Car reviews - Ford - Falcon - Forte LPG sedan
Big interior, comfort, standard equipment, economy
Room for improvement
Light steering, spare tyre intrudes on luggage space
29 Apr 2002
By TIM BRITTEN
EVEN if the AUIII Ford Falcon does not manage the impossible by reining back Holden Commodore sales, at least it will convince some buyers of the intrinsic qualities that lie beneath those unfortunately misconceived body panels.
The AUIII adds weight to the argument that Falcons are a strongly competitive proposition in the family car market.
It reinforces statistical truths that show Falcons have a better warranty record than Commodore, and it adds extra margins of safety by including anti-lock brakes as part of an already quite generous package that added dual front airbags at the introduction of the AUII in April, 2000.
The Commodore Executive has had standard ABS since the introduction of the VX in October, 2000, but still does not have a standard passenger airbag or, for that matter, standard air-conditioning.
It is clear what's going on here. Ford is doing the only thing left to it by playing the value-for-money game while Holden is basically concentrating on the consolidation of an unprecedentedly popular product.
That the AUIII is a well presented, well equipped family car there can be no question. Already benefiting from subtle, ongoing post-AU changes that have lowered the ride height, filled the arches with bigger wheels, refashioned the front and rear ends with the aim of making them more aesthetically acceptable and remodelled the dash into more conservative but more acceptable shapes, the AU Falcon has come a long way since 1998.
As part of the effort to improve customer appeal and help lift resale values, free servicing and a three-year roadside assistance plan were also thrown in, at AUII time, as part of the base Falcon package. Alas, the free scheduled servicing offer has since been withdrawn.
The AUIII Forte's main strength is the adoption of standard three-channel ABS, but there have been a few other changes aimed at making the car more visually acceptable. These include a set of side skirts aimed at giving a lower, squatter look, colour-coded side protector strips and mirrors, and a greying-out of much of the brightwork in the reflective areas of the headlights to make them appear less prominent.
The effects are not immediately noticeable but in a very understated way they do help make the Falcon look a little less "challenging" to the eye.
Our test car was a dedicated LPG Forte, running no other option than power windows for all four doors, but it did exude a certain amount of classiness.
The darker tones of the interior give a cosier feel than the original while the inclusion of standard air-conditioning, wheel-adjustable height and tilt controls for the driver's seat and steering wheel-mounted audio controls all help underline the fact that entry level family cars cannot really be described as "basic" any longer.
The production line-installed LPG engine produces, due to the lower efficiency of gas, a little less power than the petrol engine with 143kW at 4500rpm, compared with 157kW at 4900rpm, but punches out a touch more torque, at lower rpm - 362Nm at 2750rpm compared with 357Nm at 3000rpm.
It adds around $800 to a basic Forte but offers environmental benefits including the elimination of the evaporative hydrocarbons that make up around half of a petrol vehicle's smog-forming hydrocarbon emissions. This is achieved via the dedicated LPG system being totally sealed. In addition, Ford says greenhouse gas emissions are reduced about 20 per cent.
The dedicated LPG Falcon emits 10 per cent less carbon dioxide from the tail pipe. Studies have shown that LPG reduces emissions of potentially harmful air toxics by 80 per cent compared to petrol.
Ford also says it is possible to recoup the initial dedicated LPG investment within 15,000 to 20,000km. The company says that after the first year of driving, motorists should save more than $20 at every fill up.
For an LPG engine, the Falcon fires up quite easily, with just a little more cranking than normal required. Driveability has not changed greatly with very little difference noted in step-off acceleration, although the gas engine does fade as revs climb and it needs to be pressed harder to deliver meaningful passing power.
During the test we experienced a few alarming moments where the engine backfired aggressively, or cut out completely under acceleration. Some sleuthing work by the local Ford dealer (accessed via Ford's roadside assistance program) revealed the problem to be nothing more than a faulty spark plug lead that was arcing to the cylinder head and creating havoc in the electronic ignition system.
Otherwise, it was pleasing to note that not much more than $20 was needed for a top-up from close to empty, giving a workable range of around 450km in a combination of city and country work.
Ford quotes the capacity of the dedicated LPG tank at 92 litres (and a massive 115 litres in the wagon) but only about 80 per cent of this is used. The company also warns against depleting the tank too much so the distance to empty readout tends to be watched closely.
The dedicated LPG Falcon gets a more useful boot than dual-fuel versions, although a space-saver spare needed to be mounted in the boot itself because of the new flat floor required to make room for the gas tank. But you still get most of the load-through capability provided by the split-fold rear seat.
Driving the AUIII Forte is otherwise no different to an AUII, expect for the knowledge that ABS is now ready to step in should it be necessary. The system is three-channel as compared to the four-channel system used on upmarket models. This means the two rear wheels operate together rather than separately - as in a four-channel system - if any lockup is detected on either.
The car rides smoothly and cruises serenely, responding adroitly enough to steering wheel inputs. At the end of the day though, the steering is a little over-assisted to our liking even though it might offer a tad more progressiveness than Holden's Commodore.
The front seats are good for long spells at the wheel with their generous size and supportive padding, although laterally they are nothing special. This lack of sideways support against cornering forces is particularly noticeable in the back where the shaping is less thoughtful. Still, there are not too many large sedans that will provide the back seat shoulder width available in the Falcon.
Ford made the Falcons safer at AUII time, with extra structural work put into better protecting passengers in side and offset front impacts, as well as providing pyrotechnic front seatbelt pretensioners designed to hold passengers firmly in place in an accident.
At the same time, the Falcon got revised suspensions, on both live-axle and independent rear ends, improved brakes and the double-skin firewall that reduced the amount of engine noise finding its way into the interior.
The four-speed automatic is pretty much as you'd expect. It mates well with the engine and is willing enough to swap ratios when asked, but it's now an older generation auto that lacks the driver interaction of other sequentially shifting autos. Generally, though, it is a nicer, smoother changing auto to live with than Commodore's.
Of course the AUIII Forte gets the flip-down, roof-mounted sunglasses holder, dual map-reading lights and a four-speaker, 100-watt sound system with a single disc, in-dash CD player and steering wheel-mounted controls. Only the front windows are power operated but that's already one-up on the Commodore which lists these as optional even at Acclaim level.
Dedicated LPG makes sense for those who do a lot of driving because it will begin saving money quite quickly compared with a dual-fuel Falcon. It will also help appease the environmentally conscious via its cleaner-than-petrol operation.
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