Hammond drives the icons: Lotus Carlton

By topgear, 08 December 2011

I don’t know the proper name for those mid-length leather coats with fur collars and big pockets that villains wear in East London tough-guy movies, but, whatever it is, the Lotus Carlton is wearing the car equivalent.

Huge, hunched and probably very angry, it’s a car you move towards slowly and try not to look in the eye. I loved them when they appeared in 1990, and I still do.

Though you’d be lucky to see one at all: only 950 were made in a production run lasting into 1992, and it was lucky to have been built - the very idea of a ‘family’ car costing this much is hard to take.

STORY Richard Hammond
PHOTOS Justin Leighton

This article was originally published in the December 2011 issue of TopGear magazine

It could do just shy of 290km/h, and it’s anyone’s guess how quickly it could get to 95km/h, but about 5.0secs seems to be the most widely held view.

It’s precisely this sort of myth and debate that gives the thing such a chilling appeal today.

It’s like a unicorn with a cosh. Best of all, its very existence and the morality of a family car capable of 290km/h was debated in parliament. How bloody cool does that make it?

Don’t expect to be in any way disappointed with the reality of the car in the flesh. Discreet in an armed bodyguard kind of way, it’s plain, featureless and smooth.

It looks black, but, in fact, once it was built at the Opel plant in Germany and shipped over to Hethel to become a Lotus, the Lotus Carlton was only available in Imperial Green - near as dammit black, but somehow just a bit cooler.

This was the fastest four-door sedan for years, but it’s no stripped out boy-racer, it’s really not one for boys at all. Aircon, leccy windows, leather - all of that gangster stuff is present and correct - but it is hauled about by a straight-six 3.6-litre engine with two turbochargers making 377hp. God, it sounds good. And it feels simply unbelievable.

It is, without a doubt, the most slidey thing in which I have ever slithered round our track.

Yes, that’s subjective, but, hey, having fun in a car is an entirely subjective thing anyway, unless you’re actually in a race.

The straight-six delivers its power in the same way Vinnie Jones might slam your head in a car door, and the back end glides about apparently at whim, but always remaining respectfully behind the front end, lest the engine takes offence and smashes its teeth in.

I wasn’t sure that my childish grin and squeaks of glee were entirely right in a car that would have your neighbours fleeing if it arrived on your drive for fear you were planning a job, but I couldn’t stop it.

It’s not all thuggish power, though - it was and is sophisticated. Multi-link semi-trailing rear suspension keeps things under control. It’s even self-levelling, presumably for those times when the body in the boot is a really big one.

The ventilated front discs are certainly good for their time, and the twin-turbo configuration means peak torque pops up at an ever-ready 4,200rpm.

The gearbox, a 6spd manual from a Corvette ZR1 and the heavier-than-heavy clutch are the only welcome reminders of this car’s brutal, in-yer-face potency.

Yes, of course, it’s still with us in a way, the VXR8 carrying the torch for super-fast, thuggish sedans.

But the Lotus Carlton did it first with a degree of surprise, sophistication and authority that I just don’t think has been matched today.

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