Friday, May 30, 2008

Ford Falcon XT

At first glance, the new Ford Falcon looks remarkably like the old one. That’s partly because Ford gave the previous generation Falcon a new nose late in its life to prepare us for the new model. And, partly, because the new model has the old model’s hubcaps and badging (other than the Ford badge on the grille, which is noticeably bigger).

In the metal, however, the differences become more apparent and the new Falcon looks like a much cleaner design.

The new Ford Falcon’s roof is slightly wider to create more headroom, and the sides of the car are more upright.

The new Falcon is slightly bigger in every dimension and yet overall weight has barely changed from its predecessor. While the exterior styling may be “evolutionary”, as designers like to say when they don’t change the look that much, the interior is a big improvement, and a big change.

Many of the buttons that were hidden from view behind the steering wheel are now plain to see. And, finally, Ford has fitted a digital speedometer as part of the trip computer display in between the regular speedo and tacho.

The trip computer is also more clever; you can adjust the increments by 1km/h by pushing the button briefly, or adjust the increments by 10km/h by holding the same button a moment longer.

The steering wheel has a quality feel and the cruise and audio controls are easy to navigate. One big blot, though: the steering wheel-mounted buttons are not illuminated at night (as they are on all Commodores).

The indicator and wiper stalks are carried over from the previous Falcon but the indicators now have a soft-touch three-flash lane-change function. Holden also introduced this European-style feature on the new Commodore.

The quality of the new Falcon’s cabin materials is a big step up, and the layout of most controls are user-friendly. Some testers commented on the number of buttons – and the small symbols that identified what each did – but we got used to them by the end of the drive.

The centre console is massive and, cleverly, contains a small pouch to store a phone or MP3 music player. An auxiliary audio input socket is standard but you can also option an iPod connector which allows all your songs to be displayed on the digital display and controlled through the car’s audio controls, while charging the iPod at the same time.

Other fine details such as the Audi-style retractable key (standard on all new Falcons, whereas retractable keys are reserved for only the more expensive Holdens) and the new Falcon’s soft-touch external boot release (the Holden only has an internal boot-release switch and a button on the remote) are things many car reviewers may gloss over, but which customers will no doubt appreciate.

The previous Falcon’s small side mirrors, which were like looking through Ned Kelly’s helmet, have been replaced by larger mirrors which provide a much better over-shoulder view (although it could be improved further with an ultra-wide convex mirror on the driver’s side, as many new models have these days).

The steering and seating positions are unchanged from the previous Falcon and don’t have the same level of adjustment as the Commodore.

The steering wheel could do with more reach adjustment and the seat is too high. That said, of all the Falcons, the base model Falcon XT has the lowest and most comfortable seating position because the seat fabric compresses more readily than the leather seats in the luxury and sports models, which also sit slightly higher because they have the hardware for their electric adjustment underneath.

The side bolsters on the lower seat cushions of all the Falcons, we noted, felt flimsy and wasn’t as supportive as it could be.

Back seat room is marginally improved from the previous Falcon. There’s about 10cm of space between an average-sized adult’s knees and the back of the front seat. In a Commodore there’s about 15cm of knee room.

The Falcon’s back bench is reasonably comfortable except the seat back is quite short. The fixed foam headrests (only on the outer two positions) barely come up to the necks of adults, let alone offer any decent whiplash protection. The middle back-seat passenger gets no headrest at all and, further, it’s possible to hit your head on the lug on the parcel shelf that child restraints bolt on to.

The Commodore also lacks a headrest in the middle rear seating position but the seat back itself is taller. In the Commodore, the two fixed foam headrests are also taller than the Falcon’s and get closer to protecting adult passengers’ necks from whiplash in a rear-end crash.

Both sedans have massive boots, but only the Falcon gets a split-fold seat that opens to the cargo hold, creating a large load space for pushbikes, surfboads and the like.

Further, the Falcon has a clever recess in the floor above the spare wheel, which is handy to stop shopping bags from emptying their contents on the way home. True story: during development of the new Falcon, Ford’s chief engineer randomly approached Falcon-driving mums and dads in shopping centre car parks to ask them what they were putting in their boot. And he never once got a black eye. The rectangular recess is the result of his grassroots research.

The Falcon’s 4.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine is older than grandpa’s axe but it’s had another round of refinements that give it more power – and better efficiency – before it is replaced by an imported V6 engine in 2010.

The updated six-cylinder still has that characteristic Falcon shudder as it cranks over – although with the new FG Falcon there’s now a one-touch starting system that automatically cranks the engine until it starts. And there’s a moment of coarseness as it gets going, but it idles and runs smoothly.

It’s now matched to a five-speed automatic transmission, which helps get the Falcon off the line smartly, is better for overtaking and also improves fuel efficiency at freeway speeds. The extra ratio also means there’s a better chance the car will be in the right gear at the right time.

For an extra $1500 the Falcon can be had with a more efficient six-speed automatic, which delivers incremental improvements to driveability and acceleration. Assuming today’s fuel prices of around $1.50 a litre, it would take about 250,000km of driving to pay off the difference between the standard five-speed auto and optional six-speed.

These cars aren’t supposed to be sports sedans but acceleration times provide an interesting insight into their overall performance.

In our satellite assisted 0 to 100km/h tests, the XT stopped the clocks in 7.4 seconds – more than two seconds faster than the Commodore Omega and one second faster than the Calais.

The Falcon XT has the edge in overtaking performance as well. The extra ratio (the Commodore Omega is a four-speed only) means it’s never left wanting.

Of course, straight line speed is just one measure of a car.

Ford has spent millions of dollars reworking the steering and front suspension on the new Falcon, and it shows. The previous model’s steering was too sensitive on bumpy bends and Ford has removed much of that nervousness. The new Falcon feels well connected to the road, even in its most basic guise, and the ride is comfortable without being floaty.

But, alas, having spent plenty of time in the Falcon, it was time for a change of scenery.

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