Lancia will almost certainly return to Britain by 2009 when the new Delta will be available in right-hand drive.

"The plan is not signed off yet, but Delta is being engineered for right-hand drive and it would be the perfect car to relaunch the brand," said Steve Norman, worldwide marketing director for Fiat Auto.

"You have to ask yourself how many Italian car-loving buyers are out there, but at the same time we think people could be getting fed-up with the choice of brands currently available to them," he said.

Lancia, which pulled out of the UK in 1994, but remains on sale in left-hand drive markets, has history and authenticity in its favour, he said. Lancias will probably be sold through the Alfa Romeo dealer network, said Norman.

The new Delta, developed from the Fiat Bravo platform, will make its debut in the second half of 2008. By then Fiat will have launched its new 500, due here early in 2008.

This will be followed by a B-segment competitor in early 2009 - "think Mazda 2 if you want a clue" said Norman - and a C-segment crossover which "will out-Qashqai the Nissan Qashqai."

By then, he said, the renewal of the whole product cycle which started with Panda in 2003 - it was European Car of the Year in 2004 - will have been completed and the cycle will start again in 2010 with a redesigned Panda.