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First drive: Falcon XRs go to another gear

On tour: Despite a change in spring rates, the XR8 is more of a tourer than an outright sportster.

A new gearbox is the major engineering change for Ford Falcon BA MkII

19 Oct 2004

IT’S hard to believe it’s been more than two years since the launch of the BA Falcon, the car GoAuto branded ‘Bloody Awesome’ so impressed were we by the quantum leap Ford Australia had achieved in engineering and design depth.

We weren’t the only ones impressed. Wheels awarded it Car of the Year and buyers who spurned the AU returned to Blue Oval showrooms to make BA a smash hit.

Which is part of the reason why we have had to wait two years for the arrival of BA MkII, along with the fact that Ford had a project called Territory on the go that literally soaked up all available resources.

But even now, it’s pretty obvious that BA Mk II isn’t an overwhelming overhaul.

Mechanically, it’s limited to the new Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearboxes for the XR6 Turbo and XR8 sedans and utlities, while in sedan form the XR8 also picks up firmer spring rates from the FPV GT.

And that’s it for the engineering side. No change to the 4.0-litre I6 Barra 182 engine, the turbo 240T or 220 and 260 V8s. No change to the suspension of any model other than XR8, no brake modifications and no weight reductions, which is the one thing we singled out as a real weakness for BA.

The rest of the changes are really minor specification and trim changes, like cruise control and auto headlamps on/off being made standard across the range and the Future getting side airbag.

If you want to delve into all that in detail again then check out Marton Pettendy’s future models story ‘First look: Ford’s BA MkII Falcon’, written back in August when Ford issued details of the car, funnily enough at about the same time as Holden launched the VZ Commodore.

Since then Ford has also revealed a modest price increase for the sedans, which averages out at about 0.8 per cent. The full pricing and comparison with BA is listed below. Utility prices are due out in the next couple of weeks.

Considering BA is still selling strongly and has climbed to 37 per cent of the large car market, with the high-yielding XRs now holding a record 27 per cent share of that, a modest list of changes is perhaps understandable.

27 center imageBut when you consider the bevy of changes made to VZ led by the Alloytec V6 mated to new manual and auto transmissions in some instances, as well as more powerful V8s and styling updates, then is BA Mk II enough?The answer from Ford Australia president Tom Gorman is, understandably, yes.

"The BA launch back in September of 2002 was such a quantum improvement over the AU that it has moved the Falcon nameplate brand so far ahead that in my opinion it doesn’t need a great deal added to it at this point," he said.

"It is the right amount of improvement. It is bringing some features down to some entry level product and launching the Tremec six-speed.

"If BA hadn’t been such a quantum leap you could argue that MkII would have to be more to satisfy the consumer."Clearly that is not the case, but Mr Gorman is also realistic enough not to predict massive sales growth off the back of this update. He says holding share is his aim, and he makes it clear that the next Falcon update won’t be two years away.

"I think you can expect us to continue to work on keeping the product fresh," Mr Gorman said. "There will be more changes to come for the rest of the BA cycle."The change to concentrate on right now is the elbowing of the tired Tremec T5 and T3650 five-speed manual transmissions from the XR6T and the XR8, both replaced by the T56, a codename familiar in Australia thanks to that gearbox’s use in Holden and HSV Commodores, although the Monaro and HSVs have now updated to a T56 derivative called M12.

The normally-aspirated XR6 sticks with T5 by the way, as manual transmissions account for only 10 per cent of demand in that model. For XR6T it is just under 19 per cent and for the XR8 it is just over 30 per cent.

To you and me a gearbox is a gearbox, press the clutch, stir the lever and away you go. But as this is the major investment for BA MkII, Ford was pretty keen to explain the development work that differentiates the box between the two Falcons, and also when compared to the V8 Holdens.

The installation into the XRs of T56 was actually driven by the development of the (for now) manual-only FPV F6 Typhoon which has 550Nm, the highest torque rating ever for an Aussie production car and one that outstripped either of Ford Australia’s five-speed manual transmission options.


Both cars should be able to accelerate from 0-100km/h without going beyond second gear

So the decision was made to adapt T56 across the top-end of the XR range as well. While the development process meant the manual XRs ended up with unique clutch housings, exterior housings and input and output shafts, in ratio terms only first gear is different, while the XR6T shortens its final drive from 3.46:1 to 3.73:1 and the XR8 from 3.23:1 to 3.46:1.

Both gearboxes are closer ratio now despite the extra gear, with a nine per cent reduction in spread for the turbo and 13 per cent for the V8. That means both cars should be able to accelerate from 0-100km/h without going beyond second gear, which Ford estimates will save a few tenths.

Not that it was claiming official acceleration times. Nor is it claiming fuel consumption improvements and only minor cruising speed differences compared to the old boxes.

We can tell you that the weight of the two top-end XRs does climb though, the turbo six by 19kg to 1751kg and the V8 by just two kg to 1797kg.

Compared to Holden’s manual shifters however, there are a variety of different ratios - that the XRs run twin rather than triple synchros on first and second (a feel improvement the blue oval argues) and a direct rather than indirect linkage (ditto).

PRICING:
Falcon XT sedan (m) $34,255 (+$395)
Falcon XT wagon $36,960 (+$395)
Futura sedan $38,260 (+$125)
Futura wagon $40,345 (+$775)
Fairmont sedan $42,965 (+$395)
Fairmont Ghia sedan $51,755 (+$500)
Falcon XR6 sedan (m) $38,655 (no change)
Falcon XR6 Turbo sedan (m) $46,350 (+$1145)
Falcon XR8 sedan (m) $51,275 (+$1145)
Note: Automatic adds $920 onto XT sedan and XR6, andis now a no-cost option on XR6 Turbo and XR8.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

WHAT a good car the BA Falcon is! After a couple of years out of the drivers’ seat, it was great to have a steer on last week’s MkII launch.

Considering there was no mechanical change to the base model XT or the Fairmont Ghia luxury model, driving those two literally was a refresher rather than an introduction to anything new.

That combination of Barra 182 inline 4.0-litre six-cylinder engine and BTR sequential shift auto is still a good thing, the chassis still as impressive a combination of ride and handling as ever, the exterior styling conservative but refined and the interior a comfortable place to be for extended periods of time.

It remains a benchmark car and one that we heartily recommend.

So that’s the refresher, what about the two models to which there has actually been some technical changes made?XR6 Turbo first. The old Tremec T5 wasn’t much of a gearbox, straining at its limits to cope with the Barra 240T engine. At BA launch time we opined that the BTR four-speed auto with sequential shift auto was a better thing.

Now, we can reverse that. With its smooth but nicely mechanical shift combined with a well-chosen spread of ratios and a progressive clutch action, there is no doubt the manual XR6T is now the drivers’ car in the XR line-up.

A quality manual transmission allows you to control the XR6T’s significant power and even more significant torque levels that much more precisely, making it a better vehicle in all but the most serene of cruising modes than the auto.

Whether it be hunting up a mountain pass or going for a quick overtake, this classy engine now has a manual transmission worthy of being attached to it.

That allies with a more than competent chassis that offers high levels of grip, a flat stance and a decent ride. We’d just like a bit more meat in the steering.

Speaking of meat, there’s no doubt the XR8’s front-end now gets its teeth more sharply into the road when cornering. There’s still a feeling of excess weight though - that the front-end is pushing rather sooner than the turbo six.

Despite change in spring rates, we still feel the XR8 is more of a tourer than an outright sportster. And the change to the T56 sic-speed manual? Certainly an improvement but not quite as dramatic as XR6T.

But a worthwhile change for a worthwhile car.

In fact worthwhile is the word that springs to mind for the BA MkII range. Good cars these. For the most part no better, but they were pretty good to start with.

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