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First drive: BA Ghia's sport and luxury mix

New look: Ghia's unique 17-inch wheels, foglights and subtle badging are model giveaways.

Ford aims to recapture some zest with its BA Ghia luxury model and adds a new V8 engine to the mix

25 Sep 2002

THE traditional image of cars like the Ford Fairmont Ghia, its Holden rival the Calais and the top-spec equivalents from Mitsubishi and Toyota has been luxury at all-costs.

Over the last year or two that priority has been changing. Think of the Camry Azura and Verada GTV as cars where a little sport has been mixed in with the comfort features.

Ford has joined the trend with the BA Fairmont Ghia, going for a more focussed sporting set-up as part of the dramatic overhaul of the Falcon range.

It reflects the engineering and marketing doctrine that underpins BA, that it is a driver's car before it is a family transporter. It also is a return to type for the badge. After all Ghia evokes links with the European styling house which has produced some very slinky cars over the year.

Ghia like the rest of the range has had its benefits from the $500 million BA Falcon overhaul, gaining new exterior and interior styling, the all-new Control Blade independent rear suspension and a new range of engines - amongst much, much more.

The Ghia has the distinction of being the most expensive car in the BA range, starting at $49,980 with Barra 182 I6 power and standard four-speed auto gearbox including sequential shift. But if you want to put the exclamation point on it add another $5000 for the new 5.4-litre V8 Barra 220 engine.

Which is the version we are sampling here.

While the 5.4-litre modular design is not new, the Falcon is the host for the first three-valve cylinder head version to see light of day. A similar engine will make its way into the F-series truck in the USA soon.

But they're not identical. Because of the restrictions on space under the Falcon's hood the engine, which arrives in a crate from North America, actually has unique intake manifold and reprofiled rocker covers to ensure it fits. The exhaust manifold is also unique to Falcon.

Apart from that the technical array is common to both engines - single overhead camshaft, two intake and one exhaust valve per-cylinder, variable cam timing, aluminium cylinder heads, roller finger follower valvetrain, electronic throttle control, coil on plug ignition and failsafe cooling.

All that translates to 220kW (hence the name) at 4750rpm and a mighty 470Nm of torque produced between 3250rpm and 4000rpm. By comparison, the 5.7-litre Gen III in Calais offers up 225kW at 5200rpm and 450Nm at 4000rpm.

The Barra 220, incidentally, is the basis from which the 5.4-litre Boss 260kW engine has been developed for the XR8. An even higher performance version, thought to be around 300kW, will go into the soon-to-be-revealed Ford Performance Vehicles range, including a reborn GT.

Underpinning the Ghia's grunt is a unique sports suspension. It's not the same set-up as the XRs, which are more focussed again. But based on lower profile 225/50 R17 Dunlop tyres, the Ghia set-up is designed to provide higher levels of agility and feedback via a slightly firmer ride than the XT, Futura and Fairmont, which can option this suspension.

This is achieved through lowered ride height, revised shock-absorber settings, and stiffer springs and anti-roll bars. The Ghia also gets a revised, sharper steering gear, which it does share with the XR range.

"The new Ghia is more fun to drive," Ford chassis guru Alex de Vlugt claims. "It has sharper steering, and handles better without inheriting ride harshness. The new Ghia emerges with a sportier character."But it doesn't sacrifice the luxury either. Outside it's distinguished by foglamps, subtle Ghia badging and those unique 17-inch alloys. Chrome inserts and a surround for the mesh grille are shared with Fairmont.

Inside, it's the only BA to get standard leather trim and seats and the colour TFT (thin film transistor for you train-spotters) screen for the "Premium Command Centre" mounted high in the centre console. It shares faux wood trim with the Fairmont as standard kit.

Equipment levels are high with dual front and side airbags standard - the latter safety feature again shared with the Fairmont. But it's alone in having the new adjustable pedals as standard - coming with memory settings for the six-way power adjustable driver's seat and power mirrors - and reverse parking sensors, which are also new for BA.

Far more prosaic but essential stuff includes dual zone air-conditioning, cruise control with steering wheel buttons, power adjustment for most things bar the steering column and the top-spec 250 watt premium sound system including six-CD player and steering wheel controls as well.

So how does Ghia stack up against its rivals? The Calais is cheaper model-for-model, and also offers the extra option of a supercharged V6 engine the Toyota Camry Azura is slightly cheaper and is packed with standard equipment including DVD-based satellite navigation and a moonroof but has only the single 3.0-litre V6/autro drivetrain choice, even if it is impressively refined. The GTV Verada is a limited edition and represents very good value, but suffers from lack of profile and from being the oldest bodyshape among the big four.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

The transition from AUIII to BA Ghia represents more of a challenge than you might suppose.

The old car had the excellent double wishbone IRS standard, was loaded down with gear and like the rest of the range from AUII onwards, benefited from significant mechanical updates including much improved interior noise damping.

Nevertheless, the combination of that classy exterior and interior and the excellent engineering that underpins has produced a significant leap forward - not quite as big as for XT base model against the old Forte, but still dramatic.

The ultimate luxury Falcon feels like just that when you step into it, with the colour screen a significant point of difference to lesser cars in the range.

There's also shiny chrome rings around the instruments and encasing the centre console, along with faux dark wood in the centre panel and doors, although that was difficult to pick up in the darkly-hued interior of our "warm charcoal" test car.

It is a comfortable, welcoming and confident interior, made all the easier to adapt to thanks to those adjustable pedals which add a whole new dimension to your ability to find a suitable driving position, particularly if you fall outside the average height rangeThe only negatives we noticed were the absence of a left footrest - an omission made across the range - and the undersized numerals on the speedo and tacho which can be difficult to pick up at a glance.

While ergonomically excellent in terms of feel, separating the HVAC buttons from the screen meant more time with eyes away from the road than you would strictly want.

But the driving is why we are here and the Ghia is an interesting mix, fitted as it is with that firmer sports suspension. The effect is a bit of a culture clash, with a luxurious interior on top of a suspension that transmits some of the harshness and irregularities of the road but also allows the car to sit flat, firm and secure. The steering feels sharper than you would normally expect in a car of this type, as well.

It all means the Ghia feels very well resolved on the road and has a strength in-depth that comes from quality design and execution.

But while the chassis picks up some urgency and directness, the V8 engine actually heads in the opposite direction. It feels indolently relaxed, oozing through the rev range. Unlike the old Windsor V8, however, it doesn't run out of puff when the tacho needle gets past vertical. It just keeps on building up, an enjoyable V8 chatter penetrating the cabin at higher revs.

Which, by the way, is one of the few noises that does. The NVH work including that stiffer bodyshell (which plays an obvious role in the improved chassis dynamics ALSO) and two piece prop shaft quiten the cabin extremely well.

Ford says the Barra engine has been designed to be relaxed, with touring and towing in mind. In that they've certainly succeeded. It's mated very nicely to the auto as well, and it's fun to stir along with the sequential shift, but hardly necessary.

Which is where the Ghia now sits, somewhere between relaxed and hurried, placid and pressured.

In fact, we'd think the Barra 182 would hone the Ghia's sporting nature even further, such is its free-revving nature.

True or false, it would certainly be fun to find out.

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