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Great British Cars That America Missed Out On: Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

A 1990s sedan that’s faster than a 2016 Chevy Camaro V6. How could you not want that?

Despite being best known for its lightweight sports cars and famous Formula One racers, Lotus has a long and noteworthy history as a tinkerer of cars from other companies. What started back in the early 1960s, with a tweaked twin-cam engine that turned the humble Ford Cortina sedan into a giant-killing touring car, eventually expanded into Lotus becoming an oracle-esque figure in the realms of engine and chassis development.

So many cars have been sprinkled with Hethel-sourced pixie dust over the years (Nissan GT-R, DeLorean DMC-12, Chevrolet Corvette C4 ZR-1 and even the Dodge Spirit!), that it’s incredibly hard to choose from them. In the end, though, we chose one of only a handful of Lotus-fettled road cars that wasn’t officially imported to North America: the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Much like the aforementioned Cortina, the Vauxhall Carlton began life as a standard, well-rounded rival to its contemporaries. This was before the era of dominance from the German premium trio, where more volume-centric companies like Vauxhall were able to properly compete with their more expensive rivals.

Unlike the Cortina, though, the Vauxhall Carlton’s tweaking by Lotus wasn’t sparked by desires to get this mid-sized sedan onto a race track. It might have been triggered by General Motors’ (which has owned Vauxhall since 1925) acquisition of Lotus some years prior to the Lotus Carlton’s release in 1990, but the driving force behind the fast Carlton’s inception seemed to be the mantra of “well, why not?”. The result of that “since we can, we might as well do it” attitude, though, was one of the most eye-opening performance cars of the 1990s.

Here was a formerly hum-drum company car that, thanks to Lotus’ comprehensive re-working of the standard Carlton’s straight-six engine (topped off by adding two great big turbochargers, no less), was able to pump out 377 hp – a smidge more than what the Ferrari F355 supercar’s V8 could produce! Such power also gave the Lotus Carlton phenomenal straight line speed, with acceleration from 0-60 mph being rated at just 5.2 seconds. The top speed of 177 mph also made it the world’s fastest four-door sedan at the time – a record that would stand officially until 1996, when Brabus blew us all away with the 205 mph E V12, though no stock sedan would beat the Carlton until Bentley released the 195 mph Continental Flying Spur in 2005.

Having all that power, though, would be meaningless if it couldn’t be used. Thankfully, Lotus’ Carlton tweaking also extended to the suspension, so Vauxhall’s one-time highway cruiser was now a proper back road brawler. Even with the peaky power delivery, the lack of stability and traction control and the tad rubbish Corvette-sourced six-speed manual gearbox, the Lotus Carlton’s abilities as a point-to-point driver’s car were unheard of for a big sedan back in the day. Remember, this was a four-door that could genuinely keep up with all but the quickest supercars on sale at the time.

It was the 1990s equivalent, then, of the Ferrari FF. Except, in our eyes at least, much better looking and much more affordable. When adjusted for inflation and converted from Pounds Sterling to US Dollars at the 1990 exchange rate, the Lotus Carlton’s sticker price would be $171,592 in 2015 money – a lot of dosh, admittedly, but 130 grand less than what a Ferrari FF would set you back today. Such a shame, then, that the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton was never federalised – imagine how much of a scare this turbocharged brute would have given the Ford Contour SVT! At least we can import the Carlton under ‘Show and Display’ legislation, eh?

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