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Retro drive: Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.

Retro drive: Lotus Carlton
With a genuine modern classic aura around it, our man fulfils a 25-year-long ambition to drive the iconic Lotus Carlton.

 



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| Retro Drive | Luton, England | Lotus Carlton |

Overall rating: 5 5 5 5 5

This is Vauxhall's moment of rebellion, the car that shocked the establishment in 1989, the legendary Lotus Carlton, capable of 176mph and transporting a family of five around. The best news is that time has not dulled its enormous appeal.

Key Facts

Model tested: 1993 Lotus Carlton No.820
Pricing: in excess of 30,000 for a clean, low-mileage example
Engine: 3.6-litre twin-turbocharged six-cylinder petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual with limited-slip differential
Body style: four-door saloon
Rivals: Bentley Turbo R, BMW M5 (E34), W124 Mercedes-Benz 500E
Top speed: 176mph
0-62mph: 5.4 seconds
Power: 382hp at 5,200rpm
Torque: 568Nm at 4,200rpm

In the Metal: 4 4 4 4 4

While admitting that you lust after a Vauxhall Carlton might earn you some unwanted epithets, there's method to my madness. This year is the 25th anniversary of the big, bruising Brit, the special Lotus Carlton, shown as it was at Geneva in 1989. And as I was a young, impressionable lad back then, this car - and, by extension, the whole furore kicked up by the emergence of a 176mph Vauxhall - instantly earned this be-winged beauty near deity status in my eyes. A quarter of a century on, that admiration has only grown, not diminished. So given a chance to drive one, for the first time, I practically gibbered with insanity when handed the key.

Let's do this the traditional review way and stick the boot into the Carlton for starters. They say time makes a fool of us all, that you should never pre-judge a car before driving it and that meeting your heroes can only end in tears. With all that in mind, and approaching the Carlton in almost reverential supplication, with a strict road tester's hat on it is fair to say there's quite a lot wrong with the old warrior.

Just before I begin the character assassination, however, I must say the looks are superb, in that sort of 1990s 'we don't give a damn' way of steroidal bodywork. Say what you like about the quality of the wheelarch extensions and the yawning panel gaps, but to this observer the muscularity of the Lotus Carlton has only improved with the passing of years. In its splendid Imperial Green war paint and on the (by modern standards) small 17-inch alloys, it is properly drool-inducing.

Then you open the driver's door, whereupon you are greeted by an interior that looks like it was 'designed' by someone with no eyes. Almost all old cars have crap cabins, but even by that conciliatory yardstick the Carlton's is pretty uninspiring. Ruched leather and great big comfy chairs are hardly befitting of a motor capable of stuffing it to its contemporary BMW M5, while the buttons are all massive rectangles and the steering wheel is shockingly plain. The two things that mark it out as something a bit special are its 180mph speedo and the Lotus Carlton badge on the bottom of the wheel. And all this 'disappointment' before we even come to firing it up...

Driving it: 5 5 5 5 5

Another '90s characteristic of this car is the bloody stupid key-fob immobiliser. To be fair to Vauxhall, this was probably foisted on it by an insurance company, but for me - and unlike the Carlton's pumped-up body styling - it can go back to the '90s and rot there.
So what else is wrong? Well, the pedals are offset so far to the right that they're nearly out of the car. The gear lever must traverse entire counties when moving from first through the ratios to sixth. The big, Lotus-fettled straight-six engine is muted. The suspension is very soft, allowing for a lot of lateral and horizontal body movement, while the steering is terribly light and lacking the feel I expected. And the clutch pedal! Good Lord! 'Heavy' doesn't even begin to cover the resistance it puts up when you try and push it to the bulkhead; and the biting point is somewhere in the vicinity of the steering column.
And yet we've given the Carlton five stars for driving - why? Because none of the above matters. The dated interior, the smooth ride, the fact your left thigh is crying out for mercy in atypical modern traffic flow; it all goes out the window once you've had five minutes with the Lotus Carlton. The fact of the matter is you cannot review the Carlton as if it were modern, but even if you did, it would still be up there with the very best.
The fact it can easily and very quickly pull 80mph in second gear is an indication of its muscularity. There's a bit of turbo lag but the throttle response is sharp, and because it is a large capacity unit it still has off-boost urgency. But turbos spooled up, it's phenomenal. It'll make most modern performance cars look daft, but in 1990 this thing must have been terrifying. It also sounds good, the 3.6 singing a gravelly tune once the revs rise. And the pliancy in its suspension does not mean it cannot grip. Rather, it clearly telegraphs its limits to you, allowing you to press all 1,690kg of it on no matter what the road surface. It never becomes ragged, it never feels like it is about to give up on you - it just grips and grips and grips some more, and when it can't any more, the back slides in a progressive manner. You just can't help but fall in love with it. It is absolutely sensational.

What you get for your Money: 4 4 4 4 4

This is a slice of motoring exotica that will only be truly jaw-dropping to those in the know. That the Vauxhall-Lotus tie-up used such a humdrum car as a Carlton as its basis only adds to the mystique. The uninformed will dismiss it as a pimped-up saloon. The informed will whimper in quiet longing. Either reaction suits me fine. And this is an appreciating classic. Only a few years ago, sub-20k would have got you a good one. At the time of writing, there are two on Auto Trader - one for 30,000, one for 50,000. Says it all, really.

Worth Noting

There's just one Vauxhall badge on the entire car, and it's on the bonnet. At the back, on the wheel centres and inside, the only badging you'll see is for Lotus, further enhancing the Carlton's aura.

Summary

A far more noted reviewer than I only recently called the Lotus Carlton 'magical'. And there's no better word for it than that. Drive it back to back with, say, a current Audi S6 and the German would walk all over it. But there isn't a shadow of a doubt that the pilot of the Lotus Carlton would be the happier person - and, on an autobahn, without that pesky 155mph gentleman's limited, the Carlton would strike back against moderns possessing almost double its output. It caused an outcry in 1990, has morphed into a genuine collectable in the intervening years and remains one of the most enchanting vehicles I've driven. I'd pick it over any of its peers; I'd pick it over pretty much any super saloon ever built. A fabulous machine in every respect.


Matt Robinson - 23 May 2014









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1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.



1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 

1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Image by Vauxhall.
 






 

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