Car reviews - FPV - GT - sedan
Outright performance, torque delivery, driveability, engine note, ride/handling, balance, refinement, steering, brakes, transmission, safety
Room for improvement
Fuel consumption, transmission snatch in manual models, optional stripes, softish suspension set-up, only partial power seat adjustment, no power pedals or climate control at GT level, gimmicky push-button starter
14 May 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
IF you’ll forgive what might at first sound like a bit of indulgence, I am a lucky bloke.
Not because life has favoured me greatly in any particular way - in fact, by some measurements, things would seem exactly the opposite.
But I am lucky in that I’m among the few who actually tested, at the time of its launch in 1971, the original XY Phase Three Ford Falcon GTHO. Yes, the car that is pivotal to the whole Australian muscle car thing.
I remember driving home along a country road one night, cruising comfortably at around 150km/h, and wondering what would happen if I tromped on the accelerator.
What happened was the bonnet lifted, the bonnet shaker shook and the car took off almost as if it were in first gear. I didn’t see the magic 150mph (240km/h) it was capable of, but experienced how quickly it would be likely to get there.
The Phase Three was, by the standards of the day, quite a refined road car compared with its predecessor, the Phase Two. The latter was quite lumpy and grumpy on the road, very fast but in need of attention if it was to produce its best.
The Phase Three on the other hand was quite smooth, with a lovely, linear accelerator response and a muted but definitely omnipresent V8 beat.
The handling was something else again. With no power steering it was a monster to grapple with at low speed and with a mere leaf spring, live axle suspension at the back it was certainly nervous at times.
And the braking capabilities, with discs up front and drums at the back, were something you had to allow for – which was pretty normal in those pre all-disc, pre-ABS days.
But underlying it all, the GTHO was still basically a Falcon – the same fundamental structure that underpinned those cabs lined up at the taxi ranks. A Ford PR executive at the time was scoffed at when he suggested the GTHO could one day become a classic...
For a long time, people have wanted Ford to do another, proper GT, but it resisted the urge for something like 30 years. There were two unremarkable attempts, one in 1992 and another in 1997, but it was hard to get too excited about either.
Even the later, 1997 version was little more than a slightly beefed-up XR8 and was, at just on $60,000, quite expensive for a V8 Falcon.
But the demise of the 5.0-litre Windsor engine and the arrival of the multi-valve, twin-cam 5.4-litre Boss engine also used in various guises within the Ford family, including the Mustang (it also forms the basis of Jaguar V8s) provided a real opportunity to at last create something that did real justice to the revered GT badge.
The restyled BA Falcon, with its more substantial looks, also provided an opportunity to give the GT the right sort of visual appeal.
So the GT steps up to the mark with more power and torque than the GTHO. Its 300bhp – or around 220kW - from a similar capacity shows how 30 years of engine development have benefitted output expectations.
The new car produces 290kW, plus a mountainous 520Nm of torque, and the vastly improved power-weight ratio resulting from this gives standing 400 metre (virtually quarter of a mile) expectations around the mid-13-second mark.
A well-driven 1971 GTHO could, at best, get into the high 14s – which was pretty fast even so, when you consider the iconic Jaguar E-Type ran the standing quarter mile in 15 seconds even.
The Boss 290 engine comes to Australia in stripped-down form and is lovingly put together at FPV’s facility in Campbellfield, Victoria. It is quite an extensive re-work of the 260kW version used in Falcon XR8 models, with a specially balanced crankshaft, new, high performance pistons and re-engineering of various components like connecting roads and big-end bearings.
Ford likes to remind us that cast-iron – the base material for the V8 block - is stronger by a factor of three over aluminium and is more stable in terms of maintaining tolerances. The aluminium cylinder heads use twin camshafts per bank, as well as four valves per cylinder to maximise breathing.
The cylinders are fed by locally made inlet manifolds and purged via an also Australian-made stainless steel exhaust system that was specially tuned to promote the V8 rumble.
Now, 290kW might not quite equal the 300kW squeezed out of Holden Special Vehicles' flagship GTS models, but the Boss engine produces them in such a way you’re never likely to feel short-changed.
It idles with a rocking beat that is full of promise, charging to 6000rpm like a small capacity four-cylinder. It roars with aggression at medium to high engine speed, yet is quite brutally muscular at lower rpm too.
The long-stroke engine configuration helps it produce strong torque across the rpm band, denying what the specifications tell you: maximum torque might come in at a high-sounding 4500rpm, but the fact is there’s an abundance always available well below that, with around 450Nm produced by just 2000rpm.
Squeeze the accelerator pedal as the GT is rolling along in second gear and you will be answered by a squirming shriek from the rear tyres as they scrabble for grip in the milliseconds before the traction control system steps in.
At the same time, the GT can be dribbled along in fifth gear down to as low as 1200rpm, then accelerate away smoothly.
The five-speed Tremec heavy-duty transmission and equally performance-oriented clutch give easy access to the engine’s power, which is transmitted to the wheels via a special two-piece driveshaft.
The lowish 3.46:1 final drive ratio that is standard on the GT plays a big part in delivering the kiloWatts, but is also a factor in the fuel consumption. About 300km or so of normal driving will see the tank level drop alarmingly, by around three-quarters of its 68-litre capacity.
The GT’s suspension is a major re-work of the all-independent BA Falcon system. It picks up the Fairmont Ghia steering, which is slightly sharper than elsewhere in the Falcon range, and receives a set of stiffer springs along with more compliant dampers.
Retuning of the front-end’s camber, castor and toe-in aims at improving straight-ahead stability and minimising bump-steer (in which the steering wheel fights the driver as the car proceeds over rough surfaces) while giving a more linear response to driver inputs.
At the rear-end, the negative camber is actually reduced to more closely match the front-end, and the toe-in is similarly reduced, also to mirror the front suspension settings.
The result is a surprisingly absorbent ride, with scarcely a sign of steering wheel kickback on bumps. The Phase Three wasn’t bad for its day in this respect either, but who would have thought a raw muscle car like the GT could be made to ride and steer in such a benign way?
Perhaps the only downside is that the GT feels a little softer and more compliant than you’d expect – although there’s no doubting its ability to power quickly through tight corners.
The GT’s braking system is as advanced as you’d expect over the original disc/drum cars of the early 1970s. The discs (with larger, 325mm front rotors) are grooved for better heat dissipation, and operate through a four-channel anti-lock system with electronic brake-force distribution.
The bottom line is that the new-generation fast Ford actually comes across as a very refined performance car.
There might be a prominent bonnet bulge to announce the presence of the Boss 290 engine underneath, and it’s true the GT can be had with a garish blend of stripes and colours if you want them, but the car is less a showcar than a showcase of the years of development that have taken place since the 1970s original.
It can, in many ways, pace it with the highly developed European supercars, yet it still has its roots in a basic family sedan – a go-fast taxi. Perhaps the only real reminder of its prosaic roots is the driveline snatch that occurs (in manual versions only) while travelling slowly in one of the intermediate gears.
The interior is dressed to please, drawing on all the armoury and quality Ford introduced with the BA model Falcon. The front seats are shaped to grip passengers more firmly than usual, and are dressed in a cloth, simulated-suede material that looks quite classy.
Power adjustment in the GT is limited though to just seat height. For reach, and backrest angle, it is adjusted manually. The power adjustable pedals available in other Fords are listed as optional and, at this level, only the basic air-conditioning system is fitted.
Like the drilled alloy floor pedal inserts, the starter button on the dash is a novelty. It tends to catch the driver out regularly, who can often be seen twisting the ignition key and wondering why the Boss V8 isn’t firing up.
But that sort of thing is a part of the GT heritage, as those who remember the rim-blow horn fitted to XY GTs would testify. This vintage of GT Falcon could always be heard from a distance on twisting roads, as the driver inadvertently blasted away on the twin horns while wrestling with the steering wheel and squeezing the rubber horn actuator that ran around its inside circumference.
Today’s Falcon GT, though, is an altogether more civilized sporting sedan. The raw engine note might be there, as well as the slap-in-the-back acceleration, but the driver doesn’t need to train with weights just to handle the steering and pump the clutch.
Today’s GT driver has just about all the contemporary driving aids that help keep car and passengers safe and secure. There are twin front dual-stage airbags as well as side airbags, plus safety cell body construction to protect occupants if things go wrong.
About the only thing missing - and its arrival on local cars can’t be too far off - is electronic stability control. It’s available on the Ford Territory soft-roader, so the technology is obviously there for future Falcons.
But Ford has the Boss 290 V8 to thank for bringing back a genuine Falcon GT.
Unlike previous attempts, there’s no need to apologise for this BA version. It is mightily fast – much faster than the original GTHO – yet is as tractable and driver-friendly as a modern supercar should be.
At last, Ford has a genuine answer to the blistering hardware produced by Holden Special Vehicles.
Blokes can still get lucky.
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