Can it compete with its Holden counterpart?
Once upon a time it was easy. Falcons and Commodores were hairy-chested rear-drive sedans with attitude - the more attitude the better. Safety, economy, all those wishy-washy PC-vegetarian-greenie attitudes were immaterial. What mattered was noise, power, and tail-happy hoonery.
Which of the two large cars you thought was better often depended on what your father drove; certainly considerations that depended on objective judgement rarely came into play.
But no longer. To sell a large car against a smaller one - let alone another large car - you have not only to consider its handling and power delivery, but also emissions, economy, safety...
Ford and Holden have played leapfrog with each model upgrade; Ford usually holding the handling high ground, Holden managing a more macho persona.
The latest Commodore lifted the bar considerably, especially in handling terms. Could Falcon compete? If our extensive Australian launch drive is anything to go by, the answer's yes. It's still a tad more elegant than the H-brand opposition; it's still a sweet handler; and there's a lot of other good stuff under its handsome skin.
At first glance, especially in photos, that skin looks very similar to the outgoing car's bar the new headlights. But see it in the flesh, with Australia's strong autumn sun pouring over its flanks, and you develop a keener appreciation for this car. There are subtle curves and creases that impart a more modern flavour.
That more modern flavour permeates some very modern underpinnings - particularly those pertaining to safety. Talk to Adam Frost, chief engineer of virtual engineering, or Dr Mark Fountain, manager of virtual engineering attributes and a Doctor in impact bio-dynamics, and you're bombarded by the detail of the safety programme. How the eight on-board crash sensors work; how they react within a millisecond (your own reaction time is 300 milliseconds). How Ford has further developed its virtual crash tests; how the Supercomputer at Dearborn can 'crunch' a frontal impact simulation in four hours with information that it'd take your home PC 18 months to digest. How the 5000 simulated crashes, data from 38 real world crashes, 90 full vehicle instrumented crash tests, 310 sled tests and over 600 physical sub system and component tests - in Australia, the US and Sweden - were used to asses the car's responses in a crash. You'll hear about the complex calculations that allow Dr Fountain's team to extrapolate forces on a crash dummy into risks to soft tissue - your lungs and brain. Frankly, you'll hear a lot more than you need to - suffice it to say that Ford hasn't saved money on its safety programme.
All that passive safety stuff comes into play if the active electronics don't work - the traction and stability control, the ABS, the EBD - all standard.
But there's more. The front suspension is now an all-new virtual pivot control link set-up with the steering gear mounted infront of the axle, while the rear IRS is considerably modified. The car's track is wider; engine mods have boosted power and lowered thirst.
A new five-speed auto replaces four in all but the E-gas cars, with the ZF six-speed still on the menu - though NZ will not now get any manual transmissions.
This Falcon's suspension and steering precision proved impressive on our extensive launch drive. Ride is compliant and comfortable, and handling? Oh yes. You can drift round corners, adjusting your line on the throttle, hearing that whine of rubber near the limit of adhesion - the stability control allowing a little play before cutting in.
Ergonomics were good, specification generous, and the integration of supplementary stuff like iPods and Bluetooth phones is better than in many premium cars.
Quibbles were few. Some of the plastics felt cheap. Many of the cars displayed disconcerting steering rack rattle during hard cornering or over mid-bend bumps. Though distracting, it didn't affect handling - Ford's suspension team is working on it.
Fuel consumption on our launch drive varied, as you'd expect on a long launch drive with a motley crew of mainly lead-footed motor noters, but the fact several came in under the claim is promising.
The only disappointment was the XR8. The base XT is a bargain at this price. The G-cars manage a luxury edge, and the turbo six is a wonderful unit that pulls like a train and sounds like an attack missile. But the 8 has been emasculated. It sounds good from the outside - or so I'm told - but inside it's barely audible. Or tangible; there's little of the wonderfully evocative rumpy-pumpy idle vibe that V8 lovers so admire. Ford Australia VP of Product Development Trevor Worthington blames sound regulations, but it's surely possible to keep the vibe, or tune the noise so the driver - the person who usually paid for the car - can benefit, regardless of what passing pedestrians hear. Worse, where the turbo six positively dances round bends, the extra weight of that V8 in the nose makes this car feel lumpish by comparison; prone to pushing wide. Unless you've got 'eight' tattooed on your forehead, try the turbo six - it's the best of these cars.
But back to the ongoing question - which Falcondore is best. I suspect that may come down to taste; want brash and it'll be the Holden, want refined and the Ford would get the nod. But objectively, this is perhaps the first time that it'd take a back-to-back test drive to establish a champ.