Road test: Vauxhall Charlton 3000 GSi

Boasting Big

It took many years to do it, but Vauxhall finally made the breakthrough about a dozen years ago when it shook off its dreadful reputation for producing rust-buckets.

Not since those days have I tested any large Vauxhall, so with Le Mans beckoning and a family to drop off in Paris, what better than to judge the company’s progress by trying its current sporty executive car.

What caught my eye in the first place was the bullish poster, the one which calmly boasts that the Carlton GSi 3000 is fast enough to make many Porsches blush, and which reputedly made the importers howl with rage.

First reaction to the Carlton as it arrived at the office was just how large it was. With an overall length of 184.5in, width of 69.8in and height of 57.1in it was half an inch shorter, just over 7in narrower and 1in taller than the Ford Granada, and it looked it too –seemingly less squat and purposeful.

The exterior dimensions translated into interior room for all passengers. Being a tad under 6ft tall, I found both the 42.6in front legroom and the 38.4in headroom ample. There was enough space in the back for the two children to rattle around with no complaints of being cramped. Even on the odd occasion I was a back-seat passenger, I found the 38.2in legroom and 37.8in headroom perfectly adequate.

Offering an area of 18.4 cu ft, boot space was also generous, swallowing three standard suitcases plus assorted bags. Should there be the need to carry larger loads, the rear seat would fold down to give another 12 cu ft, but even this was nothing like as sizeable as the Granada’s massive 47 cu ft. There can be only few occasions, however, when one would want to transform this executive saloon into a load carrier.

Thanks to the good offices of Vauxhall Motors and P&O Ferries, we arrived in France on Thursday evening ready for our run down to Paris and Le Mans the next day. Around the streets of Paris I quickly found that the Carlton was not the ideal urban car – more than anything, petrol consumption shooting up from over 30 mpg when cruising to under 20 mpg around town. Despite its size, manoeuvrability was not too much of a problem, good visibility, power-assisted steering, plenty of torque and a pleasant gearbox all doing their bit to help the hassled driver.

Where it was at its best, however, was cruising along the autoroutes at the legal limit or more, cruise-control engaged if so inclined, where the car effortlessly ate up the miles. The kids never even enquired how much longer the journey would be as we sped down from Calais.

Out of town and off the motorway the Carlton was a rapid lady as well, pelting along like an overgrown Astra. Handling and roadholding were impressive for such a large car, GM’s refinement of the semi-trailing independent rear suspension proving quite successful. She retained her manners at all speeds; not even a series of high-speed corners on the test track could dispel them.

Ride comfort is important in this class of car, and the Vauxhall is a smooth performer. Over all but the roughest roads, the suspension, which allows 242mm of wheel-travel, absorbed everything. The second generation Bosch/GM ABS system fortunately excelled itself, the car remaining utterly stable under very hard braking on one occasion when an accident on the autoroute brought the southbound traffic to a sudden and belated stop as a lorry found itself a jack-knifed across both lanes.

I consider myself fairly fit, but the driving positions in some cars do become uncomfortable after a few hours. Not once, though, in a week and almost 2000 miles, did I suffer backaches or fatigue. This is partly explained by good lumbar support, as well as the seat height and steering wheel being adjustable and partly by the impressive overall ride comfort.

The test car came with a digital dashboard, which I personally prefer, the speed (in either miles or kilometres per hour) beamed up from the centre. If the constant change of image is irritating, which it is to some, the car can also be ordered with analogue instrumentation.

The tachometer is on the left and four smaller gauges (voltmeter, oil pressure, engine temperature and fuel) on the right. The state of the tank, which can take 16.5 gallons, is related in terms of the amount of fuel remaining, but I found that I hardly glanced at that gauge, preferring instead the trip computer which calculated the range of the car based on the fuel remaining in the tank and the average mpg since last reset.

The computer’s other functions included average speed, average consumption, a stopwatch and an outside thermometer. Once the novelty factor had worn off, I hardly referred to them at all.

The problem with electric windows and sunroof is that somebody invariably leaves a window down, so the ignition has to be switched back on to reactivate the system after you have disembarked –a pain if the car is parked in a narrow gap and you have to squeeze back into it! More than once I would have been caught out, but fortunately, as is increasingly common, the windows and sunroof remained activated for as long as the doors were closed or the driver’s door remained open.

Alternatively the windows could be closed from the outside by holding the key in the door locking positon for at least one second. Another useful function was the one-touch operation for fully opening or closing the driver’s window.

My limited night mileage proved the halogen headlamps very effective. There was a switch which adjusted headlamp range depending on the car’s loading, but I found I tended to overlook it.

The central locking often fooled me, especially when it came to opening the boot, since I was never able to fathom when I needed the key in the lock. The anti-theft system on all the doors have a feeling of security, and GM says it cannot easily be overcome, even by the professional car thief.

Although the GSi can accelerate from standstill to 60mph in under eight seconds, it did not feel particularly zippy. In fact it was quicker than Peugeot’s 406 Mi-16 and almost two seconds faster than the 2.9i Granada. Developing 177 lb ft at 4400 rpm, it has far better torque than the former and slightly more than the latter.

A top speed of 136 mph betters both, but its claim to outperform a Porsche only just stands up to scrutiny –the 944’s top speed is 134 mph, but it can out-accelerate the Carlton. Such figures are really rather meaningless with a car of this nature, being of only academic interest to the person likely to drive one.

At £19,248 on the road, the Carlton GSi 3000 represents good value for money. Quite why Vauxhall has pitched it at Porsche in its poster advertising is a little unfathomable, for it is a completely different animal, and better in what it sets out to do. Its more serious rival is the aforementioned Granada, which itself commands healthy respect.

Model changes are imminent at Vauxhall, but in its current form in the new car showrooms this model remains a serious rival to the Granada 2.9i Ghia X Auto, Jaguar XJ6 2.9, Audi 90 quattro, Saab 9000 Turbo, Mercedes-Benz 230E, BMW 525i and Rover 827 SLi five-door, to name just a few. WPK