An Italian icon is back on the road. Sean O'Grady takes a trip down memory lane in the Lancia Thesis

Given the fact that Lancia pulled out of the British market about 15 years ago, the brand still commands a surprising amount of recognition.

When I smugly told friends and colleagues that my current transport was a Lancia I expected some furrowed brows and puzzled faces. I had thought that the name was as romantic, but nonetheless moribund as, say, Lea Francis or Isotta Fraschini or Facel Vega. But no, people knew it was a posh Italian car, so the Lancia legend appears to have survived its disappearance from the British market.

Even the rust scandal that pretty much destroyed Lancia's reputation in the 1970s, and eventually ended sales of the cars in the 1980s, seems to have been forgotten. Tales of engines falling out of Lancia Betas and the marketing coup that was the naming of the Lancia Dedra are but history.

Our memories of Lancia, such as they are, are rosy, gorgeous old Fulvia sports cars, with rally winning Integrales gilding the brand. Good news, that, for a small outfit called ECU Automotive, which is based in Slough.

You see, although official imports of Lancias ended a long time ago, the cars are still being made in Italy and sold across many markets in Continental Europe and ECU has been quietly bringing a handful of these Italian beauties into this country. All are fully road legal and retail at rather competitive prices, although, for the moment anyway, they come with left-hand drive only.

The UK customer base has a large contingent of Lancia nuts, naturally, but ECU has attracted a few more customers of obviously impeccable taste.

This new generation of Lancia drivers are very lucky people. On the basis of an all-too short time with a Lancia Thesis fitted with a 3-litre V6 petrol engine, let me explain why.

The first thing to understand about any Lancia - and the range goes from the supermini Ypsillon to the Phedra people carrier - is that behind those strange names and elegant looks, every one of them is a product of Gruppo Fiat. That means that most of the mechanical bits are the same as those found in the equivalent Fiat and Alfa Romeo models.

In some cases the Lancia versions are really just Fiats with a different front end and better interiors, more or less "badge engineered", in other words. Some Lancias, however, have been endowed with their own distinctive shapes, and there is no shape finer than the Thesis luxury saloon.

The Thesis looks like nothing else on the road. It is not classically beautiful, it should be admitted, but it is handsome.

From the front it looks sleek and imposing, without being aggressive. The traditional shield-shaped grille has been married to modern lines every bit as successfully as Mercedes and BMW have managed to adapt and preserve their famous design trademarks.

That said, the Thesis has unmistakably retro lines, recalling classic Lancia saloons of the 1930s and 1950s, with vestigial wings and crease lines in the metal work, extending through the front headlamps for example. That was the sort of thing the more adventurous coachbuilders tried to do half a century ago, but has been little seen since, and it gives the Lancia a unique look.

Even in its home territory of the smarter quarters of Milan, there is no mistaking a Thesis among a crowd - over here it is a guaranteed head-turner.

Even if passers by and other road users miss its front end, the rear banana-shaped indicators should make them gawp. They are slender and aligned vertically and discreetly into the edges of the rear wings, an unusual touch nowadays.

Indeed, the whole Thesis is a bit like a scaled down Maserati Quattroporte saloon. In all events its a very well proportioned car, really just right.

Nor does the interior let it down. Next to the latest generation Range Rover, it is the coolest place to sit on the road. It is not as fussy or old fashioned as a Rover or Jaguar, say, and nor is it as bleak and cheerless as an Audi or a BMW or as self-consciously functional as a Saab or Volvo. And it doesn't feature a riot of plastic-looking timber, as you find in too many Mercedes-Benz saloons.

The strip of unvarnished cherry wood that garnishes the gently sweeping fascia and the gearstick lift the cabin, while the quality of materials and fit and finish inside match its German rivals. The dials glow grey, if that's not too much of an oxymoron, and the controls have a pleasant tactile feel. The hazard warning button looks like it was borrowed form an old Fiat Uno, but that's the only bum note.

Lancia hasn't bothered with the sort of centralised control button plus screen that BMW and Audi go for these days, and that is no bad thing. This Lancia is easier to drive than most of its peer group simply because it doesn't try to be too clever.

One thing you should also know about Lancias is that, whatever their heritage, they are built for comfort. The sporting end of the Fiat stable is taken care of by Alfa Romeo.

Thus you will find the Thesis a softly compliant companion that deals well with road imperfections, but one which bounces so much over speed humps that you must be careful not to graze the front spoiler. If you insist on going round corners quickly, you should be prepared for a bit of a wallow. There is no shortage of power and acceleration when you push the accelerator down and the turbo kicks in, but the Thesis is designed to be driven sedately.

If you want a harder, sportier edge, try a BMW, an MG ZT, or indeed, an Alfa. If you want to be very different, you must join the Lancisti.

Lancia Thesis; from £25,000 via ECU Automotive (01753 607540);;

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