Lancia Montecarlo

A disappointment

an absence of two years from the UK market, the Lancia Montecarlo reappeared on our roads earlier this year in improved guise. Although sharing the same name, this road-going, mid-engined, two-seater bears vcrv little resemblance to the· turbocharged versions which have given Lancia victory in the World Championship for Makes and it turned out to be something of a disappointment. We had to wait until recently to drive this sleek and (to me) very attractive machine, which, unfortunately, is one of those which falls between being an out-and-out driver’s sports car and a touring car. having the noisy, cramped, interior disadvantages of the former combined with the ordinary performance of the latter. Give the car another 50 b.h.p. to enable the driver to exploit the Montecarlo’s superbly balanced chassis, and this brief assessment would be a rave review.

The revised Montecarlo comes in two forms, a fixed-head coupe and the openable-top “Spyder”, costing £8,345 and £8,600 respectively, car tax and VAT included. These prices pitch the two-sealer Moncecarlo against the faster, quieter. cheaper, four-seater 2.8i Capri. the similarly fast, smooth and quiet Mazda RX7 2+2 and not far behind the exciting 2.5 Alfa Romeo GTV 6 or the basic Porsche 924 and all these have obvious practical advantages over the Lancia, which are only partially offset by its delightful handling. Our test car was one of the coupe versions with 6,500 miles on the clock.

The first impressions of the car from outside arc its neat elegance and the superb quality of the finish -!he Beta lesson seems to have been well learned. The Iese car was finished in an attractive pale metallic blue which mall black treatment at the front and rear. The revision of the rear quarters with glazed fins, the up-dated grille and the new alloy wheels distinguish the latest versions from earlier examples and add to !he visual appeal. The Montecarlo is a small, compact car measuring 150 inches long, 67 inches wide and 47 inches high. making it shorter than, for example, an Allegro and about the lowest car on the market, bar the odd Ferrari and Lotus, and yet it is surprisingly heavy, turning the scales at 2,133 lb. -some 340 lb. heavier than that basic Allegro, and it is this weight which prevents the willing engine providing the necessary sparkle to justify the Montecarlo as a sports car.

Mounted transversely with the centre of gravity just in front of the rear wheels, is the familiar near-square (84 x 90 mm.), d.o.h.c., four­cylinder engine of 1,995 c.c. With its 9.35:1 compression ratio, single twin-choke Weber carburettor and electronic ignition this power unit develops 120 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m., as before, but the torque is slightly improved, giving a maximum of 126 lb. ft. at 3,400 r.p.m. Looking down from the rear through the side-opening bonnet, the “front” of the engine is on the right. balanced by the in-line five-speed gearbox on the left, drive being transmitted through a spring-servo-assisted single plate clutch. The space above and to the rear of the gearbox is occupied by the full size spare wheel, which on the test car was beginning to show signs of excessive local heat, there being a distinct brown patch in the area nearest to the exhaust system. The under-bonnet layout is neat, though hardly simple, and the important items requiring attention for regular maintenance arc easily accessible.

MacPherson struts are fitted at each corner, located at the front by both transverse and trailing links combined with an anti-roll bar and at the back by lower wishbones and adjustable transverse links. The steering is direct rack­and-pinion with 3 1/2 turns from lock to lock while the dual circuit braking system makes use of 9. 9″ discs all round. The brakes are not servo-assisted but, in response to criticism levelled at the earlier models, are equipped with a “variable effect brake control”. The effect of this is to prevent the front wheels locking up suddenly under comparatively light pedal pressure (something to which earlier Montecarlos were prone) and to give the driver much better pedal feel. The handbrake is effective, and operates on the rear wheels only. The tyres are 165/65 x 14 Pirelli P6.

Once inside, it is apparent that this really is a two-seater, there being no room even for a briefcase inside the car if both seals are occupied. The trim is elegant, seats and headlining being faced with a herring-bone fabric and the floor being carpeted. The dash is matt black, with a reasonable sized glove box in front of the passenger and an oblong, well-hooded instrument display visible through the steering wheel. Black padded ledges on the doors cover the door catches and blend into the dash to give the impression of a tapering cockpit.

The seats themselves are very comfortable, as is now usual in all but the cheapest cars, but the seating position was distinctly uncomfortable for my five foot six, inches -my legs wanted the scat right back, but my arms would then not reach the steering wheel without leaning forward since the angular adjustment of the seal (effected by rotating a long lever alongside the squab) was insufficient: if it had been enough, I still couldn’t have driven the car safely since I would not have had a clear enough field of vision over the high-parking windscreen wipers. The compromise position resulted in knees having 10 be spread to avoid the attractive, leather rimmed steering wheel. Pedal spacing is ideal for press-on driving and there is a footrest alongside the clutch pedal, although I found this rather too close to the seat for comfort.

The instrument panel contains all the usual instruments with a O to 8,000 r.p.m. tachometer taking pride of place in the centre. A warning area starts at 6,000 r.p.m. and the red line is set at 6,250 r.p.m. To the tachometer’s left is a matching 160 m.p.h. speedometer, while to the right are three vertical-needle instruments for oil pressure, coolant temperature and fuel level in the 13 gallon tank. Warning lights arc positioned in the bottoms of the main dials and alongside the three minor instruments. A centre console houses the Voxson radio I cassette player, the heater and ventilation controls, an ashtray and hazard warning and heated rear-window. The short, purposeful gear lever is ideally positioned, as is the central handbrake lever (rather plasticky) which is flanked by switches for the electric windows and the rear fog lamps. The bonnet catch is just over the driver’s right shoulder, while the catch for the front boot is in the wheel arch by the driver’s right knee. The interior luggage and oddments capacity is limited to the glove box and a narrow (four inches) shelf immediately behind the seats. The boot is capacious for such a small car, and is hinged at the front, making it necessary to lean across the wing to get at items in the deep recess. The centre prop for the lid catches automatically, but has to be released manually, and the lid needed a good slam to shut.

A couple of pumps of the throttle pedal gives excellent starting from cold, the automatic choke ensuring an easy warm-up period, while warm starting was trouble free provided the throttle was left alone until the engine had caught. Really hard acceleration in the gears gives a certain harshness to the feel of the car, as well as creating internal noise levels in keeping with a pure bred competition car. At other times, the engine is smooth and tractable, although interior noise is always present.

The gearing seems somewhat low, the 3.714:1 final drive ratio giving 19.6 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in fifth, and maxima in the gears being 30, 50, 74 and 97 m.p.h. at the 6,250 r.p.m. red line. Top speed is between 115 and 120 m.p.h., although che factory claim 121 m.p.h. Flat out acceleration from rest brings the Montecarlo to 60 m.p.h. in 91/2 sec., the P6 tyres limiting wheelspin on initial get-away very effectively.

At low speeds, the steering is heavy, but on a motorway at speed, it is just the opposite, and it is easy to find the car swerving on initial acquaintance as the driver puts too much pressure on the wheel to correct minor deviations. At high speeds, in strong cross-winds, the car feels unpleasantly unstable, making a reduction in speed wise, even if all those Cortinas come pouring past again, but in still conditions, once acclimatised to the light steering, the Montecarlo is stable and comfortable right up to maximum speed.

The ride is firm, not harsh since the relatively stiff suspension has plenty of travel and the anti-roll bar at the front, coupled with the naturally low centre of gravity, make for flat cornering. The front end tends to feel light on a damp surface, where the unwary might find understeer a problem. Application of power, or gentle backing off, will bring the natural understeer under control, while deliberately provocative applications of power induce nicely controllable tail-slides, reminiscent of chain-drive Frazer Nashes. In the dry, the grip is excellent and it is very difficult to make the car move out of line without being completely stupid. It is very much a car for driving on country roads, where its size, nimble steering and excellent road-holding encourage the fast driver to explore its potential. Further encouragement comes from the delightful gearchange and the f.d. will soon be wishing for more power to enable him to explore the handling to its ultimate limits and to take advantage of shorter stretches of clear road for overtaking.

Motorway driving is definitely not the Montecarlo’s forte – the noise from the engine at the car’s comfortable cruising speed is intrusive, monotonous and very tiring, especially if one tries to keep up with the large BMWs and Jaguars which fly down the outside lane rather faster than the law says they should.

Thus was the Montecarlo a disappointment – the noise levels and lack of internal space make it rather impractical for anything other than a “fun” car, while the performance is not enough to give the “fun” in full. Fuel consumption, by the way, was a creditable 28.5 m.p.g. for the 900 mile test. – P.H.J.W.