The Carpathians orogenic system, with its along-arc variations in topography developed in the aftermath of continental collision, is associated with unusual foredeep basins, large-scale strain and seismicity concentration and high-velocity mantle bodies. The East Carpathians continental collision was non-cylindrical, leading to large-scale variations in thrust nappe kinematics, orogenic uplift patterns and foredeep subsidence, controlled by the mechanics and geometry of the lower plate. Thermo-mechanical modelling demonstrates that in this low-rate convergence regime, the subducted lithosphere had enough time to interact with the mantle to advance towards a thermal resettlement. This is favored by the low degree of metamorphism, mechanical weakness of the lower plate and the lack of active surface processes at the contact with and in the upper plate. In contrast, low-buoyant, thick lower crust and active surface processes keep the continuity of the slab intact and promote the development of typical foredeep basins. The model explains in a self-consistent manner the unusual geometry of the Vrancea seismogenic slab in the bend zone of the Romanian Carpathians. The model is also consistent with the presence of two high-velocity bodies inferred from seismic tomography studies and explains the depth zonation of seismicity in the Vrancea area. Differences between the northern part of East Carpathians and the southeastern bend of the Carpathians arc are largely controlled by lateral variations in crustal structure, topography emplacement and surface processes along the arc. Mechanical heterogeneity of the Carpathians subduction leads to the development of two end member modes of collision, allowing a study of these states and their transition. Lithospheric configuration and tectonic topography appear to be prime factors controlling variations in slab behavior. In the SE Carpathians, at the terminal phase of continental convergence, slab delamination, roll-back and depocenter migration appear to play a more limited role at shallow and lithospheric levels. © 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.