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Ford Falcon XR8 Pursuit


How much power is enough? How much power is too much? Both questions come to mind when you examine the on-paper specification of Ford's Falcon XR8 Pursuit 250 Ute.

They seem rational and reasonable questions when you consider the original AU XR8 Ute's 5.0-litre V8 produced 185kW of power.

That V8 was subsequently boosted to 200kW for the XR8 sedan, and Ford used that motor in the 2001 Pursuit Ute.

The first Pursuit was built - and came to New Zealand in very limited numbers, but was an instant hit both here and in Australia. Its 200kW V8 - which also developed 420Nm of torque - became standard issue in the XR8 Ute on the strength of the Pursuit's success.

On paper the 200kW Pursuit had looked as if it might be something of a liability, especially on a wet road.

But Tickford's chassis tuning proved more than up to the job, and the Pursuit 200 had excellent road manners.

The AU XR Ute, in fact, had always been a sweet handler, its mix of long wheelbase and well-located solid rear axle - using a Hotchkiss system and re-angled shock absorbers - making it manageable and enjoyable to drive with crisp turn-in to corners, great stability and prodigious rear-end grip. It blended sports car-like performance and handling with the practicality of a cargo tray.

Despite the engine's power and torque, the Pursuit 200 showed no tendency to tailslide wildly at a prod of the throttle pedal. In fact the test car needed a conscious effort to make it wag its tail. Much the same was true from a standing start. Wheelspin was available, but you had to provoke it.

So 200kW in a Falcon AU Ute chassis resulted in a perfectly-acceptable high-performance car with good road manners and no bad surprises lurking in its armoury.

But was that as far as the concept could be taken? Certainly 200kW and 420Nm didn't leave you feeling you were being shortchanged on power.

But then there's the Holden SS Ute and the HSV Maloo.M

The SS has a 5.7-litre V8 producing 225kW and 460Nm.

The Maloo, in standard and R8 forms, has 255kW and 475Nm from its 5.7-litre V8.

So in the see-sawing horsepower race, Ford had some catching up to do. The 220kW upgrade for the Falcon XR V8 wouldn't cut the mustard.

The answer came in the Tickford-developed Windsor V8. Tickford stroked the motor out to a 5.6 for its TS50 and TE50 Fairmont-based sedans.

It produces 250kW - still fractionally shy of HSV's 5.7 - and 500Nm.

Ford says it will power the Pursuit from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.97 seconds (manual) and 6.84s (auto as tested). Standing 400 metre times are 14.3s and 14.9s.

The 200kW/420Nm Pursuit had handling and roadholding to spare, but would that be so with a massive 80 extra Newton Metres and 50 more kilowatts?

The sceptics were, well, sceptical: on paper, a 250kW 5.6-litre V8 in a solid-axled Ute sounded like a recipe for a motorised handful, a brute that would redefine oversteer and rear-wheel breakaway.

And what would it be like on a streaming wet road?

The prospect suggested by the on-paper story was potentially frightening.

But what looked a motoring mismatch on paper proved to be a well-sorted car in person.

We met the Pursuit 250 first at Ford's let-the-media-loose-in-muscle-cars day at Pukekohe in March. It was there with a selection of other high-performance Falcons, TS50 and TE50 5.6-litre Tickfords, the hottest Mondeo and a Mustang convertible.

The Pursuit 250 more than held its own; we thought it was the best-balanced car we drove.

In the metal it didn't look that different from other XR8 Utes, except for the solid tonneau cover complete with rear wing.

It hunkered a little lower and looked more purposeful. It was red; a colour we think does less for AU Falcons than blue or silver.

The seating position is familiar Falcon country. You can get nicely low, your shoulders are well supported, the fixed lower back support is a little aggressive, the side-bolstering grips well in cornering.

Flick the key on, blip the throttle and, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, Phwoarrr!

Ford Australia's V8s have always been a little muted, but Tickford's 5.6-litre is a shrieker.

It snarls and barks and there's an impression of real bite. When you're rocketing up through the gears it howls with a sharp, aggressive, meaty note.

They say no-one now knows what the American Civil War Rebel Yell sounded like, the yell that cut to the bone of Union troops waiting to withstand Confederate charges.

But it must have had some of the same bite that erupts from the 5.6 V8 when you stomp on the gas and it opens its lungs and roars.

It sounds like business and it means business.

There's an eager, visceral feel to the Pursuit's acceleration out of Castrol Corner on to Pukekohe's back straight. The motor whoops and shrieks with delight as you unleash the revs while you hold the four-speed automatic manually through the lower ratios.

It's as if the Ute could see a Maloo or an SS ahead of it and, living up to its name, is giving hot pursuit.

Instead it's another Ford that looms ever closer before we brake hard for the left/right witches' hat chicane near the back straight kink. The standard all-disc set-up washes away speed, I pluck second and the car rockets to the braking point for the hairpin. Hold it left and high and turn down into the apex. The Pursuit accomplishes it better than most of its stablemates, not torturing its front tyres with understeer as its TS50 and TE50 siblings do.

I let it run wide, the rear wheel dancing along the ripple strip as I nail it out of the corner in second gear. The tail stays securely planted. Up over the top of the hill, running out side to the edge of the seal and down the pit straight the car feels beautifully-balanced.

The gaggle in front slows for the funnel created by witches' hats at the entry to the Jennian Homes sweeper. The Pursuit's turn-in is faultless and the car tracks around the daunting corner smoothly and precisely. Hard on the brakes and through the Esses, perhaps with the run over the top of John Deere hill the most satisfying part of the track, nibbling at the kerbs. Back on to the straight and the lungs open, the exhaust note snarls and the V8 shrieks its warning to errant Holdens. We button off to avoid passing the XR in front (we're not allowed to overtake), then it's into the chicane again. Two more laps of this and it's co-driver Ross Kiddie's turn. He's a V8 fan, too, and he also thinks the Pursuit is just Christmas.

I walk away from the Pursuit totally captivated.

The next mission is to get one for test. And wouldn't you know it, its arrival coincides with heavy rain. We need to go to the King Country for the Waikato Rally and after dithering about whether the rally will be cancelled, finally set forth.

Now I know the Pursuit has got massive reserves on dry tarmac. But streaming rain of the type they foolishly call driving rain?

We waft down the motorway, across the Bombays and into what people call real New Zealand - the part where Auckland isn't.

There are traffic frustrations, queues of cars waffling along at 70km/h. The trip to Pio Pio takes forever.

As we head southwest out of Ngaruawahia and towards Otorohanga we get a chance to gingerly try the Pursuit's wet road grip. We needn't have worried.

It's good, the car feeling rock solid as the 245/40 Dunlop SP9000s dig down through the water to find dry road. There are no tailslides, no twitches. I'm trying to drive the car gently, feeding in the power rather than stomping on the gas; and it responds beautifully. Its rate of progress when traffic conditions allow is comparable to dry-road pace.

The weather's better on the way home. There's still rain but it's not constant, and on the damp, drying and dry tarmac that peppers the drive home, the Pursuit is rock solid. We get rear-end breakaway only once, accelerating as we turn from a T-junction.

We shave an hour off the journey without trying. The meaty torque means the car responds briskly as you accelerate out of corners and any lost momentum is regained instantly. Not that you lose that much anyway. The chassis is so well-sorted, the grip so great that you carry good speed into and out of corners.

We lose most momentum stuck for 30 or so kilometres behind a bloody-minded BMW 325i driver who has no intention of being passed by some pleb in a hoon car. He's braking like there's no tomorrow for corners the BMW would scamper around with the merest brush on the brake pedal.

The problem is solved by the first decent straight, a change down to second, a stomp on the gas and a soaring rebel yell from the V8.

Though this is a big and bulky car it's light and easy to drive. Safely home after a trip in weather conditions that have often been arduous, I climb out feeling fresh and alert.

Four days later the weather is fine, the road is dry and I take the Pursuit over my 160-kilometre test route.

It's not necessarily the country for a 1750kg car that is 5077mm long and 1870mm wide, but the Pursuit is superb. Turn-in is crisp, the car tracks solidly, the rear end behaves itself.

The feeling is of a well-developed chassis oriented very much towards driving fun and pleasure.

Our only quibble was that after a particularly demanding section of road there was some very minor brake fade - no smoke, no smell, just a need to push harder on the pedal. If you used the car hard often the Brembo brake kit - a hefty $6000 - would be a wise investment.

But aside from that - and I was feeling off-colour with the 'flu that day and may have been braking harder than normal - there was virtually nothing to whinge about.

The regular front seat passenger felt the ride was harsher than we've encountered in other XR8 Utes, but from the driver's seat it wasn't uncomfortably so.

The Ute is strictly a two-seater, but the longer cab introduced with the AU means there's now enough space to cram a week's supermarket shopping for two behind the seats. Handy nets keep fragile items held down.

The Pursuit 250 delivers all its specification promises - and more.

And Ford Australia has proven that a vehicle whose specifications might suggest it'll be an oversteering nightmare is a relatively-refined, well-mannered slice of V8 heaven.

AutoPoint road test team. Pictures by Mike Stock.

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