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Ford BA Falcon Ute

 

No-one believes you when you say a Falcon Ute, even one packing a 220kW/470Nm V8 hooked up to a five-speed manual gearbox, handles just as well as the equivalent sedan, maybe even slightly better.

But I do declare it's true, even when Ford goes a step crazier and slots the new 240kW/450Nm turbocharged Twin Cam inline six into the long wheelbase Ute chassis.

All that power and all that torque in a Ute, a vehicle traditionally tarred with the tail-happy brush? It'd have to be unmanageable wouldn't it?

No it wouldn't. At least that's the conclusion after driving a selection of the new BA Utes on the unfamiliar roads of Australia's Blue Mountains last Thursday and Friday.

The old model AU XR8 was a supple, manageable vehicle. It looked a little mean and a little hairy. But on the road, being punted enthusiastically, it was manageable and surprisingly refined.

The Pursuit variants, especially this year's 250kW version with the 5.6-litre stroked Windsor engine was even better.

The chassis remained well-mannered, you needed to deliberately provoke the tail to slide and the performance, though prodigious, was eminently manageable.

In fact when Ford NZ was bold enough to let us loose in a selection of performance Falcons on the Pukekohe motor racing circuit, the big-engined Pursuit proved the pick of the bunch. It felt more balanced and less nose-heavy, and its turn-in was crisper and with less understeer than its sedan stablemates, the Tickford TS50 and TE50. And the TS50 is currently at the top of our motoring wish-list. It's by far the most satisfying car we've driven on the road this year.

Which brings us back to the BA and the Blue Mountains.

The Ute is an important vehicle for Ford Australia. It largely kept the line going when the Australian public turned its collective back on the AU sedan and wagon (ranges which do much better here than they do in their homeland. Maybe we welcome the unusual more readily than our friends across the ditch do).

And an essential part of the Ute range is the one-tonne (actual payload around 1200kg) cab and chassis.


That much is obvious once you're on Australian roads, especially rural ones. You know how it is. When you get into a car that's new to you, you start to notice the same models more.

We saw lots of cab and chassis AU Falcon Utes on New South Wales roads.

The cab/chassis BA Falcon comes in three grades: XL with 1280kg payload capacity and suspension to suit; XLS with 1260kg and tough suspension; and XLS with Sports suspension and an 865kg payload.

It's a rugged truck and a real point of difference from the rival Holden Ute range. The Commodore-based two-seater is offered only as a light duty pick-up, oriented more towards the leisure market than the farmer or tradesman who needs heavy hauling capacity.

The cab/chassis models all get the 182kW/380Nm naturally aspirated inline 4.0-litre six. The same motor is in the XR6 Ute.

The only thing that tells you you're in a workhorse is the aluminium load tray that looms in the exterior mirrors. Otherwise the cab/chassis behave just like any of its wellside siblings; like a well-sorted rear-wheel drive sedan. We didn't, however, drive one with the stiffer one-tonne suspension. Our cab/chassis, driven on the Freeway, was Sports suspension-equipped.

The BA sedan launch in Northland a few weeks ago made instant converts of anyone who drove the new turbocharged six-cylinder XR6 version.

It was simply sensational, with beautifully-balanced road manners and a smooth delivery of power from low in the rev range. It felt like a well-developed 2.0-litre high-performance car rather than an Aussie big six. The manual gearbox was a joy to use, with short precise throws. The steering had excellent feedback and good feel. The cars' only problem was an insistent and annoying whine from the turbo.


I didn't drive a manual turbo Ute in Australia, but my colleagues who did were fizzing. I rode as a passenger in one and we had a hairy moment or two when the driver hit the throttle too hard and too soon in a corner on a dirt road and we got into a tank-slapping series of tailslides that threatened to put us into a ditch. But the BA's friendly chassis responded and we came through unscathed.

The automatic-equipped turbo Ute was simply superb with stunning acceleration off the line and at open-road passing speeds. The chassis felt the equal of the sedan's.

The turbo whine was less noticeable in the Utes than it had been in the sedans. The four-doors we drove in NZ were what Ford labels FEUs (field evaluation units) and were definitely pre-production models.

Ford offers XL, XLS, XR6 and XR6 Turbo versions of the BA, all with what it labels a Styleside Box load tray. An XR8 version is yet to be unveiled.

You can order XL models with standard (825kg payload) or one-tonne (1105kg) suspension.

XLSs can be had with one-tonne (1100kg) or Sports (685kg payload) suspensions.

The XRs come only with the Sports set-up and a 640kg payload for the standard XR6 and 590kg for the urbo.

I also drove two Styleside BAs fitted with the new 5.4-litre V8. Both were manuals and I just loved them.

My colleagues thought I was crazy, saying the Turbo was infinitely better, with a much better gearbox.


But I don't know. There's just something really appealing about a V8 and the way it rumbles then snarls as you floor the pedal. It's less refined when being used in anger and it feels more alive.

The gearbox was nothing special. The usual Falcon V8 style, with longish, heavyish throws and a shift "quality" that repaid leisurely movements.

The torque was immense, but despite driving on sometimes wet roads in foggy conditions the V8 Ute never wanted to step out its tail.

It handled dirt roads, including one on which there was slippery marble-like gravel on the dirt surface, with surefooted confidence.

The BA seats seem better than the AU's and the new European-style, Mondeo-like dashboard looks great.

These big powerful Utes offer truly car-like handling and on initial acquaintance on unfamiliar roads, they seem very good indeed.

Given the BA's generally cleaner styling the new Utes should easily outperform their predecessors in the showroom.

The XR6 models (especially the Turbo) are now, more than ever before, sports cars with a load tray.

And the BA sedan should see Ford regain some of the sales ground its has lost to Holden.

AutoPoint Road Test team: story by Mike Stock


Auto Trader New Zealand