Sports car with a load tray
My mate is adamant: utes are utes, trucks in other words, and utes being trucks, they need to be able to do a truck’s work.
For that, he says, they need a solid rear axle. He won’t have it any other way, which is why he bought a Falcon Ute and not a Commodore; because the Ford has a traditional live rear axle where the Holden runs independent rear suspension (IRS). “Get a load in the back of the Commodore and the whole geometry changes,” he complains.
Even though the Ford looks like a car with a load tray, he insists that it’s more of a truck than its GMH rival.
To be fair, Holden says high-performance versions of its VE Ute are intended as more “lifestyle” and status symbol vehicles than workhorses, but that doesn’t sway my mate.
The car-based Ute has been a staple of Australian motoring since the late 1940s, and the Americans flirted with them for more than 20 years from the late 1950s, with Chevrolet El Caminos and Ford Falcons and Rancheros.
The current Commodore and Aussie Falcon Ute are close in spirit to those US vehicles, especially the high-performance versions like the Falcon XR6 we’re reviewing.
Ford’s high-performance utes have come a long way from the original XF-based XR6 pick-up. It ran a steering box rather than rack and pinion and did a nice line in oversteer if you mashed down even slightly hard on the throttle.
It was a bit of a brute, with tight, heavyish steering, a tendency to tramline on uneven surfaces, a firm ride and a propensity for the rear end to step out even on dry roads – never mind the wet. It was a hoot to drive, though.
The 2009 FG XR6 couldn’t be more different. It’s refined, steers predictably, has a tail held well in check by careful suspension design and traction control, outguns the old XF in straightline performance, and is comfortable and well made.
Where panels in the XF sort of fitted where they touched and joins wouldn’t bear careful scrutiny for consistency of angle, the FG is all of a piece.
A very attractive piece, especially in the test car’s bold blue paint that on close inspection you realise sparkles subtly with mica.
The XR6 gets a cleanly-styled and nicely integrated front bumper spoiler whose only drawback is a tendency to snag if you come off speed humps at more than a dawdle.
There are also side skirts and a sports-style rear bumper. The exterior mirrors are body-colour, and the XR6 has standard foglights, and a flush-fitting soft tonneau cover for the load tray.
A styled, body-coloured hard tonneau cover with or without rear spoiler is available as an added-cost option, or you can order an alloy roll bar for behind the cab, with hard or soft tonneaux tailored to fit.
The cabin gets the full XR treatment, with sports-style seats (cloth standard, leather at cost), leather-wrapped steering wheel, clear and easy to read sports-style instrumentation and a multi-function trip computer which provides such useful readouts as instant and average fuel use and how hot it is outside the air-conditioned cabin.
Useful, too, is the digital speed read-out the trip computer provides. Should the feds ever go for a zero tolerance speed limit policy – in other words a surrogate speed limit of less than 100km/h – a digital speed read-out will be essential.
Front airbags are standard, with side airbags an added-cost option.
One of the cab’s best features is the amount of space behind the seats. There’s enough room for two smallish suitcases or a couple of bigger soft bags and a few odds and sods. Plenty of space for enough luggage for a week away.
A Prestige grade sound system is standard – six-disc changer, MP3-compatible, six speakers, 112 watts – or you can opt for an eight-speaker Premium set-up.
Power-operated windows and exterior mirrors are standard, and the cabin is comfortable and roomy, its only glitch somewhat restricted rear visibility, especially over your right shoulder.
But, it’s a good place to be, and you can dial up a perfect seating position from which to enjoy the XR6’s performance and finely-tuned handling.
The naturally-aspirated, fuel-injected double over camshaft (DOHC) in-line six is the baby of Ford’s performance motor range. But it’s good for 195kW (262bhp) at 6000rpm (an output that V8s would once have been proud of) and peak torque of 391Nm at 3250rpm.
It delivers sparkling performance with strong acceleration from rest (0-100km/h in the six-second bracket), plenty of overtaking power and effortless cruising.
The XR6 Ute runs a five-speed automatic rather than the XR6 Turbo’s exquisite ZF six-speeder. But the five-speed is smooth-shifting and can be controlled manually using a centre console-mounted lever.
Handling is vice-free, with good turn-in to corners, and the well-weighted power steering is communicative and precise.
The suspension is sports-tuned, and the rear axle is located by a Hotchkiss link and has a limited slip diff. Standard wheels are 17-inch alloys wearing 245/45 R17 tyres, though 18s with 245/40s and 19-inchers with 245/35s are available as options.
Grip is excellent and in roughly 1000km of driving, we discovered no rough edges to the handling. In fact, it’s easy to find a rhythm and the Ute is rewarding to drive with minimal understeer and nimble manners.
The four-wheel disc brakes are competent and have an ABS anti-lock system with electronic brake force distribution.
Much hot air is expended bemoaning the irresponsibility of cars of this size with V8 or big six engines. "Gas guzzlers!” their critics scream.
‘Only if you want them to be,’ I reply. For, especially on the open road, you can achieve excellent fuel economy in a carefully-driven Falcon XR6 Ute.
And you don’t have to drive slowly to achieve it, just use the brakes only when you really need them, maintain momentum and use light pressure on the throttle, letting the car find its way to 100km/h rather than flooring the gas pedal to get there as quickly as possible.
On a run from Taupo to Auckland, using twisting and turning, climbing and falling back roads for a significant part of the journey, we managed 8.8 litres/100km (32mpg) and averaged more than 90km/h. In constant running on the motorway fuel economy will improve to the mid-to-high sevens.
City running and idling is the fuel economy killer, and our overall consumption for the period we had the car was 12.9 litres/100km.
Ford’s Falcon XR6 Ute prices start at $42,490. It’s an engaging vehicle, comfortable to ride in, with plenty of performance, well-sorted handling, good looks and bags of fun factor.
Oh, and of course, it also has the ability to do some light duty cartage work with a load tray that is 1843mm long and 1173mm wide (between the rear wheelarches, there’s greater width for and aft of them). The tailgate opening is 1356mm wide, the payload is 585kg and the Ute can tow 2300kg braked or 1000kg unbraked trailers.
So it’s capable of doing some hard work. Whether you agree with my mate that the Ford’s solid rear axle – a proper truck axle – gives it an edge over the Commodore is up to you.
If you really want a workhorse Falcon you can buy a standard Ute with the optional one-tonne suspension and rubber mats in place of carpet.
But then you’d miss out on all the good things that make the XR6 so special. I seldom have the need to cart anything, so for me the XR Ute would be a two-seat sports car with the useful extra of a load tray tacked on. Which I think describes it – and its Lion-branded rivals – perfectly.