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First drive: Falcon GT, the legend returns

Iconic: Falcon GT for the 21st century offers 400 horsepower, a bonnet bulge and optional body stripes.

Ford's born-again Falcon GT has the makings of an instant classic

26 Feb 2003

THE wait is over for blue-blooded performance car fans. Ford's legendary Falcon GT nameplate has a new lease on life, with manual versions of the born-again muscle car due to go on sale from next week following the new GT's national media launch.

The new Ford Performance Vehicles operation - Ford's answer to the successful Holden Special Vehicles business, which has outsold various go-fast Falcon offerings from Tickford for more than a decade - is now officially open for business via 67 specialist Ford dealerships throughout Australia.

And Blue Oval executives can't hide their enthusiasm.

"This is a very, very exciting day," Ford Australia president Geoff Polites told journalists at the GT launch. "You'll recall, on a number of previous occasions, we were asked 'will you ever build a GT?'.

"The thing we've said consistently was that we will do a GT when we had a product that lived up to the image that the brand had. We weren't interested in doing a special value pack or a limited edition. And what we now have is a product that not only lives up to the legend - but takes it further," said Mr Polites.

FPV marketing boss Roger Gray was even more upbeat. "GT is a strong, if not the strongest, nameplate in Australia," he said, adding that strengths of the new GT's "total performance package" include the sophisticated BA Falcon platform, handling, brakes, safety and security, styling and its homegrown "Boss 290" 5.4-litre V8.

Ford's excitement doesn't transfer to paper at this stage, however, with the Blue Oval putting forward what appear to be conservative sales projections for the FPV range.

Ford Oz says it hopes to sell up to 100 FPV models per month, a figure that's far beyond the sales achieved by the various AU Falcon-based, Windsor V8-powered T-Series models - some of which remain unsold - made available through the limited number of Ford Tickford Experience outlets.

That figure equates to a GT sales prediction of just 1200 units annually - less than a third of the 3703 cars HSV sold in 2002 - although FPV's new $1.5 million manufacturing facility has a maximum build capacity of 10 cars per shift, or more than 3000 units per annum.

Ford's Falcon GT conservatism extends to power claims too. Conspicuous by its absence was any performance fanfare at the launch, seemingly in an attempt to draw attention away from the inevitable comparisons with arch-rival HSV.

This despite the fact the 290kW Falcon GT ($59,850 manual, $61,000 auto) lines up directly on price with HSV's volume selling 260kW ClubSport ($58,700 manual, $59,700 auto).

Meantime, the better equipped Falcon GT-P ($69,850 man/auto) is priced line-ball with HSV's similarly up-specced ClubSport R8 ($68,860 man/auto), while the single-model FPV Pursuit ($54,850 manual, $56,000 auto) is the two-door utility rival for both the $50,950 Maloo and the $57,950 Maloo R8. Automatic examples of all three FPV models will become available in the second quarter of 2003.

Entry to HSV's US-built 300kW flagship engine is substantially more at $93,500 when had in the GTS sedan or $96,500 in the Coupe GTS.

The new Falcon GT's specifications and features have been detailed previously and can be found in brief in the accompanying tables, suffice to say the base GT, flagship GT-P and Pursuit utility come comparatively well equipped, although leather trim remains an optional extra on all models.

Ford makes much of the local development of the Boss 290 engine that's common across the three-car FPV range. Like the four-valve Boss 260 V8 found in XR8, the GT engine is assembled on what Ford calls Australia's only V8 engine assembly line. Unlike XR8, however, the 290kW Boss V8 requires a premium unleaded diet.

Developed to unique specifications within the Ford world, the 5.4-litre DOHC V8 is built in Prodrive's Broadmeadows facility from bare blocks and cylinder-heads. It's also said to be the first V8 engine ever offered in an Australian model with four overhead camshafts and 32 valves.

Ironically, the engine's cast-iron cylinder block is manufactured at Windsor, the same Ontario, Canada plant Ford Australia's previous 5.0-litre V8 both hails and takes its name from. Named after Boss 302 engine found in the 1969 Mustang, it goes without saying the GT's new 5.4 V8 produces more power and torque more smoothly than the Cleveland 351 V8 available in the XY Falcon GS 351 and GT 351 of 1970-1972.

But comparisons with previous GTs end there. A beefy new standard braking system developed locally by PBR and featuring big 325mm front rotors, plus an optional four-piston Brembo set-up with even bigger 355mm front discs, provide braking power far superior to the original GT, while the upgraded BA Falcon interior befits the premium price tag.

As with all BA Falcons, weight and therefore fuel consumption remains one of the new GT's few shortcomings, with base manual models tipping the scales at 1827kg. While Ford says this is in the ballpark of sports sedans like M5, E55 and S-Type R, the figure is porky compared with the ClubSport's relatively lightweight 1670kg mass.

However, the GT's extra 30kW of peak power means it still offers a superior power-to-weight ratio of 6.3kg per kW versus 6.4. The GT-P, meanwhile, tips the scales at 1843kg, while the Pursuit's longer wheelbase and hard tonneau cover bring its weight to 1870kg.

Sensible final gearing and the five-speed T3650 manual transmission combine to produce blistering acceleration. Though there are no official performance claims, Ford says internal development testing produced 0-100km/h figures in the 5.7-second region and a standing quarter-mile time of around 13.8. Just as the XR8 is line-ball for performance with Holden's Commodore SS, GT should be a close match for ClubSport.

FPV GT (manual) $59,850
FPV GT (auto) $61,000
FPV GT-P (manual/auto) $69,850
FPV Pursuit (manual) $54,850
FPV Pursuit (auto) $56,000

What you get:

Engine: Boss 290 5.4-litre DOHC 32-valve V8
Power: 290kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 520Nm @ 4500rpm
Equipment: sports bucket seats with lumbar adjustment, four-way driver's seat adjustment, twin front airbags, ABS, traction control, air-conditioning, 100-watt single-CD sound system, cruise control, split-folding rear seat, build number, owner's compendium
Options: Leather and suede trim ($2750), FPV Performance steering wheel ($950), Premium six-CD sound system with TFT colour display ($900), DVD satellite-navigation ($3600 with Premium sound), FPV body stripes ($495), FPV floor mats ($200), power-adjustable pedals ($350 auto only), Brembo brakes ($5950), FPV body stripes ($495)FPV GT-P (auto-only):
As for GT, plus: FPV steering wheel, Prestige six-CD sound system, dual-zone climate control, trip computer, FPV floor mats, power-adjustable pedals, Brembo brakes
Options: Leather and suede trim ($2750), Premium audio system with TFT colour display ($900), DVD sat-nav ($3600 with premium sound), reverse sensing system ($650), FPV body stripes (no cost)FPV Pursuit:
As for GT, minus traction control
Options: leather and suede trim ($1850), FPV Performance steering wheel ($950), Prestige audio system ($600), FPV floor mats ($150), Brembo brakes ($5950)


FROM the outset, let's just say Victoria's Great Ocean Road during its first day of torrential rain in 12 months was not the ideal circumstance in which to experience Ford's new 400 horsepower GT for the first time.

Having said that, the level of grip provided in such diabolical conditions belie the not insubstantial weight of the born-again GT and, while the rain prevented us plumbing the ultimate depths of its cornering ability, it's clear Ford has honed the BA Falcon into a sophisticated, well balanced sports sedan with European-style driveability.

Indeed, the best place to be on the day was within the GT's upmarket new interior, which is sufficiently differentiated from lesser Falcons via carbon fibre-look inserts on the dash and doors, an individually numbered build plate, a red illuminated starter button on the dashboard and blue backlit instruments with GT logos - including 270km/h speedo and 8000rpm tacho. But still no redline.

Seats, too, are well crafted and super comfortable sports bucket items featuring heavy side bolstering, twin lumbar adjustment, suede-look inserts and four-way power-adjustment on the driver's side.

The GT-P's high-series interior, including dual-zone climate control, trip computer, Prestige six-CD sound system, FPV floor mats, analogue clock and the multi-function FPV performance steering wheel (comprising two more silver "spears") lifts interior ambience even further.

Meantime, the optional leather and suede-look sports buckets are even more cosseting and feature a one-piece, race-look head restraint. All GTs also get drilled alloy pedals and even the GT's standard steering wheel is a thick-rimmed, perforated leather wrapped unit with thumb-holds. The only blight on the GT from the driver's seat is the high-mounted rear wing, which tends to obscure rear-vision.

The heart of the matter, however, is Ford's locally assembled V8, which rumbles to life with a press of the dash-mounted starter button and quickly settles into a slow, throaty idle that - at just 500rpm versus the HSV 300kW engine's 900rpm - rocks the entire vehicle with menacing ease.

A quick stab of the drive-by-wire throttle delivers immediate response, although there is a slight delay in returning to idle, and instantly a broad band of considerable torque is available. There's no let up in proceedings until the 6000rpm rev limit, at which point the multi-valve 5.4 produces a sophisticated, cammy note not unlike a large-capacity European V8.

There's a hint of Windsor in the new V8's note too, with a familiar, metallic burble evident under load especially in that hairy-chested midrange. But the comparisons with the pushrod engine end there, with the freer-breathing, higher-revving 5.4 making none of the coarse protests its predecessor did beyond 5000rpm.

The Boss 290 also feels and sounds more refined and crisper than Holden's Gen III Chev V8 and, though it's a grunter not a revver, the end result in terms of straightline acceleration feels much the same.

The difference is obvious, however, at low engine speeds, where the Ford engine is stronger and more willing to rev cleanly, requiring fewer gearchanges and making it eminently more tractable in the traffic light derby.

The Pursuit ute, however, employs taller final drive gearing (3.23:1 versus the 3.46:1 used by sedans) to reduce drive-by noise and, combined with its increased weight, feels a little slower than the sedans.

Like its opposite number at HSV, "market demand" has dictated the Pursuit ute goes without the sophisticated traction control system that operates so seamlessly and unobtrusively in the sedans that you'd never know it was working.

Suspension, which is only slightly altered from XR8 specification - comprising heavier rebound damping up front to better control the extra mass - was fine-tuned with help from V8Supercar ace John Bowe. And the results are impressive.

Firm but far from harsh, the double wishbone front, multi-link rear suspension feels tuned more for ride comfort than outright performance, with good compliance over all but the largest of bumps and deepest of potholes, and plenty of clearance beneath the menacingly low-slung front bumper chin.

Comfortable it may be, but there's no doubt the GT's chassis has the dynamics to match its considerable performance. Ford says the GT has the same 56/44 front/rear weight distribution as the XR6 Turbo and, though understeer is the overriding theme at the limit, there's a feeling of balance and neutralness similar to that found in more expensive European sports sedans.

And perhaps that's the GT's greatest strength: its ability to combine refinement and poise with blistering engine performance.

Ramming home the fact it does not have a one-dimensional personality, the new Falcon GT also offers unprecedented driveability that makes it both an effortless daily driver and a performance car for the masses.

The 2003 Falcon GT builds on Australia's reputation for producing some of the largest, most powerful and best value vehicles in the world.

But what makes the new generation Falcon GT a fitting bearer of the badge is that never before has this much performance been offered with so much sophistication for such little money. Like Monaro, Falcon GT should be an instant classic.

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