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Once upon a time it was easy


FG driven – can it match Holden’s VE?

Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores were hairy-chested rear-wheel 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 to consider not only 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 the 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 its Holden 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 except for the new headlights. But see it in the metal, with Australia's strong autumn sun pouring over its flanks, and you develop a keener appreciation of the car. There are subtle curves and creases that impart a more modern flavour. That more modern flavour includes some very modern underpinnings - particularly those pertaining to safety. Talk to Adam Frost, Ford Australia’s chief engineer of virtual engineering, or Dr Mark Fountain, manager of virtual engineering attributes – whose doctorate is 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 Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, can carry out 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 more than 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 skimped 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 which are all standard on the new Falcon FG.

But there's more. The front suspension is now an all-new virtual pivot control link set-up with the steering gear mounted ahead of the axle, and the rear IRS (independent rear suspension) is considerably modified. The FG's track is wider than the outgoing BF’s; engine mods have boosted power and lowered thirst. A new five-speed auto replaces four-speeders in all but the E-gas cars, with the ZF six-speed still on the menu - though New Zealand will no longer get any manual transmissions. The FG'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 are 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, and Ford's suspension engineering team is working on the problem. Fuel consumption on our launch drive varied, as you'd expect on a long launch drive with a motley crew of mainly lead-footed motoring writers, 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 XR8 has been emasculated. It sounds good from the outside – or so I'm told – but inside, the V8 engine is barely audible – or tangible. There's little of the wonderfully evocative beat at idle that V8 lovers so admire. Ford Australia vice-president 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 the V8 in the car’s nose makes the FG XR8 feel lumpish by comparison; prone to pushing wide. Unless you've got V8 tattooed on your forehead, try the turbo six - it's the best of the XR cars.

But back to the ongoing question, which is better, the Falcon or the Commodore. 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 would take a back-to-back test drive to establish a champ.

Ford FG Falcon brief specifications
Engine. 4.0-litre in-line six, developing 195kW of power at 6000rpm and 391Nm of peak torque at 3250rpm (XT, G6E, XR6). 4.0-litre in-line six turbo, 270kW at 5250rpm, 533Nm at 2000-4750rpm (XR6 T and G6E T). Boss 290 5.4-litre V8, 290kW at 5750rpm, 520Nm at 4750rpm.

Transmission. Rear-wheel drive. Gearboxes:  five-speed auto (XT) or six-speed auto (Xr6, G6, XR6 T, G6E T).

Fuel economy (Ford figures for the combined cycle). 10.5 litres/100km (XT); 10.1 litres/100km (G6); 10.2litres/100km (G6E, XR6); 11.7 litres/100km (G6E Turbo, XR6 Turbo); 14.0 litres/100km (XR8).

Dimensions. Length, 4955mm. Width, 1868mm. Height, 1453mm. Wheelbase, 2838mm.

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