The Fast and the Forbidden: 1990-’92 Lotus Carlton

Lotus Omega Front 3/4 View

When you think of a premium General Motors sedan of the early 1990s, what picture forms in your mind’s eye? Chances are it’s a picture of a downsized, front-drive luxury car powered by a wheezy V6 (or, in the case of the C-body Cadillacs, a wheezy and failure-prone V8) with indifferent performance and build quality to match. Now, wipe those horrifying images from your gray matter, and envision a slightly-larger-than-mid-size four-door with wind-tunnel-honed lines, flared fenders, a couple badges depicting the logo of a famous sports car maker, and a plush leather-trimmed interior. Oh, and a twin-turbo, twin-cam straight six sending power to the rear wheels through a Corvette ZR-1’s six-speed manual transmission. Congratulations; you’ve just imagined the Lotus Carlton.

Although it has its origins as the Vauxhall Carlton (or the left-hand-drive Opel Omega for the Continental markets), this fab-four-door was tuned by and marketed as a Lotus. (Why use GM Europe’s big sedans as the starting point? The General owned Lotus from 1986 to 1993.) The Lotus’ 3.6L 24-valve six was similar to the 3.0L 24-valve unit found in the Carlton/Omega GSi, but the addition of the two Garrett T25 turbochargers prompted engineers to use a new block casting with a different bottom end design. When all was said and done, the engine was putting down 377hp and 419 lb.-ft of torque. Backing it up was the aforementioned Corvette ZR-1-spec ZF six-speed stick, which allowed the Lotus Carlton to hit 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, and a top speed in excess of 176 mph.

Lotus Carlton Engine

That second figure prompted a rather large tizzy from Britain’s no fun league. “A 5-passenger family saloon that has the same terminal velocity as a bloody Ferrari!?!” they spluttered. “Won’t someone think of the children?!”(Okay, we can’t actually prove anyone actually invoked the “think of the children” argument, but it’s certainly plausible.) Bottom line: The Lotus Carlton was branded as an irresponsible, antisocial four-wheeled weapon; naturally, this only added to its appeal among petrolheads.

Sadly, the car’s taboo, eff-the-nanny-statists aura wasn’t enough to help it reach its sales goals. Lotus originally hoped to sell 1,100 of the things, but only 950 copies (320 Carltons and 630 Omegas) were built over a three year span. The fact that it was priced at 48,000 British pounds in the midst of a recession didn’t help, nor did the fact that even after you forked over all that money, you still had the bones of a blue-collar Opel or Vauxhall instead of a white collar BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

Lotus Carlton Rear 3/4 View

But perhaps the biggest strike against it (at least as far as folks in this hemisphere are concerned) was that it was a Europe-only number. Granted, bringing it up to American safety and emissions standards would have been a bigger waste of money than leaving ten armored cars loaded to the ceiling with $100 bills under the space shuttle’s launchpad during liftoff, but just think how many Yankee Ferrari and Porsche drviers it could have embarrassed. Fortunately, if you have the means, you could import a Lotus Omega (but not a Carlton) and register it for limited street use under NHTSA’s “show and display” program. Do you want to? If you want a surefire way to forget about those times you rode in your grandparents’ Olds Ninety Eight Touring Sedan and marveled at what a sad, cynical attempt it was at building a luxury sport sedan, look no further.