MOTORING / The Lancia brothers: a double act: John Fordham compares the deadpan Dedra with its slicker sibling, the Integrale

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MOTOR enthusiasts spit few epithets with more spleen, or through more tightly gritted teeth, than 'badge engineering'. It stands for everything bogus and cheapskate that the corporate world has palmed off on genuine car lovers - those nostalgic for the days when prototypes of Arkwright Tornados and Hornet Invincibles were built out of old bathtubs and bedsteads by candlelight in a chicken coop.

In the minds of many, some of the badge engineering stigma sticks to Lancia. The current Dedra Turbo is really no more than a louche, Armani-suited Fiat Tipo. And isn't building a Lancia rather than a Fiat or an Alfa Romeo just a matter of throwing the parts in the air and seeing which order they land in?

I decided to check out my theory by trying both the Dedra and the unpromisingly boxy but nevertheless wild, hairpin-hugging rally champion, the Integrale. The Dedra is a respectable bread-and-butter job - the member of the Lancia family who went into accountancy or law while young Integrale went into tightrope-walking. It has a fine engine, but its chassis is ordinary and the steering stodgy. While you feel the benefit of this vigorous 2-litre turbo going past an articulated truck on a hill, the pleasure fades a good deal on a winding rural road - and those are precisely the conditions where the Integrale bursts into life.

But from the angle of safety rather than muscle-flexing, there's no doubt that the Dedra's power reserve in the middle of the rev band is very impressive, giving it responses close to those of a Sierra Cosworth. It takes less than four seconds to hustle from 30-70mph if you drop a gear ratio or two, and the smooth, fluent power unit easily compares with those of similarly-priced rivals like the BMW 320i.

The gearshift is crisp, and Lancia has provided a clever front-drive refinement - a system smart enough to direct the bulk of the engine's torque to the front wheel with the most grip. The problem with so many high- spec, front-drive turbos is that they can unglue their wheels from the road if the driver over- applies the throttle; the Dedra's sophisticated system helps overcome this tendency.

But chassis performance isn't quite up to these standards. There's some body roll, the ride is hardly in the upmarket sports saloon class and the brakes are good but soft. This, together with accommodation that isn't over- comfortable for four adults, blunts the car's appeal. In the cabin, a boringly standard Fiat/Alfa layout has been embroidered with rosewood veneer, but it hardly looks at home - more as if the impact adhesive has barely dried. But the spec in general is good for a car costing pounds 18,033; the boot is a decent size for the class, and standard features include remote central locking, an electric sunroof, thermostatic heating, power steering and alloy wheels.

While the Dedra is a supreme sprinter without much character, the Integrale fire-breathes charisma and is the Fiat operation's most successful competition car. It looks utterly bizarre in its latest incarnation - as if somebody has knocked rear windows into a box-on-wheels plumber's van, stuck a few bulges, scoops, wheel arches and blisters on for good measure and painted it Monza Red. Moreover, if you want it, it's a left-hand drive or nothing.

But that's conclusively where the quirkiness ends. Lancia has broadened the wheel-track of the famous Integrale, to push its points of contact with the road even further out to the corners, and modified its suspension considerably. The engine is much the same as its devastating predecessors, a 16-valve turbo-charged 2-litre unit delivering 210 brake horsepower. Crafty tweaking of the microprocessors has almost eliminated turbo lag, the momentary hesitation that occurs on hard acceleration, though the Integrale does still muse a little before it takes off as if with after-burners.

Unlike a regular hot hatch, which has a sharp throttle response even from tickover speed, the Lancia Integrale practically goes to sleep if you don't keep the revs on fast boil. But keep twitching the drilled-metal throttle pedal at traffic lights, maintaining a breathless snarl from the engine, and the response will convince you the pundits are right when they say the Integrale is one of the quickest road cars in the world - at pounds 23,145, it's as brisk as supercar exotica costing 10 times the price.

It's a four-wheel-drive car, as the previous Integrale was, and its suspension is tougher than ever and keeps the car effortlessly level on the most taxing of bends. The price you pay is an unmistakeable 'enthusiast's' ride - in other words, it feels like travelling over a cobbled road on a skateboard. But responses to the bumps feel cushioned and controlled, and the reactions of the whole chassis suggest precision and forethought. The rear transmission helps it to keep its line under pressure, giving you growing confidence about its stability in extremes - not least in the wet.

Comparing the Dedra and the Integrale is unfair in a way, because the one is aimed at the mainstream, the other at the enthusiasts' market - and maybe that's why memories of the Dedra fade pretty fast while those of the Integrale are indelible. Everything about it is different: the sports-racer scoops and vents eccentrically glued to such a mundane box; the underwater chronograph-styling of the instruments (sensationally charismatic until you try to decipher what they're telling you).

Three supermarket bags almost filled up the boot, and rear passenger space is nothing to write home about. But nobody could spit 'badge engineering' at the Integrale. It's a fine, safe, imaginatively engineered and exciting car - a Lancia through and through.-