The Prancing Lancia!

Large family saloons which accelerate extremely well, and cruise at over 100 mph with power to spare, are not unusual. One thing, above all, separates the new Lancia Thema 8.32 from the herd — the superb, pedigree Ferrari V8 engine shoehorned in across the engine bay. It takes just one blip of the throttle for aural senses to pick up the characteristic "whee" of Maranello designed valvegear. Heads turn. And on the open road, the blissful owner will chop down a gear or two, needlessly, just to hear once again the vibrant bark of the 215 bhp engine.

This is the era of ever more sophisticated passenger cars; quicker, quieter and cleaner in emissions. Some great makes have become almost antiseptic in their cossetting of the owner and his environment: Alfa Romeo, now climbing into the Fiat Group's nest, is a prime example of a marque that conformed too readily. But there is a public out there which retains a passion for the staccato noises of Porsche's flat six, and the unique sounds of Ferrari and Chevy V8s hard at work. The Lancia Thema 8.32 will tap that chord.

Nowadays cogged belts, rather than chains, drive the twin overhead camshafts on each bank of the Ferrari engine. Bosch KE3 Jetronic mechanical injection, rather than quadruple Webers, controls the fuel flow, and a new crank with 90-degree throws replaces the flat-plane crank in the interests of finer balance. None of these concessions to modernity, to economy and to cleanliness even begin to dissipate the character of Ferrari's 2,927 cc (308) engine. It only runs into the orange cautionary band on the tachometer at 7,000 rpm, and will whirl happily to the start of the red sector at 7,500. Name another production engine that will do that, if you please!

The first formal marriage between Lancia and Ferrari took place in 1956, when Fangio successfully drove the Lancia-Ferrari D50 in the World Championship. Since then we have driven the Fiat Dino and the Lancia Stratos, other examples of good co-operation. Even more recently the Lancia LC2 Group C was powered by a twin-turbocharged version of the Ferrari engine.

The Lancia Thema 8.32 is an emotive car, without question, but it is not a "homologation special" in the Sierra Cosworth mould. It is, rather, what the Porsche Turbo set out to be in 1975, a very high performing model laden with luxury features. Air conditioning, full leather interior by the Italian Frau company (makes a change from Connolly!), walnut burr fascia surround, and an electrically retracting "wing" which rises wraith-Iike from the boot-lid all add to the cost, which is likely to be around £30,000 for the British market. Arturo Merzario used to drive a Fiat twin-cam 125 with a Formula 1 air box on the bonnet, and would probably have a clear plastic bonnet lid on a Thema 8.32, so that passers-by could ogle the "Lancia by Ferrari" script on the scarlet cam cover. But no such thing appears in the options list!

The Thema is now the only model in Lancia's range not to have four-wheel drive, though this will be offered later next year. The burning question, of course, was whether the front-drive Thema could possibly cope with more than 200 horsepower, without torque-steering into the hedgerows and ploughing on into fields. We found the answer in three hours of power-boating on the Berkshire Downs when storm warnings were flown on the nearby Thames. It was fantastic!

You may, if you wish, head for the deepest puddles and gun the engine in a low gear. As you would expect, the front wheels will go `walkies' but so would a Ford Fiesta's. With only a modicum of restraint and good sense, the Lancia behaved itself beautifully, and it was virtually impossible to spin the Goodyear Eagles in second gear, no matter how bad the flooding. Stability and directional control were well-nigh impeccable in the circumstances, though there was no chance to drive very quickly or check dry-road adhesion.

A trace of torque-steer is evident, as it happens — a shading to the right on full throttle— but it was less than anticipated, and easily corrected by a heavier hand on the left side of the leather-trimmed steering wheel. The Saab 9000 Turbo is another version of the '`European Type 4' saloon on a similar platform, and, even with another 30 bhp on hand, the Lancia seems to behave just as well as its Swedish cousin.

Lancia considered adopting a limited-slip differential as standard, but decided it wasn't necessary, and our brief trial in extreme conditions supported this decision. There is no doubt at all that, with the forthcoming four-wheel drive system, the Lancia 8.32 will become one of the world's great motor cars — with the prestige of an Audi Quattro or a BMW M-series, for instance.

The crisp response of the Ferrari engine is unmuted and unmarred by a turbocharger. The five-speed gearbox, delightful to use, comes from the Fiat range, though with a greater use of nickel alloys, a roller bearing replacing the ball bearing at the front, and with uprated synchronisers with molybdenum inserts.

Such a high-revving engine allows a relatively low final drive of 3.41:1, enabling the car to run at a rather modest 21.81 mph per 1,000 rpm in fifth gear. Any ordinary engine would be running out of puff at little more than 120 mph, but the Thema 8.32 develops its peak power of 215 bhp at 6,750 rpm, which represents 147.21 mph. The claimed top speed (which of course we couldn't confirm) of 150 mph represents 6,880 rpm on the tachometer, still short of the orange sector.

According to the glossy brochure, which does not sound fanciful, the 8.32 will accelerate from test to 100 kph (62 mph) in 6.8 seconds, and reach the kilometre post in 26.8 seconds. At the end of the strip the driver can rely on a Bosch ABS brake system (the 8.32 is the first Italian car to have this equipment as standard) acting on 11.2-inch diameter ventilated front discs, and solid rear discs.

The Thema's steering is a new system offered by ZF, the power assistance being electrically controlled to decrease with road speed, rather than with engine speed. Road feel was good, even in such inclement conditions, and the steering was pleasantly light for manoeuvring.

The exterior is deliberately understated, but there are a few clues as to its potential: the 8.32 badges on the radiator grille, and on the restrained 'skirts' below the doors; the extended, aerodynamic mirrors closely resembling those on the Testarossa; the 15-inch diameter 'star' alloy wheels, all six inches in width; and the retractable bootlid spoiler which some people would regard as gimmicky, others as a sensible compromise after an automatically extending one, dependent on the speed of the car, proved difficult to develop.

In Italy, the Ferrari-powered Lancia will quickly become an ultimate status symbol, but among businessmen as much as the Monza paddock crowd. This is not a whizz-bang racer, despite its capabilities. but a serious inter-city express with an impressive spread of torque to make gear-changing an optional activity. Noise levels are low and refined, the ride quality is excellent, and the wealthy customer is asked to make no sacrifices beyond signing the purchase cheque.

While the maximum power output is rather less than in the Ferrari 308, which develops 240 bhp, the torque value is actually increased by 12% to 210 lb/ft at 4,500 rpm, and that says a lot about the design objective. Even in its present form, the 8.32 could handle more power, though it doesn't actually need it, and later on with four-wheel drive it can reasonably be expected to become one of the world's fastest saloons.

Production will build up to 10 cars per day this spring, on a special line at the San Paolo factory in Turin, and customers are invited to watch the final stages of assembly. In Britain, Lancia's worrying decline in sales has at last been arrested by the Heron Group, and the Lancia Thema 8.32 will be welcomed as a prestige-creating flagship. Fifty or so sales in a year will make little difference to the marque's annual registration figures, which now hover around 3,000, but may enhance Thema sales generally. We wish them luck. MLC