Car reviews - Ford - Falcon - XR8 sedan
Raunchy V8, grippy suspension
Room for improvement
Baulky gearshift, thirsty, small fuel tank
18 Oct 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
FORD'S latest version of the XR8 Falcon bristles with authority. Under the relatively mild-mannered exterior lurks what is undoubtedly the best engine-chassis marriage ever to have been achieved by Ford in Australia.
Ford gave us its version of what it thought an independent rear suspension should be with the introduction of the AU Falcon in 1998, immediately relegating Holden into second place in terms of mechanical sophistication. Then, in October 1999 at the launch of the upmarket FTE Fords, it unveiled a delicious 220kW roller-rocker version of the venerable Windsor V8.
The FTE venture hasn't really produced the results hoped for - a bad thing for Ford's sporty upmarket aspirations, but a good thing for the XR series because now the TS50's reworked Windsor V8 becomes the standard XR8 engine. This gives the jump in power needed to combat the 5.7-litre V8 used in the SS Commodore and helps add a new dimension to a chassis that has already proved itself on Australian battlefields.
The latest, and probably last Windsor engine is undoubtedly also the greatest. It's staggering to think how long this powerplant has been around it was first seen here in 289 cubic-inch form as the engine for the massive Ford Galaxie in 1964 and has done duty in Falcons since the launch of the XR model in 1966.
Power levels have risen and fallen, the latter due to emission controls in the 1970s, but the latest version seen in the XR8 is undoubtedly the most powerful five-litre Windsor to come from the factory. It produces virtually the same power as the 351 cubic-inch (5.8-litre) engine used in the Phase III Falcon GT from the early 1970s.
Considering the differences in capacity, the Ford does a good job of partly closing the gap to Holden's much more contemporary all-alloy engine. 220kW at 5250rpm is not at all shabby compared with the Holden's 225kW at 5200rpm and nor is the torque, which reads 435Nm at 4000rpm compared with the 5.7-litre's 460Nm at 4400rpm.
The extra power comes via a selective rebuild carried out at Tickford's facility just around the corner from Ford's Campbellfield plant. This involves stripping the engine down to its underwear (block, pistons, rods and crankshaft) then carefully adding the bits able to extract more power.
These include a new, sportier camshaft, reworked cylinder-heads with new valves and springs, a rework of the ports and intake manifolds to improve breathing and the installation of the roller rockers to reduce friction and allow higher engine revs. A new, free-flowing exhaust system, including the exhaust manifold, finishes the job.
This engine, personally engraved by the builder, is then installed under the bonnet of the XR8, with no price penalty.
What 220kW does for the XR8 must be experienced to be believed. If you're simply tooling around town, keeping the revs to reasonable limits, you might think there's nothing really noticeable about the new V8. But if you slam the pedal to the floor, and look seriously at what the tachometer is telling you, then you're about to be propelled into an entirely new universe.
The 220kW emits a cacophony that rivals the current Mustang V8 in terms of its delightful aural qualities. Where local V8s have in the past essentially been mid-range grunters, the Ford clearly loves working at the upper end of the power band, building power where others begin to wheeze and choke - 5500rpm and above is a piece of cake.
And it's not illusory: the XR8 will cut well under 15 seconds for the standing 400-metre sprint, equal to what the best of the legendary Falcon GTHOs were capable of recording and right on top of the current group of proletarian supercars.
The experience is significantly watered down in the automatic version, which lacks the manic urgency of the manual even when being hard-pressed. However, its adaptive shifting feature does make the automatic XR8 a smarter, more refined transmission than that of Holden's SS.
But the 220kW engine does require a diet of premium unleaded fuel, otherwise it will detonate alarmingly, and the official figures indicate nothing special in terms of economy. This is compounded by a too-small 68-litre fuel tank.
The double-wishbone IRS does a splendid job. Under hard acceleration, the XR8 gets off the line swiftly and neatly, aiming straight and true where others would be struggling to maintain tyre contact. Even on a wet surface the XR8 is reluctant to break away. The lack of a traction control system is thus partly explained, and there are indications that the XR8's standard limited slip differential does its job well.
On sinuous, rising and falling stretches of road, the XR8 reveals that its suspension is not set up merely for efficient and fuss-free 400-metre sprints. Big, rear-drive V8 sedans are not always able to inspire confidence in treacherous circumstances but the XR8 feels uncommonly reassuring on rain-sodden bitumen. Remember, there's no traction control, no stability control, not even an especially sophisticated braking system at work here.
The Ford feels well balanced, secure and trustworthy, signalling early if it's about to break loose and quickly corrected via the accurate - if slightly over-assisted - steering. It sits flat, follows a chosen line accurately and has little trouble coping with the mid-corner bumps that are apt to upset a vehicle attempting to maintain a chosen trajectory.
The five-speed gearbox has little problem filling ratio gaps - making one wonder whether the SS Commodore's six-speed transmission is really necessary - although the shift action is occasionally stiff and baulky.
And the brakes - our test car was fitted with the optional premium system - only add to the reassuring nature of the Falcon, hauling down from high speeds with a sure, steady feel, albeit with a touch more power assistance at the pedal than would seem necessary.
From a passenger's perspective, the interior of the test XR8 downplayed the car's dynamic aspects with a generally muted feel, especially with its optional (black) leather trim. Then again, one can always specify more extroverted, coloured trim materials.
On the other hand, the Falcon's big, stretchy interior and comfortable seats (especially the more contoured ones in the front) were welcomed by adult-size passengers. And the ability of the rear seat to offer split-fold access to the boot is a major advantage the Falcon enjoys over its Commodore rival. In terms of equipment, the XR8 is competitive with cruise control, air-conditioning and a 100-watt audio system including a single-disc CD player as standard.
Yes, the Holden does offer traction control, a six-speed gearbox and a bigger V8, but it could be questioned whether the Ford would be that much better off if it had all those things. And it is a tiny bit cheaper than the Holden.
The bottom line is that there's a lot more to the XR8 than first appearances suggest. It might be little more than a variant on what has proven to be a generally unpopular body design, but at the same time it's probably the best-looking AUII with its squat stance and arch-filling 17-inch wheels. The best-kept secret though is that wonderful Windsor V8.
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