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New models - Ford - Falcon

First drive: New Falcon is Bloody Awesome

Excellent XT: The new base model Falcon has reset the standard for locally built large cars.

After struggling along with the AU Falcon, Ford had to get the BA right. It has

Ford logo25 Sep 2002

AFTER driving Ford's new BA Falcon for the first time, there is only one conclusion we can draw. Bloody Awesome.

The BA is undoubtedly a benchmark car, not only for Ford but for the Australian domestic car industry.

Quite simply, Ford's $500 million investment has paid off handsomely in terms of exterior and interior styling, and the depth of engineering that underpins it.

Don't think of this car as a midlife update. It's much more than that.

Looking at BA in natural daylight for the first time as we did last week you can see there is little evidence of AU left over, even in the side profile which retains the old car's door panels and familiar cutline.

BA is at its cleanest and most impressive from the rear, perhaps a little understated at the front where the headlights and grille appear slightly under-sized compared to the mass of metal that surrounds them.

Inside the change is dramatic, only the roof pillars evoking AU. The ovoid theme is gone except for the analogue clock which sits at the top of the centre console of the Fairmont models.

Instead, there's a cool, clean and cohesive feel to it all. More luxurious, more welcoming and thanks to the Interior Command Centre (ICC) in its various different iterations, more modern and technical.

The interior trim steps up a notch and the new seats are a step forward in terms of comfort whether you are riding in the front or back.

Then there's the mechanicals. While most attention is centred on the impressive new US-sourced 5.4-litre V8 and the firebrand 240kW turbo six, it is actually the Barra 182 normally-aspirated 4.0-litre six-cylinder which to us symbolised this new car at its best.

What was once a mediocre, workmanlike workhorse engine has been transformed into a clean-revving free-spirited thoroughbred that puts all its fleet car rivals to shame for performance and improves significantly in terms of vibration and harshness compared to its predecessor.

But the engineering story continues on with new and substantially modified gearboxes - including the sequential sports shift semi-manual shifter standard on all autos - and the Control Blade IRS which delivers a new level of ride sophistication to everyday Falcons.

And Ford is also claiming significant steps forward in terms of body strength, safety and noise, vibration and harshness. We've detailed those final "secrets revealed" in a separate story you can access via the home page or the "New Models" section.

There are darn few negatives - an increase in weight across the range most dramatic in the base models which trade their beam rear axles in for IRS, a smaller boot and no driver's left footrest among them. But we have to admit we were struggling to come up with anything else remotely serious.

Now read on as we sample the XT base model in Barra 182 4.0 I6 form, tomorrow we'll review the luxurious Fairmont Ghia, fitted with the new three-valve Barra 220 V8 engine and on Friday, the awesome new XR6 Turbo.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

ONE drive in the new XT Falcon tells you the BA is far, far more than a traditional mid-life facelift.

The fact twice as much was spent on it than Holden allocated to update the VY Commodore is immediately evident, the XT feeling more like an all-new car than even a substantial model upgrade.

First there's the all-new interior, which is well laid out, stylishly presented and, like Commodore, provides an entirely different, more upmarket driving environment.

Falcon goes a step further with its Interior Command Centre, which features a large LCD panel with more information and multi-function piano keys even in XT.

But the car we sampled still showed evidence of less than perfect fit and finish, particularly where the new interior door panels meet the fresh dash design unevenly.

But vastly improved ergonomics tend to make up for this. No longer does gearshifting or reaching the air-conditioning unit require a stretch, which will be good news for shorter drivers, while the intrusive A-pillar also seems a little further away.

The slightly lower, more supportive and more widely adjustable front seats (now with power driver's side height and tilt adjustment) now allow Falcon occupants to sit "in" the car more like a Commodore driver, providing a greater feeling of comfort, control and the ability to drive with more confidence sooner.

The cabin is much quieter too, remaining well isolated from both the smallest and largest of road obstacles (revealing a big reduction in suspension noise here) and exhibiting only a modicum of tyre and engine noise.

Combined with a generally tighter feeling chassis, an almost total lack of squeaks or rattles and improved cabin ambience, the Falcon's cockpit is an undeniably more prestigious place to be.

Despite the excellent low speed ride, body-roll has been reduced and the body control and progressive roadholding afforded by the revised front and new Control Blade independent rear suspension (now standard across the range, matching Commodore) is at least as good as that delivered by the AU's brilliant but heavier, more costly and now defunct double wishbone IRS.

Steering is meatier and less talkative on-centre, complementing the improved ride/handling package and addressing complaints from some that Falcon's steering was too communicative at entry level, while the upgraded brake package is also a big improvement.

But the biggest shock is the totally revised powertrain. Delivering more torque across the rev range - which has been extended to an effective 6000rpm - the new twin cam straight six sets class benchmarks for driveability, refinement and excitement.

It is almost impossible to believe this is the old donk we have come to love/loath. This is now a high-revving, smooth, immensely useable and linear unit.

As revs rise so does a raspy, metallic combination of induction and exhaust noise which, without overwhelming occupants, lets you know that the engine is on the charge.

The icing on the cake is BTR's surprising new Sequential Sports Shift transmission, which matches Magna's Tiptronic-style shift to give Falcon buyers valuable bragging and real-world advantages.

Highly adaptive even in drive mode, in sports mode it locks out fourth gear for practical round-town use, but unlike all such European systems, it won't change up by itself in manual shift mode, and only down under certain specific circumstances.

Combined with 182kW of peak power and plenty of useable torque in between, plus greatly improved chassis dynamics and overall refinement, there's no doubt Ford has raised the bar considerably for large, locally built fleet cars.

Never before has entry level mainstream motoring been this much fun.

For more detail on Falcon pricing and equipment levels go to our "New Models" section and read the story "New Falcon: Pricing revealed".

And don't forget, we review the Fairmont Ghia V8 on Thursday, September 26 and the XR6 Turbo on Friday, September 27.

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