Car reviews - Ford - T-Series - TS50 sedan
Engine performance, agile handling, sharp steering
Room for improvement
Rear wing, fuel economy, bodywork ground clearance
10 May 2002
THE TS50 is the car Ford had to build. Tired of getting sand kicked in their faces - and well aware the agile Falcon chassis could cope with far more power - Blue Oval performance fans have long bemoaned the horsepower advantages enjoyed by drivers of Holden's rival HSV brand.
But a wildly extroverted bodykit and a stroked, 5.6-litre version of the venerable Windsor V8 - which has powered the Aussie Falcon since taking local touring car racing by storm in the XR model of 1967 - has changed all that.
The decision to increase the Windsor's 5.0-litre displacement for the first time - something HSV did with its local V8 more than a decade ago in search of 200kW-plus performance - follows a number of tweaks to the humble Windsor over recent years.
An imported alloy cylinder head - later cast locally - with bigger valves, lumpier cam and roller rockers liberated a respectable 220kW from the 5.0-litre Windsor for the first generation of T-Series cars in late 1999. But earlier that year over at Holden the fully imported 5.7-litre Chevrolet V8 - released with the VTII Commodore - was already offering that sort of performance to Commodore SS drivers, while Tickford rival HSV had already realised 250kW for its entry level ClubSport range.
In what was déjà vu to those that remembered the destructive power wars of the 1970s, Holden upped its entry level V8 output to 225kW for the VX SS in October, 2000. To counter Holden's horsepower (and sales) advantage, six months later Ford dropped the 220kW Windsor, formerly reserved for T-Series, into the XR8.
This all of a sudden left Tickford's T-Series range with no power advantage, little exclusivity value and one fewer reason for customers to choose an FTE product at all, let alone in favour of a 250kW HSV. Which is about when the top-secret plan to stroke the Windsor - and, in doing so, match HSV's performance level with a locally developed product - was hatched.
After a multi-million-dollar research and development program and the installation of a 5.6-litre Windsor hand-building facility, the so-called T3 (for AU Series III) range of stroked T-Series cars hit showrooms in December, 2001.
A limited edition with a short model life (of the 430 short-wheelbase cars produced, 198 were entry level TE50s, with 220 TS50s also produced), it is hoped T3 will exhaust supplies of the Windsor V8 before its replacement in September's facelifted Barra Falcon by an all-alloy, 5.4-litre modular V8. A taste of things to come, perhaps.
And the result is the quickest, fastest and most powerful production Falcon ever produced - a fitting swansong to more than three decades of Australian service from the Windsor. Finally, Falcon has the mumbo to match the poise of its well-sorted chassis - and a 5.9-second 0-100km/h acceleration time and the standing quarter in just 14.1 seconds are proof of this.
So once again the age-old Holden versus Ford battle is evenly balanced and the bragging rights contest for who builds Australia's best sports sedan appears, on paper at least, closer than ever.
However, starting up the TS50 - the performance flagship of the T-Series range and a direct competitor for HSV's slightly more expensive ClubSport R8 - for the first time reveals this is no garden variety Falcon, and that the big-bore Windsor has more than just 250kW up its sleeve.
There's a crisp, brawny idle that rocks the TS50 to its foundations - despite its firmish Koni 82 series suspension set-up - at exactly 850rpm. No tall idle to mask coughing and spluttering at low revs here. From there the heaving induction sound and glorious exhaust note from the twin chromed outlets become a symphony, and accompanies brutal torque delivery below 4000rpm.
Above that the 5.6 is less dramatic, showing signs of the 5.0-litre's reluctance to explore beyond 5000rpm but still revving enthusiastically and convincingly to an impressive 6000rpm cut-out. HSV's Chev revs more willingly at the top end and Tickford readily admits 250kW was not a breeze to extract from the Windsor even in stroked form, but the T3's key is its bottom-end torque and overall flexibility.
With a tractor-rivalling 500Nm of torque available at a low 4250rpm, and more torque at 1800rpm than the 220kW Windsor had in total, the big capacity Ford is a delight to labour along at low revs. Equally, when the pace picks up, it's this seamless wave of torque in virtually any gear that allows the TS50 driver to maximise the Falcon's precise steering, delicate chassis balance and amazing roadholding of the double wishbone IRS. In short, it's a grunter not a galloper.
Apart from the wrist-stretching performance, another trade-off of the high-output engine is the fact its torque peak necessitated the use of a Mustang-sourced Tremec five-speed manual transmission instead of Falcon's locally built unit. Changing gears still requires a long stretch of the left arm, but the imported box is far more positive and slicker shifting.
The familiar four-speed adaptive BTR automatic continues to offer a remote gearshifting function via steering wheel shift buttons, and still leaves Holden's corresponding automatic transmission for dead in terms of sophistication, shift quality and performance.
Brakes have not been Falcon's strong point in recent years, but an extensive overhaul for AUII in early 2000 - including new two-piston callipers and larger, grooved discs - has benefited Ford high-performance models dramatically. And all T-Series cars come with the option of even beefier Brembo brakes.
Yes, there are downsides. Like any performance oriented vehicle, the TS50's ride is on the firm side and long stints in the saddle will have many wishing for the Fairlane-based TL50's Sports Luxury suspension settings. But given the grip level and progressiveness afforded by the Koni set-up (in concert with massive 245/40 ZR18 Dunlop SP9000 rubber), the ride remains surprisingly compliant.
Fuel economy - especially with a smallish 68-litre fuel tank and while consuming a staple diet of expensive premium unleaded - is also an issue, and so too is the low front and rear bumpers' tendency to snag on pronounced surface protrusions. Taking care in suburban surroundings is the key here, but such is the lot of a performance car owner.
Ford says the TS50 - its best Falcon ever and therefore bound to become a collector's item - represents the start of a fightback.
But Ford admits the car's short model life and costly stroker development program does not make it an attractive business proposition. Which means the winner here is the customer.
Of course, TS50 is rightly equipped with full leather upholstery and a high level of other standard equipment - all in a classy, refined package that is let down externally only by the massive rear wing. This is understandable, however, given Ford research shows the more extroverted its Tickford vehicles become, the better they will be accepted.
Research is something Ford has invested plenty of capital in recently, in an attempt to rebuild its tarnished performance image and to appeal to a younger generation that has been enticed so successfully by Holden.
If any car can attract people back to the Blue Oval fold, it's the TS50.
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