Chrysler Ypsilon - Wheels Etc

A stealth return to the UK for one of Italy's car greats

These days, the motor industry produces few thoroughbreds. Everyone is used to the idea that a Skoda Octavia is similar to a Golf and that both have a lot in common with an Audi A3. In fact, it's not uncommon for exactly the same model to be offered by several manufacturers under different badges.

Every now and then, though, a car comes along that tests the limits of the cross-breeding approach. The Chrysler Ypsilon super-mini is such a car. It's really a rebadged Lancia Ypsilon and therefore represents a return by stealth to the UK market for one of Italy's most famous car-makers after a gap of 18 years.

In terms of their histories, Lancia and Chrysler couldn't be more different. Lancia is famous for sporty numbers such as the beautiful 1965 Fulvia coupé and the Delta Integrale, while Chrysler is one of the US "Big Three". In its heyday, it churned out chrome-encrusted, thirsty V8s designed to cruise the interstates on cheap fuel.

The Chrysler Ypsilon is a car born of necessity. Chrysler, rescued by Lancia's parent, Fiat, in 2008, didn't have any decent small cars of its own – rebadging Lancia's Ypsilon and its Focus-sized sister, the Delta, at least gives product-starved UK Chrysler dealers something new to sell.

And the post-1980 Lancia and Chrysler aren't as dissimilar as you might think. Thirty years ago, Chrysler drastically downsized its big-selling models and switched them to a Euro-style front-wheel-drive platform. It then pioneered the people-carrier, the category in which US and European designs are most alike. Lancia, meanwhile, had to tone down the sporty side of its character in order to avoid overlapping with Alfa Romeo, which had joined it in the Fiat fold.

So what of the Ypsilon itself? Well, it's built at the same Polish factory as the Fiat 500 and the Ford Ka, which is a good start. It also gets a few inches of stretch in the wheelbase, which, combined with a tall, upright five-door body, means the Ypsilon is pretty roomy for its size, though it doesn't look as nice as the 500. The nose, incidentally, bears a certain resemblance to that of the Chrysler PT Cruiser – not necessarily the Chrysler "look" I would choose to copy, given a free hand.

One feature of our test car that certainly wasn't very Chrysler was its Fiat TwinAir engine. The TwinAir is a great piece of machinery – lively, characterful and, if driven gently, economical, though its slightly buzzy nature probably suits the Fiat 500 better than the posher, more subdued Ypsilon. Other engines are drawn from the Fiat range too. Inside, the Ypsilon also shows its Italian side. Stylish, tasteful trim is lifted with unusual features such as a centrally mounted instrument pack – which if nothing else must make the right-hand-drive conversion easier.

Chrysler has set fairly modest sales targets for the Ypsilon. It's likeable, and broadly competitive, so I don't think it will have too much difficulty carving out a small niche for itself. But I still dream that Lancia will one day be properly reborn and repeat its past glories.

The competition

The super-mini market is very crowded but one interesting comparison is with the MiTo, from Lancia's in-house Fiat group rival, Alfa Romeo.

Chrysler Ypsilon

Price: From £10,695 (£13,195 0.9 TwinAir SE as tested)

Engine capacity: 0.9 litres (85bhp)

Top speed (mph): 109

0-62mph (seconds): 11.5

Fuel economy (mpg): 67.3