What a difference a manual gearbox makes.
That's the major impression from a fortnight's driving in the manual version of Ford's 220 kilowatt Falcon XR8.
It was over the Christmas/New Year holiday period which meant we didn't use the five-on-the-floor sports sedan for rush hour commuting.
That's an environment in which we're fairly sure the manual gearbox version wouldn't shine.
It's not that the clutch is too heavy, because frankly given the fact that it has to cope with those 220 more than willing horses and 435Nm of torque, it's surprisingly light and user-friendly. Not a featherweight like you'd find in a small 1300cc sedan - and it does require quite a hefty shove of your foot to push the long-travel pedal to the firewall - but no gorilla either.
The gearshift itself is chunky, with medium travel and a real feeling of shifting cogs. It doesn't like to shift quickly and it requires deliberate, firm movements. But with all that torque on hand you don't need to make lightning-fast shifts.
Those things said, though, the manual wouldn't be our first choice for stop/start commuting each day. The XR8 manual doesn't like moving at crawl speeds. You're always aware of the gearbox working and there's quite a bit of prop shaft rock and roll as the car accelerates or decelerates at really slow speeds. Progress is jerky no matter how hard you try to be smooth.
In such traffic the auto is the better bet, Ford's sweet-shifting four-speed doing the gear-changing with its barely perceptible and silky-smooth efficiency. It takes all the rough edges away and makes the XR8 seem as docile as a "cooking" six cylinder model.
But drive the XR8 manual in light traffic and you're aware that your hands and feet are controlling a potent and vibrant vehicle.
The 5.0-litre V8 has an urgent edge to it, both in the way it sounds and in the way it behaves.
Prod the throttle gently and there's instant response and a satisfying snarl.
Floor the pedal and there's a glorious - if slightly muted - bark, a blend of mechanical and exhaust sounds as the bent eight breathes deep and delivers.
The revs rise as quickly as the car leaps forward and you can find yourself hanging on to first gear for too long, with consequent bad effects on the smoothness and ease of the shift into second.
The Ford V8 sounds and feels fiercer than its 5.7-litre Chevrolet counterpart in the Holden Commodore. It's a rawer, more urgent feel; and in the manual gearbox XR8, those characteristics are amplified over the auto version.
We're talking city running here, where the punch and acceleration from rest to 50km/h are prodigious. The best thing, though, is that despite the power and torque available the XR8 is no precious prima donna at city speeds. It will trickle along at 50km/h without complaint or fuss.
The chassis feels alive too. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has an ideal diameter and a nicely-chunky rim. The seating position is multi-adjustable and our favoured low seat/high steering wheel position is easy to achieve.
The cloth-covered seats are supportive with good side bolsters to hold you in place during vigorous cornering. My only gripe is that the lower back support is a little too aggressive for my taste. That would be the deciding factor were I choosing between the XR8 and Holden's SS. In most ways, the XR8 appeals more than the VX I SS (we've yet to drive the VX II version in local conditions), but the Holden's seats would sway me towards the lion-badged road rocket. I just find its seats more comfortable than Ford's.
We've covered the city story. What about the open road?
In a word: sensational. The XR8 has a real feeling of aliveness. The engine delivers massive but manageable punch, and the steering is communicative and nicely weighted: not too light but not overly heavy either.
Turn-in to corners is crisp and instant. In this respect the Ford feels much superior to the VX I Commodore. After driving a VX II Acclaim rental car in Southland recently, I think the Ford still has the edge on turn-in feel and general steering responsive. That's not comparing apples with apples, of course, and a real determination will have to await our forthcoming ride in a VX II SS (also, I believe, a manual).
The ride is firm but not uncomfortably so and the XR8 absorbs bumps rather than transmits them. Again this is no rough-edged gorilla, but rather a well-developed big sedan with real sporting character.
The basic handling feel is quite neutral, though for safety's sake Ford has added sufficient understeer to the mix.
Where it also differs from the older Holden is in its feeling on the way out of a corner.
The Ford delivers a very real feeling of rear-end movement, though it doesn't actually break away. There is a tightening of the line and in some cases, particularly on slower corners, you can get a feel of steering the car partially on the throttle as the torque struggles - but ultimately fails - to break the rear tyres' grip.
The grip is also very good in the wet.
Riding in a new Holden Monaro driven by V8 Supercar ace Greg Murphy on an Australian test track gave me a real impression of the massive reserves of handling and roadholding the current generation big Australian V8 sedans have. They're generally forgiving and have handling abilities well beyond anything most people could exploit on the road or which few outside professional competition drivers could achieve on a closed track.
We suspect the Ford's ultimate limit might be a little lower than the Holden's given its greater feeling of rear-end liveliness, but we're also sure it's far higher than most drivers would expect or ever achieve.
Certainly the test XR8 manual sprang no surprises on us.
The good thing about the new XR8 is that its brakes - initially an AU XR weak point - are now well up to the task of repeatedly hauling the more than 1600kg car down from high speed. We encountered no fade.
Acceleration is vivid. Expect to reach 100km/h in a shade over six seconds if you're really trying. Top speed is academic but would easily exceed double the open road speed limit.
Fuel economy? Who buys a high-performance V8 for its fuel efficiency?
The XR8 is relatively well-equipped, with electrically-operated windows and exterior mirrors, a good sound system with Compact Disc player, a basic but typically efficient air-conditioning system (how is the Australians manage to provide air-conditioning that is comfortable and never fridge-like when many other manufacturers can't?).
The broad spoked alloy wheels have a flush face which means it's not easy to scuff the spokes as well as the rim if you graze a kerb - as I discovered to my embarrassment.
The XR8 manual is a highly-desirable sports sedan, offering excellent people and luggage accommodation (though the alloy spare wheel sits well proud of the boot floor), tough, no-compromise performance and a superbly lively and highly-competent chassis.
If you plan to use an XR8 mainly for commuting and the occasional high-speed blast go for the smoother automatic version.
But if you can afford to keep one as a toy take the manual. The manual shifter makes such a difference, delivering a real sports sedan feel. There's nothing like the initial launch off the line, the hefty thump as the torque arrives in masses in second gear, and the seamless power delivery as the torque ensures no loss of momentum and oomph as you snick the gearbox slowly, gently and precisely into third. The Falcon just wants to keep on running and running and you just keep grinning and grinning. Yee-ha!
AutoPoint road test team.