Autocar 20,000 mile test

This report was taken from the Autocar on 21st April 1993

Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

Acquired/mileage 16 March 1992/25 miles
Colour Imperial Green Metallic
Options None
Servicing costs £1019
Repair costs None


First class; no breakdowns or threats of same. Spares prices low for Carlton bits, Lotus parts exorbitant.
Dealer service Lotus Carlton specialists efficient, labour rates and routine service costs well below Porsche and Ferrari league
Economy 19-22mpg day-to-day use
Fun factor Top of the supercar league for performance, chassis and brakes
Practicality The key to this cars appeal for many.Only four-door on the planet with this kind of performance
Verdict Unique car and surprising value, especially second-hand. Make sure you can insure it, though, and don't let it get stolen!

Dream all you want about Porsches and Ferraris, but the conclusion you'll always reach about their day-to-day practicality is that they don't have much. Ten second 0-100mph potential is very seductive, but more times than you'll ever use that you'll be wishing your exotic car had more headroom, ground clearance, boot space or room for a couple of kids in the back. These are the harsh truths that produced the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton: it can sprint to the ton in 11.1secs, but it can provide the practical stuff, too.

Launched late in 1990, it has proved to be no less than the most spectacularly quick performance saloon ever built for production. Consider this from Britain's first-ever full test of the car: "The miracle is that it possesses a chassis that tames the fury so effectively that you don't need to be Ayrton Senna to drive it well. This is the only car we've ever recorded a 140-160mph time for, yet such is its overtaking ability and braking power that it's incredibly safe." Two and a half years have passed, but not even BMW's revitalised M5, now with 340bhp, can challenge the Lotus Carlton's absolute supremacy.

Trouble is, when you set out to pay real money for the world's fastest saloon - as we have done for the past 12 months and 20,000 miles - you soon discover that this plan raises its share of tough questions, even if you're on record as loving it, as we are. Here's a selection: should I really be hazarding £40,000 on a hot saloon, however good, when it looks so obviously similar to the £15,000 version? Can any Vauxhall, however good, honestly justify a list price of £40,000? Is it possible for anyone, even Lotus, to modify an ordinary car enough to give it a true supercar character? And even if it is, will the damned thing hang together?

These are questions that were evidently occurring to other Carlton owners as well as us. Although the talk at launch was of a batch so small that some buyers were bound to disappointment, this car appeared just as the yuppie boom was getting into serious decline. We soon discovered that the £45,000 car could be bought for less than £40,000. That seemed a lot more palatable when you considered that Vauxhall's own full-house Carlton, the 3000 GSi, cost more than £26,000 at the time.

Suddenly, the Lotus Carlton's credentials really looked attractive: a 377bhp twin-turbo engine, 419lbft of torque, 176mph top speed, six-speed gearbox, huge 17ins wheels and tyres, superbly developed brakes and suspension, leather and air conditioning - all wrapped up in a shell which, body kit or not, managed to look both brutish and restrained. Given that our road tester's view of the car in November 1990 was virtually all enthusiasm. ("This really is the iron fist in the velvet glove, a car capable of simply staggering ground shrinking feats"), we wrote out the cheque and took delivery, odometer showing only delivery miles, in March last year.

Running in a car like this could hardly be easier. Holding back from the red line is no hardship in a car whose top gearing is 44mph per 1000rpm and which does nearly 30mph per 1000rpm in fifth. Lugging the engine isn't a problem, either, when the torque spread is as vast as this. The engine - hand built at Lotus;s Hethel headquarters - never felt 'tight' in the accepted sense, but on the first shakedown run down to the bottom of Cornwall we kept it below 3000rpm and avoided using sixth. It wasn't a tough task: even with those penalties in force the top speed is still 90mph plus.

After the first service at 1200 miles (it cost a reasonable £136.54 at Monorep in Southall, Middlesex which is an official Lotus Carlton dealer) we started to use 4500rpm, building up gradually to the official red line of 6500rpm by about 4000 miles. Those of us at Autocar & Motor who had not driven a Lotus Carlton in anger before were expecting the car to be the embodiment of a hairy beast, all thundering engine and rigid, rumbling suspension. The reality was different.

The car was much quieter than expected, and the suspension was compliant despite the huge tyres and the absence of body roll in hard corners. It refused to overheat in traffic, and the clutch was no heavier than that of a Porsche 911. And it surprised us with its feeling of quality and solidity.

Other testers remarked on the ease with which the car could be driven: the steering, clutch, gearshift and brakes were all firm and precise to use, demanding deliberate but not excessively heavy use. The whole thing felt like a typical Lotus with its carefully balanced control efforts and an overriding precision and stability.

Spectacular power we expected. We'd seen all the performance figures. Any car with 3.6 litres, two turbos, charge cooling, 377bhp and 419lbft of torque - which can support a sixth gear that only comes into its own beyond 100mph - is bound to peel your eyelids back at full noise, even when it weighs 1655kg (3645lb) at the kerb.

But the sheer, outrageous excellence of the brakes was the biggest shock. Even land speed record holder Richard Noble, who drove the car for our original top speed runs in November 1990, reckoned they were the most memorable part of the car. Thirteen-inch ventilated AP racing discs at the front, supported by 11.8ins units at the rear, proved that they could pull the car up fade free in repeated stops from 160mph. They were simply the best brakes we'd ever tried on a road car. In town they worked with sensitivity and docility. So easily did they cope with day-to-day road use that by the time the car left us, just short of 20,000 miles, we still hadn't used up the original set of brake pads.

Not that our Carlton was always a paragon of docility. In the wet, we soon found that it could bite. The combination of huge rear tyres, rear drive and mighty turbo boost which started at 2500rpm was enough to cause the rear end to step out on any slippery corner taken without care. In the wet the choice was stark; leave the Carlton at home or tiptoe everywhere.

A trip across Salisbury Plain one freezing morning emphasised the cars limitations in low-grip conditions: Volvo estates were seeking a way past as the driver gingerly braked early for every corner and turned in on feather light throttle openings. If only all that power could have been harnessed to all four wheels....

In the dry, the grip of the Goodyear Eagles was awesome. We presumed, whenever we drove the Lotus Carlton, that the rear end could eventually be broken away with power in medium speed corners, but none of us ever managed it. We did discover, after we damaged one, that the fitted cost of a new 265/40 ZR17 rear tyre was just over £190 from our favourite local discounter. The fronts - 235/45 ZR17s - might have been a bit cheaper.

It became clear that a decent chat with the bank manager would be necessary when a new set of tyres loomed on the horizon. On the other hand, the rear boots on our car were still legal when it left us at nearly 20,000 miles, and the fronts were no more than two thirds worn.

Our year with the Lotus Carlton might have been cheap. It certainly looked as if it would be from the routine servicing point of view. At Monorep we paid only the previously mentioned £136.54 for the first service, plus £115.02 for a regular oil service at 9000 miles. When it left us, the cars first major one was due. That would probably have set us back another £220 to £250. Chuck in the tyre cost and you have an exceptionally cheap year in a car that can beat a Ferrari 512TR against the clock.

But our year with the Lotus Carlton turned out to be expensive. To calculate the joyrider appeal of the big beast, take that of a Sierra Cosworth and square it. A team of inner London idiots couldn't resist the challenge and managed to make off with the car at the third attempt.

The police were alerted and found the car within an hour - complete with a full tank of the super unleaded that a Lotus Carlton demands. Damage was confined to the steering column and driver's door but still amounted to £2300. We had to stump up a large excess, as is the way with insurance with cars like this. The cost of  the door skin on a cooking Vauxhall Carlton (£75) contrasted sharply with that of various special Lotus Carlton parts such as the gear lever boot (£156) and the armrest lid (£173).

Our Carlton departed to a new owner recently at a price of £25,520. We think he bought a bargain. But we did okay, too. You see early K-plates cars in the classifieds at about £30,000 nowadays, and it's clear that in times like these cars in the Lotus Carlton mould are struggling to find buyers. It's the climate that is to blame rather than the car.

Our lasting memory of the car, inevitably, is the way it effortlessly gathered in the road. Imagine that you are drifting along at 3000rpm in third gear on a straight piece of track. If you floored the throttle now, gripped the wheel, held it straight, and kept your head erect against the strong rearward force, you'd be doing 100mph now. That's memorable.


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