Rain stopped play: Lotus Carlton vs the autobahn (CAR archive, January 1991)

Published: 29 November 2016

► Russell Bulgin attempts to max out a Lotus Carlton
► One autobahn, plenty of rain and a twin-turbo ’6
► ‘This car is ungodly fast and acceptably civilised’

Everybody's an expert when it comes to driving at 176mph on the road. Really. Zooming down the autobahn at 15,488 feet per minute is, you soon discover, just like voting Conservative. Nobody you know actually owns up to having done it, but, at the merest provocation, everyone’s got an opinion about the rights and wrongs of such behaviour. 

A Brazilian race driver (no, not him) suggested that attempting to max Boldcarlt on the public road was the nearest a member of the general public was going to get to sampling an Indycar accident. He figured that this shunt would run and run down the fast lane in a half-mile of twisted metal, conjuring a smokescreen of deep-fried Goodyear Eagles. You would have ample time, he suggested, to pull your feet back off the pedals and get into a nice, snuggly please-read-the-safety-card-in-front-of-you crouch before you came to a halt. 

A chum at a tyre company said that a blow-out was likely. Some dope might have French-kissed the kerb with Megacarlt a couple of weeks before. That’s what happens to low-pro tyres, apparently. Three weeks after a misjudged parking attempt outside Burger King buffs the maker’s name off the sidewall, that tiny stress-wart turns humungous at speed, there’s a bang offstage and you find yourself sitting in a soft brown cushion, perspiring gently, amid a rapidly disassembling Vauxhall. 

Even CAR’s photographer, bless him, said quietly that he would have no hesitation in announcing the precise moment he thought he was about to become an ex-snapper, and, if it's not too much trouble, he would appreciate loafer being applied to centre-pedal at precisely that moment, and no messing about. 

Me? I wanted to nudge a serious warp-factor simply to annoy all the awful wet liberals who have crawled out of the woodwork in lesser car magazines, those po-faced word-sharks who berate Vauxhall for producing a 176mph saloon car and then stand first in line for a road test where they will, natch, be taking performance figures.

But, then again, my first acquaintance with Bitchcarlt was on a November-slimy road and, within a half-mile of my house, it slipped in one of those omigawd tank-slappers where the lamp posts suddenly turn all Cinemascope and your pulse rate increases in a direct linear relationship with the turbo boost pressure. 

Nonetheless, if it is legal to drive at 176mph in Germany, nudging three miles a minute. I can be a bit stupid like that. I also have no intention of being air-freighted back to Britain in a Vauxhall-approved accessory body bag, either. 

And – just before we get into the white-knuckle narrative of this lust-for-glory mission – might I be allowed one further digression? Who the hell is going to buy this car? What kind of person spends £48,000 on a Wongacarlt which could go subsonic on the M4? What kind of person wants this car, the mere ownership of which is an admission that they think driving bloody quickly is more fun than sex? 

Gruntcarlt is aimed at the type of bloke who thought the original Ford Sierra RS Cosworth was a trifle understated and a teensy bit on the slow side. Your first glance captures all the codes: the thing is an exaggerated Batmobile of thick hips, heavy-lidded wings and gaping scoops. In autumn half-light, the colour slips from metallic British Racing Green to a cold, sombre black, upping its visual menace to levels which induce instant left-lane paranoia among other vehicles on the road. 

If Vauxhall’s sleek Calibra suggests that GM’s design boss Wayne Cherry spends his free time in quiet contemplation of the surface tension inherent through the solid-hewn contours of a Braun electric razor, then Thurstcarlt hints that Wayne and his guys also enjoy playing Motorhead albums very loud while leafing through photo-albums full of Stealth fighter pictures. 

This Warpcarlt is a fine long-distance cruiser. Belgium passes in a 100mph blur. This is a surprise. I anticipated that the Lotus would be very horrible indeed: loud, crude, unrefined and edgy. It isn’t. As soon as you plonk it into sixth gear, the revs tail off, the engine note fades as a faint bass drone and you’re cooking. There is no real sixth-gear acceleration, but I don’t care. I’ve long advocated very tall top gears simply as an autobahn-overdrive: this car hums at 2325rpm at the ton in top, returning 23mpg past Lille and Liege. 

And the interior is tasteful, too. Mock suede rivulets caress the doors, the seats are puchy-leather things which lack a little in the sacroiliac area but are otherwise fine, there’s a few slashings of wood about the place and the steering wheel is fat-rimmed and hide-bound. 

Drop to fifth and the Whooshcarlt just goes hard. You play a little in Belgium, and the result is always the same. Hammer of Gods acceleration in any gear. You think, initially, that there is absolutely no turbo-lag from two baby Garretts under the bonnet. There is – there has to be – but it is as good as imperceptible. 

My original hell’s-teeth-at-at home moment  was caused by belting the throttle in the wet, anticipating some lag, and then aiming to be at the exit of the corner as the power rushed in. What happened was I hit the throttle and then there was grunt. Big mid-turn grunt. And a big mid-turn panic. 

The brilliance of Whangcarlt is that the 24-valve 3.6-litre engine has been made strong beneath where the turbo-rush comes in, and the transition between off and on-boost is as good as seamless. The more miles you do, the more you appreciate this characteristic: you can feel lag, but it is, quite literally to be measured in microseconds. Zoomcarlt marks the turbocharged engine’s coming of age. 

So the engine delivers its 377bhp gracefully. The massive torque – 419lb ft at 4200rpm – means that the six-speed box can be shifted one-three-five or two-four-six in town driving. On the autobahn you need only fourth if you are attempting to trigger a sonic boom. 

The six-speed Corvette-by-ZF box has a long, faintly clonky change with trans-gate spring loading that seems designed to confuse – let the lever find its own way out of second and it lines up with the fourth, rather than third, gear-slot, for example. And the fifth-six upchange, which should involve a gentle vertical tug, occasionally gets misrouted, at half-distance. You have to make slow, deliberate shifts. 

There is a problem, though. This chassis is fine. A good ride, only caught out by deep road zits and testy ridges sending shudders through from the 45-section front and 40-profile rear-tyres and chirping the leather cabin. Well-weighted camber on high-camber B-road: I’m all favour of that kind of feedback reminding you that this car is quite capable of getting you all excited.

But the back end lets it down. In the wet, Blastercarlt gets difficult. Only in sixth gear does the rear of the car become subdued. Any other combination of throttle and surface moisture leads to happening moments being available at a foot twitch: this car accelerates in fifth like most performance machines get over-excited in third. 

That means that second and third gears are hair-trigger stuff on damp asphalt. Pull out onto a wet autobahn and you will get wheelspin in third – at, say, 100mph – with what seems like very little provocation. Unless your oversteer-taming skills are on a par with Keke Rosberg, Snarlcarlt is a real gor-blimey handful in the wet.

And of course, it’s raining now. My plan is to base this assault on common sense driving at the Nurburgring: past experience says the nearby Koblenz-Trier autobahn is lightly-trafficked and reasonably safe. Also, being high in the Eifel mountains means that the weather changes quickly. 

Except that it doesn't. There is pelting rain and low cloud hanging over the high points on the autobahn. There is one, dampish stretch of autobahn which is traffic-free. Dropping to fifth at 100mph, ease on the throttle and Satancarlt just powers forward. We get to an indicated 150mph, smooth as Cecil Parkinson's rhetoric. Quite simple. 

There's a bend coming up. And some cars on the inside. And the outside edge of the road is shinky-slick. I creep off the throttle a quarter-inch to kill the boost and then lift my foot to drain the power away— I don't want to leap off the throttle and mash on the brilliant ABS-ed AP Racing brakes and unsettle this big car, send it doing the fast-lane excuse-me into the barrier. 

That's it. The low cloud comes down, the rain whips up, and we are, to use a meteorological term, knackered. There's always tomorrow. 

Which is also cold, wet and lumbered with low cloud. Parked outside the hotel, Dirtcarlt is thick with road-gunge, blow-dry smears highlighting the airflow over the bonnet and roof. Those superb 17-inch Ronal wheels are matted with caked-on filth: tiny flow-trails of dirt arrow off the boot and around the supports for the rear wing. Hardcarlt looks as if it should have a NATO ordinance number stenciled on its flanks. 

My plan to trickle down to the autobahn, touch 176mph and head home, has gone for a burton. The lousy weather has seen to that. There's a curious flubber-flap noise from the car as it burbles down the road: after a cold night outside, the tyres have flattened off and it takes a few gentle miles to get them circular and quiet again. 

The next four hours are spent on the autobahn at 100mph, in the rain. Chasing bright spots in the sky. At Hockenheim, the decision is made to stop going south and start to head back north-west, towards the Channel. It's raining hard. A red Lamborghini Diablo sits outside the Hockenheim circuit hotel. The world's fastest sports car and the world's fastest saloon car sit alongside each other, mute in a car park, each humbled by the rain. Then you realise the Diablo — a strict two-seater— is longer and wider than the roomy four-door Comfycarlt. 

Another hour passes. This is getting really dumb. At least the myth of the autobahn has been exploded. You can't go flat-out across Germany in a haze of super-unleaded. There are roadworks and puddles and myopic Dutch tourists in Peugeot 309s hogging the outside lane. You can cruise all day at 100mph, but going faster than that takes a real effort. And a clear road. 

Suddenly, there is no need for wipers. And no spray off the car tyres ahead. Dry tarmac. The sky has turned from coal to ash. It's party time. Kill Was (Not Was) on the CD. Switch off the air-conditioning — it saps power. Shut all the air-vents to cut drag. Drop from sixth to fifth to fourth. Touch throttle. Instant, massive urge. Today could be the day. 

Stay on the outside: the inner lane is grooved from ceaseless truck traffic and filmy with discarded diesel. Dipped headlights on. Offside indicator flashing. To max this thing you have to drive like an arrogant prat, running at lights-ablaze 120mph and waiting for a clear space in your lane. 

There are trucks on the inside. If you waited for a lorry free section of autobahn, you might just get home in time for Christmas. That a lorry might decide to mosey into your path is a possibility you choose not to think of. 

Into fifth at 140mph. Your lane is unhindered: there is a parade of Scanias to your right. One hundred-and-fifty — this engine still has big grunt. Getting noisy, but you are not being blown about. Feels solid, tied down. One-five-five: your throat is dry and, ahead, you can see a bend. A left-hander. 

But how tight is it? One-six-oh and still Toughcarlt is giving you more, a deep roar from the tailpipes, a hot sizzle from the tyres, and the sound of the wind getting shredded as the Lotus pushes on yet faster. One six-one . . six-two… don't want to look at the speedo . . . how tight is that bloody bend? … speedo says one-six-four or is it five?... that bend… that's it. Pull foot back, bleed off boost, touch brakes gently, take reasonably invigorating left at 135mph, spool down to cruise. 

Easy. One hundred-and-seventy miles per hour looks on. Hammercarlt can do it — but can you? You have two problems. The speed you approach other vehicles is daunting and you cannot expect the average Volkswagen Polo owner to look in his mirror, see a blaze of light and instantly compute that you are going to be on his bootlid in the time it takes him to have a second glance just to be on the safe side. 

But it's frustrating to get so close to max. And the sky is getting as black as old boots again. Another clear run ahead. A fast downhill into a hard left, then uphill. You exit the bend at 140mph, and plant your foot in fifth. Uphill, this amazing engine tugs like a steam-train. You are doing 158mph on a steep incline, when you get one of those metaphorical taps on the shoulder that says 'desist'. 

There's a 7-series BMW ahead. Bee-Ems normally pull over. You get just to the point where you have to decide to give him full headlights or back off, when you see a hiss of spray from his rear tyres. He's just run onto a wet section of road. As you realise that, the Oohcarlt gives a little jink left, you correct, it nudges again. Hell. 

This road glistens. The car is telling you it's wet outside and you are being very stupid. Back off. Rain sploshes on the screen. Wipers on. Settle back down to 100mph. Thank you, Germany, and good night. That's enough. 

Time to go home. It rains pretty well all the way. You see fabulous sections of straight, untrafficked autobahn where you could max the Whizzcarlt easily — but not under a fog of spray. At 5.30am on a midsummer morning you could touch 180mph in this car on any half-decent autobahn and then head-off for breakfast.

Trying to do the same thing on midafternoon on a wet November Wednesday is simply inviting, at best, a bad case of the willies or, more likely, a prolonged stay in hospital. Boomcarlt lollops home, crossing Belgium and tooting up the M2 without a care in the world. On the one hand, the Cruisecarlt exists solely to remind the world why traction control systems were invented. On the other, it is the most convincing car Lotus has produced since the original Elan. 

Provided you tiptoe in the wet, you can live with the Mmmcarlt. This car is ungodly fast and acceptably civilised. Of course, everybody will still give you their opinion about the morality of driving a 176mph car—I'm afraid I'm only qualified to comment on driving it at speeds below 165mph. 

Read more CAR archive features

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000