Twenty eight years after it was built the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton is my car of the year for 2018. An all too brief test drive was enough to propel one of the most remarkable Vauxhalls ever to the top of my list of motoring highlights for this year – yet I nearly didn’t get to drive it at all.

Classic Cars magazine asked me to get together a group of supersaloons from the 1960s to the 1990s for a cover story, ­so of course a Lotus Carlton had to be on the list. When it was launched in 1990 it had performance which seemed utterly impossible: in testing at the Nardo track in Italy it hit 176mph. Family-sized saloons of the time just didn’t do things like that, and if any manufacturer was going to build one that did, few would have expected that manufacturer to be Vauxhall. Questions were asked in the House of Commons about the responsibility of selling a car with such potential – in an era when all but the most exclusive supercars were being limited to 155mph. The tabloid press had a field day.

The car I lined up for the Classic Cars shoot was a lovingly cared for example owned by a Lotus Carlton enthusiast. But early that morning I got the call you dread when you’re organising these things: the car had dumped all its coolant onto the M25 and would be going no further that day. But I had a Plan B.

I got the call you dread: the car had dumped all its coolant onto the M25 and would be going no further that day. But I had a Plan B.

Vauxhall’s Heritage fleet at Luton includes a Lotus Carlton which has been owned by the company since day one, and they readily agreed to make it available. A bit of swift logistical planning and a couple of hours later it had arrived at the shoot. I got to sit behind the wheel for the first time – and I was a bit disappointed.

In the 1990s Vauxhall-Opel was on the up, with some great engines and reliable, tidy-handling cars like the Astra and Cavalier. The big Vauxhall Carlton/Opel Omega saloon was a good car, but the quality of the interior struggled to match rivals like Ford’s Granada Scorpio. The step up in performance of the Lotus Carlton meant that its rivals were cars like the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz 500E, and they had cabins that were far classier than the Carlton, which was all chintzy ruched leather and cheapo switchgear.

We’re not here for the ambience, I thought, we’re here for the performance. But after disabling the immobiliser – a reminder that these cars were big theft targets from the start – and turning the key to fire up the engine, I still wasn’t keen. The Lotus Carlton idles with a nondescript beat, and a prod of the toe on the throttle elicits a growl that’s worrying industrial in nature. It has none of aural character of, say, the BMW’s straight six.

Lotus Carlton Action

Lotus Carlton was faster than a 1990s saloon had any right to be. Vauxhall

Lotus and Vauxhall-Opel were both owned by General Motors at the time. Lotus had engineered the Corvette ZR-1 for the parent company, and considered giving the Carlton the Corvette’s V8 engine and six-speed gearbox. That idea was dropped – as were plans for four-wheel drive and active aerodynamics – and when the Lotus Carlton concept was displayed at the Geneva motor show in 1989 it had a revised version of the 3.0-litre straight six from the Carlton GSi 3000. A longer stroke took the capacity out to 3.6 litres and there were twin turbochargers, plus a lot of detail work, which raised the engine’s output to a phenomenal 377bhp. That was more than the M5, more than the 500E, more than any rival. It was only 8bhp less than a Ferrari Testarossa. Arguably the horsepower race between manufacturers of fast saloons got into its stride thanks to the Lotus Carlton: the next M5 would have a much bigger engine developing 394bhp.

First impressions of the Carlton aren’t improved by a hefty clutch and a heavy, vague gearshift. Massively tall gearing – the Lotus Carlton will almost reach 60mph in first gear – must take the edge off the acceleration, but this is still a car that will sprint from rest to 60mph in a fraction over five seconds. That’s amazing for a car of this size and era.

Even though this is a turbo engine there’s plenty of torque at low revs, which makes driving the Carlton easy. By modern standards the 1660kg Lotus Carlton is not very heavy (a modern M5 is over 1850kg) and that contributes to breathtaking performance. Keep your right foot planted in each long gear and as the revs rise the power builds and builds. There's no thump in the small of the back as the turbos spool up, just an unrelenting surge, and the Carlton reels in the horizon at an ever more dazzling pace. The engine takes on a more purposeful sound, a deep bass thunder that underlines the epic forces now being unleashed. 

Vauxhall Lotus Carlton Specifications

Engine 3615cc in-line six, dohc, 24-valve

Power 377bhp @ 5200rpm

Torque 419lb ft @ 4200rpm

Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited slip differential

Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Steering Recirculating ball, power assisted

Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted

Performance Top speed: 176mph; 0-60mph: 8.5sec

Lotus’s Tony Shute put a huge amount of effort into refining the Carlton’s suspension, a simple combination of MacPherson struts at the front and a BMW-like semi-trailing arm set-up at the rear. The Carlton has surprising agility and the suspension is supple enough to deliver consistently high levels of grip even when the road surface is less than perfect. That makes the big Vauxhall a remarkably confidence-inspiring car to drive fast.

Epic though its straight-line performance is – even by the standards of 2018, let alone 1990 – it’s this extraordinary usability that makes the Lotus Carlton stand out as the most memorable car I’ve driven this year. I’d expected it to be a thuggish, intimidating beast of a car, an unforgiving hot-rod. It has the power to be exactly that, and the in-your-face styling courtesy of the deep front air dam and massive rear wing only serves to reinforce the idea that this thing is going to be an unmanageable brute. That it turns out to be nothing of the sort is huge, and welcome, surprise.

Sadly my time in the Lotus Carlton was limited because there were other cars to drive that day, pictures to shoot and a story to write. So I hope there’s an opportunity to get behind that four-spoke wheel again soon. The Lotus Carlton might not be the best car I’ve driven this year, and it’s not the fastest or the most frugal or the most technically innovative. But it just might be the most compelling.

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