What is it? It's Lancia's new Thema - or the next generation of the Chrysler 300C if you're a UK customer.
Developed at a cost of over £600m, and in a relatively short 18 months, the new saloon is designed to 'offer Audi A8 space at an A6 price,' according to Chrysler.
The car will launch in the UK with two 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engines, producing 188bhp and 236bhp (we've driven the latter in a Lancia-badged car). They'll be mated to a five-speed automatic transmission to start with, but an eight-speed auto is likely to become available before the end of 2012.
Claimed fuel economy for both engine specs is the same, at 39mpg combined, and their CO2 outputs are 185g/km on 18-inch wheels and 191g/km on 20s.
British buyers won't be offered the V6 petrol sold by Lancia. Nor will they get the option of an estate variant; Chrysler has decided that since the US market has gone off 'stationwagons' of late, it's not worth developing one for Europe alone.
What's it like to drive? Pretty decent, actually. We tried the more powerful of the diesels, which is likely to cost around £2k more per trim level than the more lowly unit. The motor pulled strongly from low revs, producing a smooth growl and calming down at motorway speeds. Cruising refinement is a strong point, with only a little wind noise around the wing mirrors.
The steering is meatily weighted and precise, and while it could be more communicative, it doesn't feel noticeably worse than much of the class norm these days.
The ride quality is, for the most part, pretty accomplished. Our test car was on 20-inch wheels - 18-inchers are likely to be the standard offering - but it was more than up to coping with substantial potholes and speed bumps (at least as good, in fact, than a BMW 5 Series that's not equipped with the frustratingly optional Variable Damper Control).
The Lancia can be caught out by more finely disturbed surfaces, though. Hit a piece of eroded asphalt and you'll soon detect a patter coming through to the cabin - and given the general state of Britain's roads, that could be more of an issue.
The weakest link is the five-speed automatic gearbox; it's fine if you're intent on making only relaxed progress, but ask it to get a move on and it soon becomes flummoxed, with clumsy kick-downs. This transmission feels like it's been left behind slightly by the rest of the package, and the eight-speeder is likely to make a world of difference.
What's it like inside? The Thema's cabin is almost big enough to deliver on its promise of A8 space; even with two six-footers up front, rear passengers of a similar height won't feel short-changed on legroom, although they may need to modify their posture a little to be comfortable on headroom. Lancia has chosen new materials and metal-finish flourishes for the interior, and they do a reasonable job of brightening up the cabin.
A smattering of soft-touch fabrics and double-stitched leather in the right places give a premium feel, and the equipment list doesn't want for toys, with everything from electrically adjustable pedals to a pair of cup-holders, each of which can cool or heat independently of the other.
The fascia is dominated by an 8.4-inch touch-screen, from which you operate everything from the sat-nav and audio systems to the heated seats and climate control. It's comprehensive, although the graphics look a little low-rent and the map is a bit slow to update.
The boot capacity is 462 litres, a relatively modest figure for a car of this size and nearly 70 litres off that of an Audi A6. Unlike that car and several other rivals, the Thema can't expand its capacity by folding down the rear seats, either.
Should I buy one? Chrysler has yet to confirm final pricing on the 300C, but past experience would suggest that it will be aggressive. Should that prove the case, then the car deserves to find buyers; it's a far-from-unappealing package, with a roomy, well-equipped cabin and decent cruising refinement.
We'd like to see a more efficient option for fleet buyers, such as a four-cylinder diesel variant - but with a suitable price tag and, crucially, the eight-speed transmission, even the 3.0-litre diesel could yet merit an extra star.
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What Car? Says
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