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Ford Falcon XR8


They call it driving rain, though driving in it is seldom pleasant.

Four-wheel drive cars like Jaguar's accomplished and desirable X-Type or Subaru's Impreza and Legacy ranges thrive in such conditions, providing levels of grip, poise and predictably that would do most cars proud on dry roads.

But a 260kW, near 1700kg rear-wheel drive, torquey V8-powered sports sedan? That sort of car and driving rain seem mutually exclusive. Certainly they were in the past.

Take the Ford Falcon XF as an example. The last of the Falcon square-riggers - cars which still look good almost 20 years on - the XF was a real handful on a wet road. I have a vivid memory of driving home one evening through the Ellerslie shopping centre. It was a fine night, dry road as I turned into the right-angled left-hander that takes you down through the strip-mall shopping centre.

But as we rounded the apex and I prodded the throttle we suddenly hit water. The now-defunct Ellerslie Borough Council (a body since swallowed up by Auckland City), bless its cotton socks, took it upon itself to water-clean the road somewhere around midnight.

The XF snapped, as old Falcons were wont to, into uncatchable oversteer. The tail came around 90 degrees and we were suddenly charging towards the footpath. By chance we hit a driveway and came to a halt shaken but with no harm done.

And by modern standards the XF didn't really have any power; nor, it seemed, any real grip if the surface got slippery.

Cut to 2003 and the road north last afternoon as we headed for Paihia and the Rally of the North.

We were in a Falcon, a much more potent big Ford than that old XF; an XR8 to be specific with a 5.4-litre SOHV V8, 260kW of maximum power and a thumping and - on paper at least - rear-wheel grip-straining 500Nm of peak torque.

The early running was dry and the dash to Wellsford was accomplished with few delays.

But then it rained, and it rained, and it rained some more. The windscreen wipers dealt efficiently with the down-the-windscreen deluge that renewed itself as soon as the blades had passed by. The headlights lit up the road ahead impressively; the driving lights picked out the white centreline and the edge of the tarmac.

The air-conditioning kept the windows fog-free and if we'd chosen the six-disc, dashboard-mounted Compact Disc sound system would have kept us richly entertained.

Moderately heavy traffic made the trip a fairly slow one, but the big Ford never put a foot wrong even when the going got tight.

I'm an optimist at heart and on Saturday morning I was certain the weather would clear by the afternoon. Local knowledge was on my side.

The hotel restaurant manager who served out breakfast thought the rain would be gone by afternoon.

It wasn't. There were occasional clear periods, but then the rain would come back, heavier than ever.

The XR8 delivered impressive grip on the run north to Mangonui as we followed the rally. Only once did we get a slide, as the car got a little unsettled by a bridge with a step up and a step off and a slicker surface than the chip-sealed road on either side. It was a fleeting loss of front wheel adhesion as we made the step down from the bridge. There and gone, fleeting.

As impressive was what the car did when we hit a patch of unexpected roadworks - someone would appear to have moved the warning and 30km/h signs on the southern side of the gravelled roadworks. We sailed off the tarmac at 100km/h and on to the slippery loose surface mid-corner. The XR8 disdainfully treated the gravel as if it were more chip-sealed tarmac. No hint of a slide, no dramas.

By the end of the day we were more than impressed by the Falcon's level of wet and loose-surface grip.

Those impressions were reinforced on the dry roads of Sunday. The XR8 seems to shrink around you. It's 4920mm long, is 1864mm wide and 1435mm high. The wheelbase is 2829mm.

So it's a big car, but it feels much smaller once you settle behind the wheel.

The steering is accurate and communicative and the smallish-diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel is a pleasure to use. The steering offers good feel and weight at highway speeds.

Turn-in is crisp and the XR8 tracks true, unfazed by mid-corner bumps.

The Dunlop SP sport tyres riding on attractive 17-inch alloy wheels provide excellent grip on wet or dry roads.

But the more you drive the XR8 - and we drove it around 1000 kilometres, 700 of them in the wet - the more you come to realise it's not a car that depends disproportionately on its tyres for grip.

The chassis, with its finely-tuned control blade independent rear suspension, makes a strong contribution in its own right.

The tyre/chassis combination provides excellent front and rear-end grip. The car has such poise, in fact, that it relegates the brakes largely to the roles of emergency stopping, slowing for dawdling traffic or the occasional ultra-tight corner, settling the car for sharpish corners, or stopping for intersections and parking.

The XR8 will tackle most open road running with minimal use of the four-wheel disc brakes.

The motor's massive torque also makes gearbox rowing largely a thing of the past.

Ford's five-speed manual is much improved and save for real stop/go commuter traffic, driveline shunt has been largely eliminated. But the smooth, creamily-delivered torque means corners you once tackled in third are now turned comfortably in fourth. The car will even corner briskly in moderately tight going in fifth gear.

You seldom need second gear, except when you want to be a bit of a boy and floor the throttle, revelling in the V8's Rebel Yell holler and hooting out aloud as the car rockets forward, pushing you back in the seat. It redefines passing times when you're getting around a vehicle travelling at 70km/h in a 100km/h zone.

The driving position is excellent and you can adjust it to meet preferences. Our favoured low-seat, high steering wheel stance was easy to achieve.

The seats are well-shaped and offer excellent lateral support. However, the regular passenger complained that she couldn't get completely comfortable, finding herself unable to get her feet squarely on the floor. She hasn't made the complaint about other BA Falcon seats. A glitch with this particular car's seat mounting? Fuel economy. Well it is a powerful V8. We got a little more than 400 kilometres out of the 68 litre tank of 96 octane before the low fuel warning chimed.

There's plenty of cabin room, good storage, and a big useable boot, though the spare wheel means the floor isn't level. To say we liked the XR8 is an understatement. I absolutely loved it. I haven't smiled so much or talked so animatedly about the merits of a four-door sedan for ages. It rides firmly but comfortably, it has as much performance as you can possibly use, its handling is forgiving and surefooted and you can complete long drives on demanding roads and in difficult conditions without feeling tired out. With practice we figure you could improve fuel economy.

Would we buy one? Oh yes. Only the Falcon GT would sway our choice of best big sedan.

The Falcon XR8 costs $61,500 with either manual or automatic gearbox.

- story and photographs by Mike Stock.

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