An old Omega awaits me in Vauxhall’s heritage centre car park. It’s a freezing day in Luton. It looks beige, in more ways than one: a dreary piece of 90s wannabe luxo-barge. Depressing, ordinary, barely worth a second glance. But I can’t wait to get in, just to get out of the bitter breeze and, if I’m honest, drive to the country pub where we (cameraman Bradley and I) are meeting colleagues for lunch.
Launched as a successor to the Carlton and Senator in 1994, the Omega was a cut-price BMW 5 Series. In fairness, it was very different to its ageing predecessors. It was all-new, right down to its extensive engine line-up (which ranged from a four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol producing 116hp to a 211hp 3.0-litre V6). It stuck to a traditional rear-drive layout, but looked modern in its design – if not as desirable as its upmarket German competitors, and rather dated today.
We jump inside, and soon take in the joyous smell of 20-year-old leather, similar to a BMW of that era (anyone who’s driven a 90s BMW with leather will know what I mean). Things start to look up as we find the buttons for the heated seats, and the sound of a 3.0-litre V6 creeps into the cabin.
How does it drive?
Mixed first impressions, then. At nearly 4.8 metres long and 1.8 metres wide, the Omega was a bulky car in its day. While it’s small compared to today’s executive cars, the difference might not be as big as you think. It’ll take a few moments to get accustomed if you’re used to small cars.
Once I’ve negotiated the backstreets of Luton, I very quickly realise how much I’ve underestimated this car. Bland it may look, but it’s not bland to drive. Far from it.
For a start, the engine goes as well as it sounds. It’s a strange phenomenon, hurling forwards in an Antique Gold Vauxhall Omega in a way that borders on the anti-social, but it’s quick enough to make Bradley and I laugh at the absurdity. The five-speed manual gearbox isn’t the obvious choice for this car – you may think it’d be more suited to an auto – but hunting out an automatic does result in rather blunted performance compared to the 3.0-litre manual.
This high-spec Omega is fitted with the optional traction control. Not having it wouldn’t be a huge worry – it’s a communicative chassis that will tell you when you’re getting carried away, and most of us will be too relaxed driving a high-spec Omega to get caught up in trying to reach our destination any quicker.
By the time we reach our lunch stop – late, after taking the scenic route – I find myself trying to explain why I’d prefer the Omega to the Lotus Carlton. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, perhaps, but a drive of a V6 Omega will surprise many people. You can see why they were popular with police forces in the 1990s.
Tell me about buying one
Unfortunately, this is where things get difficult. I should know – days after carrying out this road test, I’m standing on a trader’s forecourt in front of a very similar Omega seriously thinking about buying one while I can still find one.
It’s tired, though, with most of the electrics playing up (the electric sunroof opens but won’t close, while the rear window blind – yes it has one – is dead). Its service history suggests it has been loved once in is life, but neglected for the last few years as its (presumably elderly) owner was doing fewer and fewer miles, and the car got closer to scrap value.
A one-off? Unlikely, as a search on classified sites reveals only a limited number of Omegas available, and many of them appear to be past their best.
If you do find one, your first port of call (as with most second-hand cars) should be a search of its MOT history before even leaving your sofa. The Omega’s a heavy car, and advisories for tyres and suspension components are common. While they’re not known to rust, early examples are more than 20 years old and a lifetime of neglect could see them needing a bit of welding to keep them roadworthy. Look out for advisories for rust in the MOT history and, once you’re there, have a good poke around the sills.
It’s worth checking all the electrics operate as they should. There are plenty of them and, in my experience, they won’t all work. Finally, check under the bonnet. Look out for blown-head-gasket symptoms. Oil and coolant contamination resulting in ‘mayo’ under the oil cap is likely to be down to a failed oil cooler, which is fairly common and could be an expensive fix.
Finally, give the service history a look over. A neglected Omega could prove to be just as costly – if not more so – than a BMW or Mercedes of the same age. We’d want to see evidence of regular maintenance, including cambelt changes every four years or 40,000 miles.
I didn’t expect to find myself seriously considering buying an Omega after driving one. But don’t underestimate the humble Vauxhall saloon – it’s up there with the best in the class to drive. Despite this, it still feels wafty in a way that 21st century executive cars just don’t. And that engine. Hunt out a 3.0-litre V6 and you’ll love it (if not the fuel bills that come with it).
Omegas have quietly reached that stage when they’re rapidly disappearing, and that’s a shame. Fortunately there are a few tidy, late examples about, and that’s what we’d spend our money on. They’re excellent value, but do your research. Not doing so could prove costly.