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Ford BA Falcon XR6 Turbo


Didn't people just love to bag the AU Falcon.

Its looks were too radical for mainstream taste and in its home market, Australia, buyers turned their backs on it and flocked to the much more fluently-styled Holden Commodore.

If it hadn't been for the fact that the Falcon ute and the one-tonne cab/chassis version in particular proved so popular in their home market, the AU and AUII Falcons would have been unmitigated disasters for Ford Australia.

The AUs fared a little better here, thanks largely to the success of the XR6. The twin-headlight XRs were the best looking AU Falcons and NZ buyers just loved them. More than a third of AU Falcons sold here were XRs.

But even in New Zealand the car got a bagging. A colleague, seeing one for the first time at the AU's launch in Sydney, said it looked like a Ford Taurus that someone had stood on.

There was some truth in that. There were echoes of the radically oval-styled Taurus in the AU. The door opening and the doors were an oval shape and the drooping nose and rear end also had elements of the US car in their styling.

Perhaps the most awkward aspect of the AU was the impression that the nose and rear end lines swept upwards to form a peak at the top of the B-pillar.

If there was ever a car that proved people are more than willing to judge a book by its cover, it was the AU Falcon.

For underneath those unpopular lines - though I've got to say I rather liked the XR AUs and the last of the Tickford T-Series models - was a very good big sedan.

The six, though rather unrefined, gave good performance, and the V8 - especially in 220kW or 250kW Tickford 5.6-litre form - endowed the Falcon with real on-road bite.

The chassis was well-tuned, especially in the sports-oriented versions, with reasonably-supple ride, excellent grip, and finely-honed handling. Its crisp turn-in made the Commodore's more understeer-oriented turn-in seem stodgy.

Perhaps the best illustration of the mixed emotions and reactions the AU engendered we've encountered was what the bloke who stopped us when we were out testing the new BA XR6 Turbo had to say.

He waved us down and asked if this were indeed the new Falcon. He'd been reading about them and had been waiting to see one in the metal.

He thought the published photos looked great, the car even better "in the flesh."

The AU had had no appeal for him and he'd decided not to buy one (he was driving an EL Falcon) and wait instead for the next generation.

Well here it was and he liked what he saw.

What he saw, in fact, was a major rework of front and rear styling. Both are higher and more angular. The drooping nose and tail have gone. The roof is flatter, getting rid of the peaked look.

The door openings and doors, though, are the same as the AU's. Doors and the opening they fit in are the most expensive things to design and build on a car's body. Though Ford has spent $A500 million on the BA Falcon, there wasn't enough money to change the doors.

The other changes to the exterior, though, give the car an almost completely different look. It's only from some angles, such as three-quarter on, that you become aware of family similarities to the AU. From those angles, you see, you're very aware of the shapes of the doors.

As with the AU, it's the XR models which look the best.

Ford has retained the four headlight look, but the lights are behind clear covers now rather than in eye-lidded openings. The four-light look is achieved by crescent-shaped indentations in the front bumper.

There's an echo of Mustang about the car's frontal look and its on-road stance. That became plain when we were driving in convoy on the BA's New Zealand media launch. Catch a glimpse of a following XR6 in the rearview mirror and the instant thought was "Mustang."

It doesn't mimic the US car, though. It's more subtle than that. It evokes. Suggests.

The other big change to the way the car looks is that the body has been lowered on to the wheels so that the rims and tyres fill the wheelarches. Gone is the awkward, lanky, long suspension-travel look of Falcons from the EA through to the AU II.

That filled wheelarch look gave the TS50 and TE50 Tickfords much of their on-road presence.

The new Falcon range and the XR6s in particular - they ride on 17-inch alloy rather than 16-inch wheels - gain similar presence.

There are radical changes inside too.

Out is the American-derived traditional Aussie Ford dashboard.

Replacing it is a decidedly European layout with simplified controls and an almost austere look. Ford Australia stylists will tell you the dashboard was designed at the same time as the new Mondeo's and wasn't copied from or influenced by the European car's. But the look is very Mondeo.

The seats seem better than the AU's. The built-in lower back support is not as aggressive.

The big news with the XR6 range is that you can opt for two distinctively different engines.

There's a "cooking" version - the naturally-aspirated Twin Cam six cylinder. It puts out 182kW and 380Nm, the same figures as the base model Falcon XT, the Futura and the Fairmont six. Those are good figures that once would have done a performance V8 proud.

But it's the turbocharged version of the XR6 that's the jewel in the BA Falcon crown.

The boosted inline six develops 240kW of power, humbling the AU XR8's 220kW. More important is the 450Nm of torque that is available from 2000rpm to 4500rpm.

Those figures equate to real performance. Expect to race from 0 to 100km/h in the six second bracket. Australian magazine Motor pitted a BA XR6 Turbo against Holden's sharp new VY SS and the V8 only just shaded the Ford six in the sprint.

But it's the power delivery that impresses most. Seamless is an overused word but it's the one that best describes the Falcon turbo.

Of course there's some lag before the turbocharger starts spinning. But the boost comes on so strongly and at such low revs that the lag is almost imperceptible.

The spread of revs at which the peak torque is available means that you don't need to change gear as much as you would in a naturally-aspirated car.

The torque is so meaty and so constantly available that the turbocar will tackle third-gear corners in fourth. On demanding winding roads you can slot it into third and drive in the one gear. Only the tightest of corners require a downshift to second. First is for starting only.

The test car used the revised five-speed manual, controlled by a stubby, short-throw lever.

Colleagues have raved about this version of the manual, saying it feels much slicker, much better than the longer-levered V8 unit. Sure it feels sportier, but you're still aware that you're using a beefy and rugged, relatively slow-shifting gearbox. The clutch feels lighter and the BA manual is much more user-friendly in stop/start commuter traffic. There's still some driveline shunt in traffic but it's not as tiresome as in AU XR manuals.

The stubby lever feels great, though.

So does the small-diameter, thick-rimmed steering wheel.

Handling is superb. AU XRs were great, especially the ute, but the BA is better.

Turn-in is even crisper than before, and is right up to TS50 standard. The steering has been revised and has a much more linear feel with outstanding feedback. It rewards a light and gentle touch.

The feeling of control is such that you seem to will the car into corners with only the most economical of steering movements.

Rear end grip is excellent. The independent rear suspension has been completely redesigned (Ford calls it Control Blade) and the rear wheels get real bite when the car is being pushed hard.

The XR6 Turbo tackled a favourite and demanding piece of road with the aplomb of a much smaller and lighter car. The chassis balance was so good and so neutral that brakes were needed only for the trickiest of the corners (a left-hander that tightens unexpectedly). The rest were taken easily in third gear with just the slightest and briefest lift-off before turn-in.

The general feel was of a well-bred 2.0-litre category car than a 1600kg big six.

Traction control keeps things pointing the right way on wet roads, and you can switch it off if you're an oversteer fan.

Ride quality doesn't suffer. It's pleasingly supple, and won whole-hearted approval from the regular passenger.

In fact she liked the whole car. At last there's a car that we both covet.

Standard equipment includes body kit, cruise control, premium sound system with in-dash six-disc Compact Disc stacker and 11 speakers; sports seats; front and side airbags; electrically adjustable windows and exterior mirrors; cloth upholstery; driving lights; central door-locking and a security system.

Interior space? It's a Falcon so there's plenty. The boot is generous, too, though the spare wheel leaves a bump in the floor.

The XR6 Turbo sells for $56,400 which seems a reasonable price for such a well-developed, well-equipped and potent sports sedan.

The essence of a good car is the way its component parts come together to form a cohesive package.

In the BA XR6 Turbo, Ford has got that package right. It's easily the best high-performance factory Falcon we've driven (we'd like to match it against the Tickford-enhanced AU-based TS50 and Pursuit 250 Ute to form a final verdict) and provides Holden's hot V8s with a worthy challenger.

This car can't help but be a success.

AutoPoint road test team: words and pictures by Mike Stock.

Auto Trader New Zealand