Car reviews - Ford - Falcon Ute - range
Great six-cylinder powertrains, better base automatic, handling improvements, cabin quietness, huge carrying capacity, lots of space behind the seats, available side airbags
Room for improvement
No stability control for now, XR8 not as potent as expected, coil springs would be better for performance models, front-end styling very similar to previous model
9 May 2008
WITH a passenger car body comprising excellent new front suspension and leaf springs in the rear, the Falcon Ute can be regarded as either a compromised vehicle or the best of both worlds.
The leaf springs give the Falcon Ute a carrying capacity that Holden’s rival can’t come close to matching, but coil springs would be a better option when it comes to driving dynamics.
After testing the new Falcon Ute range on slippery and twisty roads in Victoria’s Gippsland region, it feels like the Ford team has come up with something very special and the compromises are minimal.
The new Ute inherits most of the various benefits of the FG passenger car program and also fixes some minor bugs that affected the previous model to create a truly unique mix of comfort, capability and dynamic ability.
Of course, if Ford Australia’s engineering division had a magic genie it would wish it could develop a leaf spring suspension for the work-horse utes and an independent coil-spring set-up for the R6 and XR models.
With no genie in sight, Ford Australia decided to use new shock absorbers at the rear to help the sportier Falcon Utes handle better, along with some other tweaks. The monotube shocks greatly improve the suspension damping capability and therefore the ride quality of the R6 and XR models.
The base ute is still a fairly comfortable thing, but with nothing in the rear it jostles around a bit on uneven surfaces. Of course, it is better than every single imported workhorse ute, but you really notice the difference when you step into the R6.
This is the second model in the ute range and runs the same suspension setting as the XR models, although it uses smaller 16-inch alloy wheels. The result is a brilliant balance of load capacity (it can carry up to 1225kg and tow up to 2300kg), comfort and excellent handling.
It is actually a more enjoyable vehicle to drive than the XR6 and XR8 in many conditions, especially on longer trips because it offers a slightly more compliant ride thanks to higher-profile tyres.
What was surprising on the rough launch roads was the way the suspension dealt with bumps that you expected to cause an issue. A hefty dip that could cause other utes to spring like a pogo-stick had stuff-all effect on the Falcon Ute.
Mid-corner bumps were also expected to cause a big problem, but the Ford handled them very well. That’s not to say that a coil-sprung Commodore Ute wouldn’t handle the mid-corner bumps better – it should do – but the difference would not be huge.
While the R6 handles very well and maintains very good grip, even with nothing in the back, the XR8 and XR6 do feel slightly sharper and this is likely to be due to the bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres.
The ability of the rear suspension to stay stuck to the road was also impressive. Feed the power on slightly and carefully and you can push fast through some very slippery surfaces without breaking traction.
You can’t be silly, though. Jab the throttle or push too hard and the back tyres will start to go before the traction control kicks in. While traction control is good, stability control would be so much better.
Anyone who can wait for a few months would be best to hold off for the electronic stability control to join the range, especially if buying an XR6 Turbo or XR8 Ute with up to 290kW under the bonnet.
Owning a high-output FG ute without ESC could also bite when it comes to resale time, given that ESC will be added within months and that consumer demand for the safety feature is only going to grow in the next few years.
Ford has made head-protecting side airbags available, which is great and is something lacking from the VE Ute, for now. Even so, ESC is better because it has the ability to stop crashes in the first place.
The front suspension employs the same Virtual Pivot Control Link set-up as the sedan and the Territory and works very well in the FG Ute, which also benefits from the same steering revisions, including a repositioned variable-ratio steering rack.
The result is a sharp and responsive steering system with a progressive feel that gives the driver plenty of feedback. None of the minor rack rattle, which appeared on some of the pre-production Falcon sedans at the launch last month, was evident in the ute.
The FG Falcon sedan range brought about vast improvements in noise suppression and the ute is also quieter. It doesn’t match the sedan’s serenity, but it’s a ute, so you wouldn’t expect that.
The cabin does shelter you from the engine and a lot of other noises and is extremely quiet for a ute on smoother roads. In these situations it really verges on passenger car quietness.
Given the shape of utes in general and the NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) suppression challenges that it brings, road and tyre noise is more noticeable on coarse-chip roads - although it is improved over the last model and far better than in commercial utes.
Passenger comfort in the new ute is the similar to the FG sedan. The seats are quite comfortable, although the XR side bolters could be more supportive.
Ford is still offering a ‘bench seat’ option on the base model, using a column shifter, but it is a real compromise. The driver and passenger seats remain the same bucket-style, while a tiny little cushion makes up the third seat.
To say that the third passenger would need to get along very well with the other two is an understatement. The way the backrest turns into a cup-holder is clever, but the extra pew has limited use.
The interior improvements of the FG Falcon sedan have been carried over. For anyone who is living under a rock and hasn’t heard, the FG interior is a big step forward. Even in the base model, with the mono information display screen on the dashboard and centre control stack, the cabin looks more expensive than the price suggests.
The logical layout of the sound system and heater controls looks good and is easy to use. The instrument cluster display is also handy, with all the information from fuel consumption to speed displayed between the speedo and tacho.
One piece of data can be displayed in a very large font, while a secondary figure can be seen in a smaller font above that. It’s all very clear and just makes driving easier.
Other improvements in the cabin include a new receptacle for the toolkit and jack, which used to roll around behind the driver and passenger. The handy space behind the seats is still as large as before. It appears to be larger than the space behind the seats in the Holden Ute, although Ford has not measured the two.
You notice a key point of difference between the Ford and Holden the moment you start driving, which is also evident on the sedans – the A-pillar. The Holden’s A-pillar is big and chunky and blocks a lot of vision, which is especially disconcerting when going around right-hand corners.
The Ford’s A-pillar is considerably narrower and you can see a lot more when turning. Of course, as is the case with both utes, doing a shoulder check is difficult given the C-pillar’s proximity to the B-pillar. In the Falcon Ute, you can just see out the little side window if your seat is in the right position.
Another improvement likely to be noticed on a frequent basis is the new soft tonneau cover with snap-lock style sealing. It now clips onto the top of the steel tub, which means no more pesky (and ugly) elastic loops and plugs.
This is the same as the Holden Ute’s handy system, but the Ford’s extra clips mean you can still hold the cover in place with longer items poking out. Without the clips, Ford engineers found the tonneau cover peeled off when they tried to carry a protruding item.
As is the case with the sedan, the new Falcon Ute looks good in the meatal, but appears quite similar to the previous model at first glance, which could prove a problem for Ford when it comes to selling its “newness”.
Without a doubt, one of the most impressive elements of the FG Ute is its powertrains.
The base I6 is simply a cracker. Its great reserve of torque, available low in the rev-range, is very well matched to the ute’s carrying capability. But, as with the sedan, it revs so sweetly that when you find yourself on a twisty road you will want to explore the engine’s upper reaches.
Feel free to rev it right out as it will do so very smoothly, emitting a sporty note. Just how Ford will be able to replace this unit with a V6 that can combine the same mix of pulling power and smoothness remains a mystery. It’s unlikely to say the least.
The six works very well with the new five-speed automatic, which is quite crisp and smooth shifting. This transmission is not as intuitive as the optional ZF six-speed and tends to be more likely to shift up rather than hold the gear, but it is a big step-up over the four-speed a very good transmission for an entry-level utility.
The new XR6 Turbo was expected to be a beauty, as the engine is such a delight in the sedan, but a logistical issue meant we missed out on driving it on the launch, so stay tuned for a full test of this model.
A run in the XR8 revealed it is a nice machine, but not the hero you might think. The engine is fairly strong, although it doesn’t feel as though there is 290kW under that bulging bonnet.
Something loose in the car we tested (a pre-production model) produced a vibration at a particular point, but the car has a more fundamental problem – it’s not as fast as the XR6 Turbo (according to Ford’s own testing).
It also feels slightly heavier in the front-end and the exhaust doesn’t match the angry V8 burble of Holden’s SS Ute.
Overall, the Falcon Ute range is vastly improved and brings significant steps forward in comfort and practicality. Its uncompromised load-carrying capability as well as the option of a flat tray will continue to make it a hit with tradies.
The newest Ford ute is also a lot more fun when it comes to sporty driving. All up, it’s an impressive package that maintains its tool-of-trade advantage over Holden’s more lifestyle-oriented ute and makes big strides in terms of both performance and handling.
But stability control would make Ford’s new Falcon Ute an even more convincing proposition.
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