Welcome to my world, my world of turbos, tyre smoke, and tuning...
Tuning cars, driving cars, testing parts, and complaining about everything. It's my job, and a the majority of my non-work life too...
The one thing I miss since becoming a freelance writer, is the fact I miss out on the new cars manufacturers send magazines to test. I miss it not because they're amazing cars, as tbf my own cars were usually faster and more fun, but I genuinely do enjoy testing cars, seeing how they really drive, and see if there's the potential to actually make them awesome with a few modifications; especially as most reviews I read sound like someone who's had a 30min jaunt around the streets, sat back down at their computer, and made up a load of cliche filled crap they think the reader will want to hear.
Some cars we were sent disappointed me, in fact most cars did, but some were a surprise, and one of the biggest was the then-new Corsa VXR. I honestly HATED it for the first few hundred miles, and didn't like the Astra VXR I tested before it either, and that was much faster...
While they look pretty decent in press photos (it was a red one, exactly as above), in the flesh it looked much taller and bulkier than expected, and from behind the wheel, despite the badass Recaro seats, it felt like the car and seating position was about a foot too high, which is a huge negative point for driving in my book.
For the first couple hundred miles I still didn't warm to it. Yeah it went well for a standard hot hatch, with decent torque from the turbo, all the VXRs do really, though it also had a very noticeable performance drop with sustained hard use that felt to me like the standard intercooler was heat-soaking.
The main killer of enjoyment was the fact it still felt like I was sitting on the roof due to the seating position and tall thin chassis, which made it feel, well, far worse than any actual timed performance shows it is.
While the car was certainly capable, it didn't stand out at all compared to countless other cars I'd tested, and just like most standard cars, any real fun or feel was sucked up by the fact the manufacturers try to make a refined car that will stop your average Joe from either hating it for being too unrefined, or crashing it.
But I'm not Average Joe, I'm Stupid Stav, so it just felt a let down, too normal- Until I started driving it like a loon that is...
As the miles piled on (I had a lot of shoots to do that week, and I did about 250 miles a day in the thing) my frustration with it feeling a bit numb and crap made me chuck it about far more than it initially felt capable of, and then, well, something just clicked.
It turns out, while still a bit too 'standard' for my liking, was actually bloody good when driven on/over the limit; not at all like it felt when driving at 7/10ths. When driving in maximum attack mode it almost shrank around you, and was in fact incredibly adjustable with both the steering and throttle, to the extent you could get lift-off oversteer at will, and a friend I gave a lift to, after about 10mins of saying nothing and just holding on tight, suddenly goes "So is this thing rear wheel drive then?".
I've never tested a car that look me this long to like it, but once I did like it, I really, really didn't want to give it back, not because it was amazing, but as standard cars go, it had the potential to be one of the most hilarious modern hot hatches there is. Just a few basics, lower seats, lower ride height, better intercooler, and a more audible exhaust, and I felt the car would be the same hilarious fun it was at 11/10ths, but unlike when standard, it'd still be almost as fun at less licence losing, car crashing, speeds.
Funnily enough, a few months later Vauxhall sent us the Corsa VXR 888 edition, which was lower, stiffer, faster, and noisier (to the extent of pretty loud pops and bangs on the over-run), and that pretty much confirmed what I thought it'd be like after driving the standard one; great fun, and stupid enough to not get bored of quickly.
Honestly, if I was in the market for a modern-ish hot hatch to tune (and I'm not), while it's not the 'best' one, not the fastest, for me driving is about fun, and I'd get a Corsa VXR...
Let's face it, standard cars are boring. No matter how fast they are, they have to cater for the 'average user', so they're safe, they're easy, they're, well, a bit too sensible. This is a big reason we tune cars, not just for more performance, but for more feel, more involvement, more excitement. And as the years roll on, the bar of what's considered high performance is ever rising, so it's rare for an 'old' car to be very fast either.
Well, welcome to a rare exception to the rule, the Lotus Carlton, one of the VERY few production cars I've been hugely impressed with, and certainly the only unmodifed car from two and a half decades ago that's impressed me in modern times.
To be honest, most people I know who've driven them don't like them as much as they expected they would, usually moaning about it being geared too long to use the performance, the car not being as fast as they imagined, or the transmission being hard work, feeling old fashioned, but to me that just says they're pussies who can't drive...
First up, the car IS long geared, but not in a way that detracts performance if you know how to drive it, and being in too high a gear is why most think it's not as fast as it is.
It's not a turbo diesel, you can't plant the throttle at 1500rpm and expect it to rocket off down the road, as the engine loves to rev, that's where the performance is, and thanks to the long gears you're at least one gear down compared to most modern cars.
Unusually, 1st gear is actually usable in performance terms, good for almost 60mph, and things get even longer at higher speeds, so while 6th is a cruising gear, 3rd and 4th is for hard acceleration at motorway speeds, and 5th is for doing hugely, ridiculously, illegal speeds; and yes, it's very, very, easy to see the claimed top speed of 177mph...
In all honesty, and I'm very rarely impressed by a cars performance, I was hugely impressed by how these things go even compared to their modern rivals, and the driving experience is leagues ahead in my book. Cars are about fun, and this thing is fun.
I like rawness that other seem to dislike. The heavy duty 6 speed gearbox is clunky and slow, and the clutch is similarly heavy, but from a driving experience, that just adds to it in my eyes. The total lack of driver aids seem to scare people off too, but I loved it, being able to feel everything and having to do everything, which along with huge acceleration, and the grunt to easily spin the wide rear tyres at motorway speeds, it was the experience you get in a good tuned car, but this was standard.
Having said this, it's not some kind of wild beast, and as long as you're not deliberately being a dick, as long as you have a decent understanding of car control, it just squats down and rockets off down the road far faster than I expected, and in roll races versus most it's much newer, but much heavier, rivals, they're left wondering just beat them.
Considering the standard car was the kind of fun you normally only get from a well tuned car, I'm 100% with some well thought out mods (Standard inlet temp is 60degC so the standard chargecoolers would be first to go!) it was be absolutely ridiculous fun.
If I had to compare it to any more modern car, it wouldn't be a BMW M5 or AMG Mercedes, in fact it wouldn't be any standard car, as this car doesn't feel 'standard'. The Lotus Carlton feels a lot like driving a well tuned Toyota JZX100, and that includes the fact that as well as the stupidly quick acceleration for a big obscure four door, it drives and handles far better than you'd expect, and can be seriously chucked around corners.
Unfortunately, the cars and their parts are rare and expensive, so that's very unlikely to happen; the one I had was very kindly loaned to us from the Vauxhall museum! And as the picture top right shows (Top left is on my driveway!), they also let Richard Hammond 'test' the very same car for TopGear...
Hi, I'm Stav...
You may or may not have heard of me, but I've spent the last 15 years working full-time in the tuning scene, and the last decade or so writing for various car magazines.