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Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo


I can remember when 161kW was a good output for a 5.0-litre V8, and it wasn't all that lone ago.

But the see-sawing horsepower race between Ford and Holden in Australia has seen V8 outputs soar.

With its adoption of the 5.7-litre GEN III Chevrolet-built bent eight, Holden has been the recent horsepower titleholder. In "cooking" form the GM motor delivers 225kW; in tickled HSV trim it can develop from 255kW to 300kW.

Ford has been making do with a 220kW version of the Windsor; its Tickford performance nameplate stroked the eight to 5.6 litres and bumped horsepower to 250kW.

Sixes have approached and in some cases exceeded older V8 outputs.

And now, with the much revised BA Falcon, Ford has really ignited the power race.

Its new US-made 5.4-litre V8 develops 220kW in Fairmont trim; or a thumping 260kW and peak torque of 500Nm in the XR8.

But the big news is in the sixes.

Ford has fitted a twin cam head to its inline 4.0-litre six.

The basic motor develops 182kW and 380Nm and is fitted across the range, including the XR6 which gets suspension tweaks but no performance rise.

But then there's the XR6 Turbo. Its 240kW thumps V8s, and its 450Nm of peak torque is available from 2000rpm to 4500rpm.

That's staggering performance, more than enough to humble most V8s.

The best news, though, is that drivers ca make maximum use of the power and torque.

Ford has endowed the XR chassis with superb road manners.

We got the chance to sample - and savour - the car's behaviour and performance on all-too-short drives in Northland during the BA range's media launch last week.

In a word the XR6 Turbo is sensational, easily one of the best sports sedans built anywhere.

In automatic form it's very good indeed; as a manual it's outstanding.

My first taste of the manual Turbo came from the passenger's seat.

Fortunately the sports-style bucket has good backrest and cushion bolstering that kept me firmly in place as Colin Smith hustled the Ford along a winding, bush-lined road.

It was the sort of road where even a car as powerful as the XR Turbo didn't have enough room to accelerate to more than 100km/h. But it was the sort of road where the direction changes are frequent and often sharp, where there are mid-corner bumps, where the demands on the chassis are massive.

Now Smith is what I'd call a momentum driver with the ability to retain most of the straightaway speed in corners.

His hands are at quarter-to-three on the small-diameter, chunky-rimmed steering wheel.

The steering inputs are minimal and deliberate, no shuffling or sawing at the wheel; just an emphasis on precision and smoothness. The gearshifts, when there are gearshifts, are measured and unrushed.

He uses all of the road, works the chassis hard. Except for the G-forces that push my body from side-to-side in the seat the only indication of how hard the car is being worked is some brake pad smell when we stop at an intersection. Smith reports that the brakes are standing up well.

Donn Anderson writes elsewhere in this issue that, though the car is the same size as the old AU, the BA seems to shrink around the driver.

From the passenger's seat I get that impression as Smith hustles the XR Turbo along that challenging middle-of-nowhere road. It feels absolutely stable and just like an incredibly nimble 2.0-litre sized sedan. It's a magnificent feat.

It's hard to credit that this is the modern equivalent of cars like the XA and XF Falcons. They never left you in any doubt that you were in a big car; the BA fools you into thinking you're in a mid-sized sedan. That may be helped by the European-style interior (it's very new-Mondeo-like).

Smith lets me drive, finally. For a few tedious kilometres behind a local contractor's ute on a road where passing opportunities are nil.

My chance comes the following day and on roads I'm familiar with.

The AU II Falcon XR has good road manners with good turn-in and a nice compromise between handling sharpness and ride comfort.

But it pales compared with the BA XR Turbo.

The new twin cam turbo engine's beautifully-smooth torque delivery is near seamless. Meaty torque is there from way down in the rev range and the car will handle in fourth gear corners in which you'd be tempted to snatch second in other cars, V8s included.

The steering has excellent feel and is beautifully weighted. The new-design independent rear suspension keeps the tail end glued to the road. The traction control is on but it's never intrusive. Earlier I drove a regular XR6 - which doesn't have traction control - on gravel and it proved superbly stable and predictable.

The ride quality is excellent, despite the lower stance of the car compared with older model Falcons. It doesn't notice corrugations, disdainfully treats potholes.

The car responds to every command, holds its line precisely.

The feeling is fantastic. Like Anderson says, the car shrinks around you.

The gearshift is smooth and reasonably light and the clutch take-up is clean.

The brakes are strong, though the chassis balance is so good you find you're using them less than you might in other cars of this size.

The seating position is good, though I'd like to get a little lower, the steering wheel wonderful with its thick, leather-wrapped rim.

This car is fun to drive and I'm sure having fun. I don't want to hand the car over at the change-over point.

The BA Falcon has impressive road manners right across the range, but the XR Turbo may set new standards for a car of this size. It looks sensational on the road. While I'm at the wheel of other models, XR Turbos running behind me look elegantly purposeful with more than a hint of Mustang about their faces.

The new Falcon and Holden's VY Commodore hit the NZ market in November. Both are very good - the Commodore SS is a superb car and the SV8 stripped-down hot rod is fun - and the choice between them may come down to brand loyalty, or the car's looks, maybe price.

There is one important point of differentiation between the cars, though. Their interior treatments. The Holden keeps a traditional big Aussie feel, though it has a Euro-styled steering wheel.

The BA Falcon has an almost austere and decidedly European look about it.

We can't wait to drive the VY on NZ roads (we've driven it only in Australia) or to get the BA for extended test.

Maybe then we'll force ourselves to decide which is the better.

Mike Stock

Auto Trader New Zealand