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Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review

Published:08 January 2019

Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • At a glance
  • 3 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By Jake Groves

CAR's staff writer, office Geordie, gamer, lover of hot hatches

By Jake Groves

CAR's staff writer, office Geordie, gamer, lover of hot hatches

► Lotus Carlton saloon driven
► Twin-turbo straight-six, 377bhp
► A controversial figure of the 90s

The Lotus Carlton’s reputation clearly precedes it. Many a story has been told of how fast someone went in one once, or how one ended up in a hedge. It was a legend for its top speed, landing it in hot water in the UK and Europe for out-pacing everything else in its class and garnering the wrath of the middle-market press. Some even wanted it banned for being so potent and, well, dangerous.

You know you’re driving something special when a man driving a brand-new Rolls-Royce Phantom can’t take his eyes off you as he wafts by. Our eyes locked for a moment, until he decided to pick up his chin from his lap and concentrate on driving again...

The Lotus Carlton: it was a very big deal back in the day…

Absolutely, not least for being quite a technical achievement. It was the fastest four-door saloon for some time, owing to the twin-turbocharged bomb under the bonnet. Vauxhall whacked two giant Garrett T25 turbos and the cooling required to one of General Motors’ 3.6-litre straight six engines already in service, with performance figures coming in at 377bhp and 419lb ft. This back in 1990, remember.

Lotus then fiddled with the Carlton (or Omega in Europe) some more by lowering and firming up the suspension set-up. Other beefed-up performance bits included a six-speed ZF manual ‘box lifted out of the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 of the same era and a limited-slip differential from the Holden Commodore in attempt to tame all that thrust.

Lotus Carlton interior

And it was still a posh(ish) saloon!

Exactly, so when you get in it, there are thickly-padded leather armchairs, wood trim and aspirational luxuries like heated seats, electric door mirrors and an actual analogue clock.

There’s plenty of room in the back, too – the Lotus Carlton wasn’t exactly a dinky car back then. It’s very 90’s kitsch in places, too – the leather upholstery is ruched beyond belief, the wood grain borders on tacky and all of the switchgear is fat and square with huge labels on them.

So how is it to drive?

It feels like a bit of an odd mix, if being frank. The powerplant is the star of the show, by far; since it’s a long-geared straight six, there’s pull no matter which ratio you’re in, allowing low-rev overtakes in sixth at motorway speeds. The lengthy gearing allows you to saw your way out of intersections and roundabouts while still keeping it in first gear.

Lotus Carlton front tracking

And you’ll want to do that. This is by far the heaviest clutch I have ever experienced in a car, requiring thighs of steel when you’re stuck in traffic and smooth depression when changing gear at speed. Easy to get the hang of but very tricky to master. We suspect the yuppies of the Nineties who owned one ended up inadvertently walking around in clockwise circles after being on a long drive.

While the advantages of six cylinders and leggy gearing take care of the low-end power, you’ll want to get those two turbos wound up. When they’re fully spooled, the Lotus Carlton can still wipe the floor with many of today’s modern sports cars and yobbo hot hatches.

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Lotus Carlton: performance specs

The whole experience is electric. If it’s not the Millennium-Falcon-hyperdrive acceleration or the howl from those six cylinders singing acapella then it’ll be the mind-boggling limits this car sports. It’ll do 176mph, remember. That’s still fast in 2019, when most European cars have a quiet agreement not to go over 155mph.

The epic engine is enough to shroud some of the Carlton’s other dynamics. The steering, for example, has a ginormous dead spot on the straight-and-narrow, almost to old Hollywood movie levels. It sharpens up when there is some lock applied, but motorway cruises leave you a little dejected from the driving experience.

Lotus Carlton side pan

And while the suspension does an impressive job of handling most of the Carlton’s shove, it’s naturally not up to the standards of some of today’s sports saloons. There’s still a bit of body roll, and certainly enough to get the tail out pretty willingly if you’re up for a fight.

Lotus Carlton: verdict

That’s what the LC really is: it’s like a nightclub bouncer who’s worked on the circuit for some time. He’s getting on a bit but he’s still sharply dressed, still works out extensively and still more than willing to knock your block off if you wind him up and can still keep up with the cocky young ’uns who think they own the place.

That’s why it’s a legend. The Lotus Carlton was so ahead of its time that some of its attributes are still copied in performance cars today, and it’s proof that you can come from pedestrian roots and still take on the best and brightest in the business.

Check out our Vauxhall reviews

Specs

Price when new: £48,000
On sale in the UK: 1990-1992
Engine: 3637cc straight-six twin-turbo, 377bhp, 419 lb ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 5.4sec 0-62mph, 176mph
Weight / material: 1663kg
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4687/1772/1445mm

Rivals

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  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review
  • Driving the classics: Lotus Carlton (1990-1992) review

By Jake Groves

CAR's staff writer, office Geordie, gamer, lover of hot hatches

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