond promptly even in higher gears.

As we had booked a late ferry on Sunday night we were able to make more relaxed time using a Route National towards Paris, revelling in the memory of those last emotional ten minutes before a Jaguar took the flag, and marvelling at how there seems to be no difficulty in extricating the huge crowds from the Sarthe circuit. Night overtook us, showing up the excellent power of the Integrale’s twin-lamp set up, before our return to Calais (and another hour and a half delay).

Overall the Integrale proved a fine small touring car, turning in fuel consumption of some 21 mpg at high speed, but I had some reservations about the braking stability of this particular example. It became very nervous under light pedal pressures, wanting to wag its tail, and of course there is no ABS system; in fact, I found the rear wheels locking under quite mild braking on slippery surfaces, an unpleasant trait which did not afflict the previous one I drove.

For what it offers in performance and handling, this package must be considered very good value. If civilised and rapid cars like these are the spin-off from FISA’s attempt to eliminate “rally specials”, it is almost tempting to thank them. GC

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