Car reviews - Ford - Falcon - SR sedan
Excellent value for money, refinement, cabin ambience
Room for improvement
Design compromises, space utilisation, live rear axle
19 Nov 2001
By BRUCE NEWTON
WHEN it passes into history next September, the AU series of Falcons will not be mourned within the halls of power at Ford's Campbellfield headquarters.
It has simply failed to live up to the high expectations that came with the launch of the AU in late 1998, and although AUII was a much better car the writing from a sales and public perception perspective was well and truly on the wall.
But it takes time and money to thoroughly overhaul a car and get the "new and improved" version onto the market. Until the AV or "Barra" Falcon arrives in 2002, Falcon's like the SR must help shore up the sales defences.
Quite simply, SR is a dressed up base model Falcon Forte with a bodykit, alloy wheels, cruise control, sports suspension and anti-lock (ABS) braking.
Ford claims the SR adds $3000 worth of value to the Forte for an additonal $400 or so. It's certainly looks like good buying, and it seems all the local manufacturers have recognised value packs as an important marketing tool to private buyers - there's the Commodore Equipe and Lumina, the Magna Solara and the Avalon Sorrento to name just a few.
The good news is that while the SR additions aren't huge, they go onto the Falcon that benefitted the most from the AUII upgrade.
Styling came under the microscope and the Forte was a major beneficiary. Out went the cheese shredder grille and sunken bonnet, in came the "high-series" Fairmont raised bonnet and a clean, horizontal slatted grille.
Wheel size went up one inch to 16 inches to better fill the wheel arches and the rear bumper depth and width were increased.
Inside, the vinyl trim was scrapped, the amount of cheap-looking plastic and oval shapes around the dash and centre console reduced, and the quality of the switchgear improved.
Under the skin a substantial amount of work went into improvement of the rear suspension system with new shock absorbers and low-friction ball-joints refining the Forte's old-tech live rear axle suspension.
The Falcon's long-criticised brake deficiencies were also addressed with thicker discs, new two-piston calipers and a greater capacity brake booster.
A new laminated front firewall between the driving compartment and the engine bay, and an increased amount of under-carpet ashphalting were designed to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. Engine noise was further isolated by the use of hydraulic engine mounts.
Body strength increases, aimed at improving occupant safety and the Falcon's rating in the independent NCAP crash test program, were also made. Other safety improvements include the addition of a passenger airbag and seatbelt pretensioners on the front seats.
Add a 100-watt stereo with single-slot CD player, variable intermittent wipers and door lock/unlock button on the instrument panel and the equipment upgrade is impressive. And, of course, Ford now offers 60,000km worth of scheduled servicing as part of the purchase price.
Not forgetting you already get air-conditioning, automatic transmission and two (front) power windows.
It does not take long behind the wheel to realise this long list of changes has resulted in substantial improvements to Forte and therefore SR.
Before you even drive off, the improved ambience of the cockpit is obvious. Polished metal-look plastics, lighter shades of grey cloth, better plastic texture. It simply looks and feels classier and of a higher quality than the AU.
The controls for the air-conditioning and stereo are larger and easier to use, although the on/off switch for the latter remains on the far side from the driver. Of course, sound system volume and station pre-select can be operated from the steering wheel controls, which also include a new speed alert and cruise control.
The driving position is extremely adjustable, with height and lumbar adjustment on the driver's seat and height and reach adjustment on the steering column. The seat itself offers substantial and comfortable under-thigh support, although side bolstering and shoulder width do not feel as substantial as the Commodore.
Where the Falcon is exposed is in the shape of the roofline, which rakes the A-pillar too severely. That's a major drama for taller drivers (about 188cm and over) who can easily hit their heads getting in and then have to squash themselves down to see.
Rear seat passengers have their own problems because the door openings are simply too small for adults (again the taller you are the worse it is) to comfortably enter and exit the car.
Once in, there is plenty of room, with three adults certainly capable of sitting across the comfortable back seat, all of them properly equipped with lap-sash seatbelts. However, only two get headrests (non-adjustable bumps to be precise) and the middle passenger misses out altogether. A 60/40 rear seat split fold adds further space to an already ample boot.
There are also no door pockets, door handles or overhead grab handles for rear seat passengers, with the only storage in the seatback pockets. But there are air-conditioning vents.
Up-front, there's a sizeable centre lidded box which looks after CDs and the like, while a bin under the centre console is good for the phone, and an overhead sunglass holder also houses two map lights. The door pockets are pathetically small.
Get driving and the under-skin improvements are obvious. This is a quieter car than its predecessor. The coarse noises from the 4.0-litre, single overhead cam engine which previously invaded the passenger compartment now only seep in, while the roughness which escalated the closer you got to the 5200rpm redline has been muted by the new engine mounts.
The engine power and torque characteristics remain a highlight of the package, and mate nicely to a four-speed automatic gearbox that usually provides a smooth change. Just occasionally, it will drop into gear with a bang, usually when going into reverse.
Suspension noise, an old bugbear of the Falcon, has been drastically reduced at the same time as the ride has been noticeably improved.
The live rear axle certainly still transmits too many of the road's irregularities into the cabin, but it is reduced compared to the AU. The double wishbone front-end is impressive in the quality of its ride quality and noise suppression.
Direct and lively steering has long been a trait of the Falcon as has good front-end grip, and those traits continue with AUII.
But that live axle at the back has let the show down in the past. It still doesn't offer the ultimate in grip, being unsettled by rough surfaces and losing grip when the going gets loose or wet. However, it is far better than it was, although we would still recommend taking up the option on the limited slip differential to provide that added touch of security.
Braking strength is another definite improvement good pedal feel and fade-resistance were not Falcon strengths in the past. Now you can add them to the list.
Overall, while the AUII Forte and its off-shoots such as the SR still have to cope with some of the design restrictions simply too hard to eradicate from the car without a complete redesign, the fact is this is a good, solid vehicle, well equipped and at an attrcative price.
It's well worth considering if you are in the family six-cylinder market.
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