VAUXHALL CARLTON/SENATOR REVIEW

Buying the 1980s-90s exec that's on the cusp of greatness...

Vauxhall Carlton/Senator

As hard as it is to imagine now, the 1986 Carlton and its big brother, the 1987 Senator, were both major players in corporate car parks across the UK. And with good reason - they were highly competent, good to drive, and technically advanced in comparison with the opposition.

But then, we're talking about an era when Vauxhall really understood what its buyers wanted, and gave it to them... with a cherry on top. So, the aerodynamically-styled saloons were offered with a range of four- and six-cylinder engines spanning a 1.8- to 3.0-litres, 90 to 200bhp, 110 to 150mph. Starting with the Carlton, you get a roomy saloon, and even more capricious estate, with all but the most lowly entry-level models, bristling with equipment. And that means you can enjoy driving these cars in today's traffic without feeling left behind. The more luxurious CDX and Diplomat models are the ones to go for, if you don't need a full-fat GSI 3000, as you'll get leather, alloys, lots of toys and ABS.

The real star of the range is the Senator. In either 12- or 24-valve form, these cars are fast and effortless motorway cruisrs that still have considerable road presence. They're getting rare which means that the days of bargains are over, but in general terms, any of these cars are still great value for money right now.

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine: 2969cc/6-cyl/OHC

Power: 177bhp@5600rpm

Torque: 177lb ft@4400rpm

Maximum speed: 131mph

0-60mph: 8.4sec

Fuel consumption: 22-28mpg

Transmission: RWD, five-spd man

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Six-cylinder engines: tough workhorses

Six-cylinder power units are tough, and will cover huge mileages, if properly maintained. It's crucial to ensure that the timing chain tensioners have been replaced at 60,000 miles, if only to preserve the life of the chains. If this doesn't occur, the timing chains themselves can fail at mileages as low as 100,000-120,000. All power units are sensitive to timely oil changes - 12,000 is stretching it - and any rough running in fuel injected models will be down to failing air temperature or crank position sensors. Otherwise, these cars are good for 300,000 miles.

Four-cylinder engines: simplest for DIY

'Family II' engines have cambelts, and for safety's sake, make sure that they've been replaced within the past 40,000 miles or five years - any further or longer, and you're risking trouble if you don't get it changed. Servicing is easily within DIY capability, as these cars were designed for simple maintenance. This includes cambelt changes. Oil breathers of four-cylinder engines are known for getting blocked, and rattly top-end or noisy valve gear points to missed oil changes or general neglect - in which case, it's usually best to walk away.

Electrics: mostly good

Unless you're unlucky and go for an early 1.7-litre entry-level model, these cars are packed with equipment. But do ensure that electric windows, the sunroof and central locking work as they should. Most issues are down to dodgy switches or dry joints. And does the ABS work? Don't just rely on the indicator light, as it can - and often is - rigged. Other random issues, such as poor idling, flat spots or poor fuel consumption, can be down to the ECU connector developing dry joints that allow moisture in. All are easily resolved with time and patience.

The body (not so) beautiful

Rust is generally evident on these cars, so check for obvious signs at the rear of the inner sills, the strut tops, and most obviously at the rear arches. All are fiddly and time-consuming to repair in a satisfactory way. Rust also claims brake and fuel lines, so if you can, check that these are good.

Parts situation

Body panels and interior parts are getting scarce now, so make sure it's all in one piece. Don't laugh off missing trim - it can be a nightmare to replace like for like.

OUR VERDICT

You have a soft top for John Major's Britain, and you appreciate a classic car that's still very much under the radar. Carltons are understated, but in six-cylinder form, especially as a GSI 3000, they're mighty to drive, and capable of scaring BMWs and Jaguars as driver's cars.

But a Senator needs no justification - with that iconic chip-cutter grille, digital dashboard, and imposing styling it cuts quite an imposing figure at any classic car show. And yes, they're as good to drive as they are to look at.

And that's the heart of these cars' enduring appeal - you get a great car for the money. How long will it be before everyone else cottons on?

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