After 24-years, does the car that was once crowded the world's fastest saloon still have what it takes to ruffle feathers?
What do we have here?
At the Geneva Motor show in March 1989, Vauxhall announced it would build the world’s fastest super-saloon, capable of exceeding 170mph.
Quite a statement from a firm that was better known for building affordable and practical cars including the Nova, Astra and Cavalier.
A partnership was formed with British sports car company Lotus which had recently been acquired by General Motors, Vauxhall’s parent company. At the time Lotus produced the Elan roadster, Excel coupe and the fourth-generation Esprit. GM went on to sell Lotus in 1993.
Vauxhall chose its European car of the year winner, the four-door Carlton executive saloon to be transformed into a super-saloon. In 1990 the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton (or Opel Lotus Omega for our continental brothers) was born and started a two-year production run.
The plan to build 1,100 Lotus Carltons fell 150 short as the yuppie boom gave way to the recession of the early 1990s. However, of those 950 made, 440 found a home in the UK.
At new it cost £48,000 which in today’s money is somewhere between £98,000-108,000 which is more than super-saloons like the Audi RS6 (£79,505 albeit an Estate) and BMW M5 (£73,985) but remember this was just a humdrum Vauxhall, right?
Not quite. Lotus wasn’t about to put its name to a saloon car that was merely run of the mill. The Norfolk firm took Vauxhall’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder and enlarged it to 3.6-litres, and then added twin-turbochargers.
It was enough to develop 377bhp and 419lb ft of torque meaning the former middle-management mover would now explode off the line to hit 60mph in 5.4 seconds. Keep accelerating to 100mph and slam on the brakes and the Lotus Carlton would do 0-100-0mph in less than 17 seconds.
With torque peaking at 3,800rpm and power at 5,800rpm, the Lotus had sheds loads of mid-range grunt, meaning in its day it was capable of seeing off a Ferrari 348 and Porsche 911 Carrera.
Vauxhall raided General Motors gene pool and fitted a six-speed manual gearbox from the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 and a limited-slip differential from the Holden Commodore.
Lotus nabbed the self-levelling suspension from the Carlton’s big brother, the Senator, and fettled with the multilink rear suspension for better high-speed stability and improved handling.
The Senator also provided the Carlton with its Servotronic power steering for a lighter feel when parking and better feedback when on the move.
On the outside, the Carlton gained a beefy bodykit, deeper side skirts, enlarged wheel arches, a large rear spoiler and bonnet vents. Lotus badges were fitted to the doors and the boot lid just in case you’d missed the warning signs.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels were fitted with fatter versions at the back and using the same tyre compound as fitted to a Lotus Esprit Turbo (front - 235/45 ZR17, rear - 265/40ZR17).
The car then got 12.9/12.5in (328 mm) brake discs with four-piston AP callipers at the front and 11.8 in (300 mm) discs with two-piston callipers at the rear, giving it enough stopping power to get from 60 to stationary in half the distance of an average family car of the time.
It came in one external paint colour, one that looks black in almost every situation unless you see it in direct sunlight where you can pick out the subtlety of the Imperial Green finish.
Handcrafted Connolly leather trimmed the seats while Lotus badges adorned the door sills, steering wheel and a special badge by the glove box to record the production number of that particular car.
We’re testing car number 820 which dates back to 1992 and has covered less than 32,000 miles by December 2016.
How does it drive?
There’s some showing of age when you get to the Carlton. Forget about keyless entry, it doesn’t even have remote locking. Slot the key into the door lock and turn to hear the central locking release. Climb in and turn the ignition on, at which point you’ll have to deactivate the immobiliser before the engine comes to life with a satisfying roar.
Our journey started off with a trip down the M1 motorway and round the M25 from the Lotus Carlton’s home at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre in Luton, to home in Surrey.
Settle at motorway speeds and you quickly forget that this car is 24 years' old. It’s comfortable and quiet as you cruise with the flow of traffic. Thanks to its large windows, visibility is excellent for changing lanes.
There’s little need to change gear as there’s plenty of accessible torque at low revs, coping admirably with ebbing and flowing traffic.
By the time we turn off the M25 and onto the twisty country lanes of rural Surrey, the Lotus has lulled us into believing it’s a comfortable, refined and mundane mile muncher.
This illusion is shattered moments later as we finally get the car into second and third gears and engage its fat accelerator pedal. Whoa, it’s a wolf dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood.
Hear the turbos whoosh and feel the backend go light as it starts to wag, like an overly excited puppy.
Off the line, the Carlton doesn’t feel all that rapid. Quick yes, fast indeed but not scary, not unwieldy. However, with all that torque and power peaking at 3800rpm and 5800rpm, respectively, the harder you push on the quicker it becomes. It feels like it accelerates exponentially until hitting its 6,500rpm power ceiling.
Impressively, first gear will get you from start-up to 40mph before second takes you past motorway speed limits. In third and fourth, you dispatch slower cars quicker than this wolf can threaten to blow your house down, and for all you know, your backwash just levelled a village.
Yet, decide to relax and chug along, the revs will drop to around 1,500rpm where it becomes quiet and everything becomes mundane once again.
From the outside, there’s a wonderful deep baritone emitted in advance of the Carlton’s arrival, yet inside you get a whine and hum from those turbos. There is, however, a background exhaust boom that comes through when on the motorway.
The Carlton is let down by its gearbox and clutch combo. Vauxhall’s dedicated Heritage mechanics have worked to improve them, however, they still blight the car’s drivability. The gearbox is clunky, has a long throw and there’s a very noticeable transmission shunt most of the time. The clutch is heavy and can become tiresome in slow moving traffic. It’s a small price to pay, though.
Despite that cosseting ride, the Lotus Carlton is engaging to drive along twisty b-roads. It stays flat and true through a series of challenging bends and there’s plenty of front end grip. It turns in keenly once you get through an initial numbness in the steering, at which point it becomes accurate, feels well-weighted and consistent, if lacking in feedback.
Where grip is at a premium is in mildly moist conditions. Those fat rear tyres really struggle to contain the power the engine boots out, with the backend becoming twitchy and wheels spinning up, even in third gear. You’ll be tiptoeing along anything other than bone-dry lanes.
Refinement is good thanks to the low engine revs at cruising speed while wind noise isn’t too invasive on the motorway. Other than the exhaust roar, there is a rattling of low-level metals over firmer bumps.
What's it like inside?
While the driving dynamics, ride quality and ballistic performance defy the Carlton’s increasing years, the dashboard can do little to hide its car’s age. Much of the switchgear is made up of large plastic rocker switches while the ventilation controls get sliders. It all functions well and is easy to use, though.
The sports seats retain a design that’s not out of place against modern sports cars with leg and backrest bolsters providing excellent support. They are also comfortable. The seat height is controlled by a telescopic pump with a rotary dial adjusting the backrest.
The Lotus emblazoned steering wheel only adjusts for tilt and not reach, meaning in conjunction with the heavy and long clutch, you end up sitting too near to the wheel unless you have the body shape of Gru from Despicable Me.
It feels well finished though with leather seats and suede door linings. It even has heated front seats and wood veneer inserts. Its simplicity is amazing and refreshing. There’s no sat-nav, colour touchscreen or Bluetooth while the analogue clock can be adjusted manually (and quickly). The stereo is the original Grundig cassette player with CD multichanger in the boot. And it all works.
The centrally located electric window controls are angled down and away from you and appear to be upside down, while the doors don’t automatically lock when you pull away, which in such a high-profile car, is a little disconcerting.
There’s plenty of head room and the interior feels spacious. Storage is decent with door bins, a central storage box under the armrest and a mobile phone tray ahead of the gear lever, or coin tray as it would have been designed for.
It’s roomy in the back too with excellent leg and knee room, although head room is ok. Luckily there’s only seating for two as the transmission tunnel is rather large.
The boot is simply humungous. There’s no fancy underfloor storage, no side compartments, or bags hooks, just a large flat area to transport your stuff.
Driving the classic Vauxhall Lotus Carlton is like taking Helen Mirren on a date. You’ve lusted after her for years, dreaming of this moment. She continues to turn heads and can still give her modern impersonators a run for their money.
But once on the date, you realise more than ever before that she’s a national treasure. Suddenly you’ll want to look after her, take care of her, rather than giving her the ride of her, and your, life that you always planned.
The Lotus Carlton simply doesn’t let you down, performing at levels well beyond its years. Even by today’s standards, it’s explosively quick, handles well, yet is comfortable, refined and is a great long distance companion.
Surely the time has come for these two British greats to get together once again for another modern-day classic?