Thursday, 12 July 2012

Realworld Rides : "Chrysler" Ypsilon 0.9 TwinAir

Since publishing on RoadworkUK, this article has since been published on

The Lancia Ypsilon was / is a fascinating footnote in FCA history. Still available new in Italy only, it has long beaten a retreat from other markets, and never made it to the USA despite wearing Chrysler badges in many territories, including the UK. I never fully read the CAR or Autocar reviews of the Ypsilon, preferring to make my own mind up. I know that those two most trusted of organs rated it at three stars out of five, or ostensibly half marks, so it made sense to have a drive, to experience what counts for average these days.

The first thing I'm going to do is to ignore the badging. If I could legitimately chisel those hilariously Aston-Martinesque bewinged Chrysler emblems off this car's snout and arse, I would. It's not a Chrysler, not even slightly. And, though time I drove a Lancia it was a Y10 Turbo, fifteen years ago, I find it hard to think of it as one of those, either. It may follow a few cues from the final generation of Lancia Delta, but in recent times the respected Italian name has been whored out in any number of appalling directions, for example landing on the Chrysler 200 cabriolet to become the Flavia. 

It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

Still, plaudits are in order for the design team, for their imagination, ambition, effort and hope. In a footprint much less than four metres long, the team did its their level best to incorporate virtually every recent Italian styling trademark. The chiselled nose with its crisp lines and artfully handled grille, the bonnet that narrowly escapes looking like it was stolen from a Chrysler PT Cruiser (a total coincidence, of course) yet looks absolutely at home here, and the dynamically upswept glassline a la Maserati.

Only the concave treatment of the lower front door is slightly irksome but, then, they had to do something with that bit, didn't they? They've even managed to give the damn thing a reasonable set of hips; muscular haunches over the rear wheels. Yes, thirty-nine out of ten for having a damn good effort, guys.

Tragic, though, that it doesn't really work. The Fiat 500 sub-structure is simply too small for all this exquisite detailing to sit on happily. The design works, brilliantly, from the front three-quarters. However, the short wheelbase and long overhangs mean begin to go awry when you look at at it side on, the bow is longer and a lot more visually dominant than the stern, giving a somewhat nose-heavy balance. 

You're also acutely aware of the height of the thing, and the effectiveness of those concealed rear door-handles (to simulate a coupe appearance) are lost as soon as you glimpse those tell-tale shutlines and how far forward the B Pillar is. Perhaps in the future, if designers must still pursue the four-doors-but-looks-like-two objective, it would be worth copying the Mazda RX-8's suicide rear doors. Or perhaps they should just be honest and not pretend that the Ypsilon is something it's not.

And then you look at it from the rear three quarters and it all suddenly looks properly ridiculous; those rear lights are lovely little things, but fail to look swoopy and elegant because the rear end they're nailed to is so upright and abbreviated. Seriously, if all the design ideas of this car were directly translated onto something the same height but two metres longer, it would look absolutely superb. So, part brilliant, part awful. I guess that makes it average. Three stars out of five so far.

How about the inside? Well, in my half hour I was unable to determine whether the driving position was any good (I have a feeling that, over time, my 6' 5" of gristle and fat would fall out with the Ypsilon in a big way ), but by no means does it seem a cramped place to be. Good news on the materials front; although you can find some scratchy bits if you let your fingers really search for them, the majority of the interior is made of stout stuff, and this is the first time I've felt able to say this of a small Italian car for a long while.

Technology and equipment wise, the full shopping list of amenities is ticked off here, but a demerit goes to the appearance of the Microsoft Blue & Me integration that only Fiat-group companies seem to be bothered with, and which gives the game away that this Chrysler is about as American as Mussolini bathing in olive oil. Oh, and the ever-so-Fiat "City" button is present and correct, selectable to add more steering assistance for the limp of physique. I didn't bother, of course, being a freakishly muscular.

The seats seem comfortable, upholstered though they are in a neoprene-like material that I expect to wear if I go windsurfing. Encouragingly, there's nothing in here I really hate; except for the fact that I still vehemently disapprove of centrally-mounted instrument clusters. Burn them all; the bastard things. I just don't see how they're not regarded as ergonomically ridiculous. Especially as, with this particular car, you have to keep at least one eye on the rev-counter at all possible times.

You see, the Ypsilon was available with Fiat's 0.9 litre, two-cylinder turbocharged engine, dubbed TwinAir. It's fitted to this one. I've long been intrigued by this diminutive mill, and when I twisted the key the novelty factor didn't take long to materialise. Indeed, the engine noise was so alien that I had to run through mental lists of what it reminded me of, and I came up with a mixture of golf buggy, quad bike and twin-engined Go-Kart. Most amusing of all is the overrun when you switch off; you get the phut-phut-phut of the last fuelless piston strokes as the engine spins to a halt against the presumably quite heavy flywheel. It sounds a bit like farting in a bath.

So, It's safe to imagine that the Ypsilon's performance would match the ride-on-lawnmower nature of its powerplant. Accordingly, I eyed the sequential shifter suspiciously before tipping it into automatic mode, It's a similar transmission set-up to the one you find on a Smart, but the stick action is pull back to go up through the gears, tip forward to go down. So for ease of introduction I made sure that the display said "1 Auto" and pushed firmly on the accelerator... and nothing happened.

I pushed it farther, still nothing, but the exhaust note changed, deepening as if put under load. Then I pushed a bit more, and gradually the car heaved itself forward slightly. Suddenly the Go-Kart metaphor was flagged up as the most appropriate from my list because that's exactly what pulling away feels like. The car behaves as if it's using a scooter-style centrifugal clutch, the revs rising, the drive gently catching and the whole plot only moves forward when it's excited enough.

Then I pushed the accelerator farther still, and suddenly all hell broke loose. Genuinely, I was pinned back in my seat with a sudden and wholly unexpected force. Next gear (which engages itself with a pause and a violent nodding sensation, just like in a Smart) and then comes another brief rush of acceleration, then yet another long, lingering gearchange, then another rush, and before you know it you have accumulated serious velocity. By which I mean that I had effortlessly been catapulted into the outside lane of the local "Big Fast Road" and was doing a speed a hefty percentage over what was legal, within four gear changes of a standstill. It's a very strange experience.

It's made stranger when you listen to the engine note, which is low-pitch enough to make gearshift-points almost impossible to guess without reference to the rev-counter. Four thousand RPM in this sounds like two thousand in a regular four-cylinder car. Indeed, at urban-road speeds two thousand revs feels like the stall point, and even though Auto mode may insist on fourth gear at 30mph, the engine sounds like it's labouring to a degree that surely isn't a good idea. Auto seems to be rather ambitiously calibrated; manual gives much better results. If you're aiming for minimum economy, maximum giggles, DO NOT allow the revs to stray below 2k or north of 5. Nothing of interest lies outside those parameters.

But, keep it in third gear across country, occasionally dipping to second for amusing bursts of acceleration out of hairpin corners, and the Ypsilon will cover the ground at an impressive pace. It's completely counter to the whole design brief of the TwinAir, which I suppose must have been "half the engine for twice the economy" or somesuch, but the feeling of driving this car rapidly using the available power is, I imagine, a bit like riding a Supermotard bike. You know, one of those very trick sticky-tyred trial bikes turned track weapon, typically with a big stump-pulling single cylinder engine. Of course, this is a Twin, and it's everything I can do to avoid revving the poor thing to death.

I quickly develop a technique which sees me dedicating my left foot to braking duty, with my right in charge of acceleration. This is also my usual technique in conventional automatic cars, but in those it's because I'm a man of habit and my left foot always wants something to do. Here, it's extra necessary, just like it is when driving a Go-Kart, where a cheatsome trick is to hold the accelerator slightly open while braking, especially in hairpins, as it reduces throttle lag on the way out of the bend. On a Go-Kart it also promotes lurid powerslides, an extremely unlikely occurrence in this little front-wheel-drive trolley. Oh, dear. This engine is the very embodiment of perky. I'm having quite a lot of fun, here.

My fun is rather more to do with the engine than the handling, it feels like a Fiat 500 crossed with a paper dart, such is its propensity for ploughing straight on in extremis. The little two-pot feels like it's a long way forward in the hull; it certainly feels like there's a lot of weight in the nose. It grips to the road gamely, though, with little roll, but is prone to the exact same mid-corner skittishness on broken road surfaces as the 500 is. This point was cemented when a particularly cavernous pothole saw me briefly airborne, launching right across the carriageway.

It's a great engine, this, but I feel it would be even more fun in, well, something that wasn't an Ypsilon. This engine also appears in the Fiat 500 and Panda, which are far more youthful, pared-down, joyful cars. The Ypsilon styling (or the intent of its styling, anyway) hints at grace, luxury and class. Pelting around the countryside like I was really isn't a classy, luxurious or graceful thing to do. I can't help but think that the TwinAir might be a bit, well, highly strung for this application.

It's all starting to make less and less sense, this car. There's a daft American badge on it, for a start, where there should be an Italian one. The styling is right, and then goes terribly wrong. The interior is smart and quite well put together, but with a bafflingly located instrument binnacle, and the engine feels like it really wants to be in a dune buggy.

What a weird car; but a likeable one, definitely. The Ypsilon is roughly the same size as the 500, but has the added flexibility of two extra doors. The boot is smallish, but not rubbish, and the fuel economy ought to be decent if you can avoid having fun. As long as the Ypsilon is reasonably priced, then the case is a reasonably compelling one. Assuming a reasonable asking price, the Ypsilon looks a pretty sensible buy.

Well, so near, yet so far. Chrysler was asking £13,500 for this when it was on sale here. At today's hopelessly deflated exchange rate, that's $17.600, but it was around $22,000 not very long ago. It was probably the fact that you could buy a very decent Fiesta over here (and you could have bought a low-end Fusion over there). This was nearly fourteen grand. For a tiny "Chrysler".

Half brilliance, half hopelessness, about five grand too expensive, and now only available in Italy.

Half marks it is, then.