No more secrets. We driven the BA Falcon and the votes are in. Is it as good as Ford has been telling us for the past six months? Glenn Butler delivers the verdict

Flashback to April, 2002, and Ford Australia embarked on an ambitious ‘Secrets Revealed’ strategy. The plan was to unveil the new Falcon piece by piece to the Australian media, and to the public via Ford’s website.

The official reason for this unprecedented ‘slow leak’ tactic, says Ford, was “there’s too much in this new Falcon to reveal in one hit”. The unofficial reason, we reckon, was to tempt buyers of large Aussie cars – Commodore, Camry and Magna – to hold off their purchase until the BA Falcon arrived in showrooms at the end of September. The plan could also have affected sales of AU III Falcon, but the unloved AU wasn’t setting any sales records anyway.

Whether the Secrets Revealed strategy was successful or not no longer matters. The Falcon is here, and we’ve driven it – every sedan bar the XR8, which won’t surface until February 2003. The only thing standing between follow-up failure and sales success is whether buyers like what they can now see – and finally drive. And we reckon you’ll love it. Ford’s BA Falcon undoubtedly takes locally built large cars to the next level of dynamic performance, safety and versatility.

First thing we noticed is how much more refined this 182kW twin-cam six is compared to the old 157kW single cam engine. It revs cleanly and happily right through to the higher 6000rpm limiter, where the old one would get raspy and reluctant above 5000rpm. The extra 25kiloWatts of power is apparent right throughout the rev range, delivering a stronger sense of urgency to the Falcon’s standing start getaway.

The engine is equally happy to deliver the herbs when overtaking, which is where the six percent torque increase makes itself felt. The new XT is 130kg heavier than the Forte it replaces, Ford says the extra weight is mostly in the new Control Blade IRS, though chassis reinforcements and the new seats also add to the bottom line.

Fuel economy – based on AS2877 standards – is 11.5litres/100km in city driving, 7.4litres/100km on the highway for the base six-cylinder XT. We’re skeptical of AS2877 figures, which are conducted in a laboratory, on a rolling road. It’s not real world, but then what is. According to the XT’s trip computer we managed between 10 – 12 litres per 100km in a short 100km stretch of urban and highway. Not bad.

Ford claims significant improvements in the Falcon’s brakes, previous generations accused of fading under repeated heavy applications. Larger diameter discs front and rear are better able to dissipate heat buildup, while Ford’s claims of improved stopping distances could not be quantified by its engineers – an important point given the vehicle’s 1672kg base kerb weight (by comparison Commodore Executive weighs 1522kg).

All Falcons have antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), and Ford says the totally new Control Blade independent rear suspension has vehicle stability payoffs under hard braking. Our repeated panic stops from 100km/h verified this as well as Ford’s claim of reducing brake fade. There’s also a marked improvement in pedal feel and feedback, not to mention comfort thanks to the adjustable pedal position – standard on Fairmont Ghia, optional on the rest.

Falcon now points and steers better thanks to a quicker steering rack which reduces turns lock-to-lock from 3.2 to 2.8. The car is quicker to react when the wheel is turned from straight-ahead, a plus on windy roads and probably more important on the sportier models like the XR6. The downside is this translates into a slightly nervous front end over bumpier, rutted roads.

Ford has also reduced the overall diameter of the steering wheel itself, and now mounts it dead centre, so it doesn’t ‘wobble’ off-centre during full rotation turns. One complaint we have sits with the new steering wheel boss, which doesn’t allow the driver to place thumbs around the wheel at ‘9’ and ‘3’.

That’s a minor quibble in an otherwise very friendly cabin. The driver’s seat on all models adjusts electrically for lift and tilt, via a lever for slide. The seatback tilt is still controlled by a wheel, which is fiddly to reach, tucked in beside the car’s B-pillar. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes through an acceptable range, and those electrically adjustable pedals are a godsend. Simply get the wheel right, adjust your seat, and move the pedals to fit. Brilliant. Ford’s also moved the gear shifter 30mm closer, and angled the central section of the dashboard six degrees towards the driver.

Falcon dynamics are a leap forward, the combination of stiffer chassis and body, new IRS and revised front suspension delivers a very stable, composed handling package with no obvious detriment to ride quality. Even the cheapest Falcon delivers a level of dynamics and performance that involves and enthuses the driver. Dare we say it? The BA Falcon is fun to drive. Every model.

Falcon buyers have a choice of four different suspension setups, mostly dependent on the model chosen. XT, Futura and Fairmont buyers get the standard suspension tune, which is impressively supple and smooth on bitumen and dirt. Tyres are one inch larger – 205/60 16inch Dunlop SP Sport on XT, same size Goodyear NCT rubber on Futura and Fairmont.

Sports suspension is standard on the Fairmont Ghia model, optional for XT, Futura and Fairmont. It couples slightly lower profile 225/50 17inch Dunlop Le Mans tyres with 15mm lower ride height, stiffer springs and anti-roll bar, and revised shocks absorbers. Ford claims this delivers improvements in vehicle agility and feedback, along with slightly sharper steering response.

XR6 and XR6T get an FPV developed suspension package, which stiffens springs, shocks and anti-roll bar, and lowers the ride height 32mm below XT. This package is not available as an option on any other models.

When it comes to fun, you can’t beat the XR6 Turbo. We drove it, we love it, we’re addicted. It’s hard to see how the low-$50,000 XR8 will be able to top the Turbo when it arrives in February 2003. The 3-valve V8 engine adds around 70kg to the base model XT, suggesting the XR8 will top 1750kg at the kerb, giving it a specific power to weight ratio of 6.7kg/kW compared to the Turbo’s 6.97kg/kW. Bugger all, really.

The Turbo’s biggest addictive quality is its power and torque delivery. Contrary to most turbos which do all the work high up in the rev range, Ford’s relatively low boost pressure (6 psi) means peak torque of 470Nm is on tap from just 3250rpm. More than 450Nm is available from just 2000rpm – barely off idle – and it’s this wealth of grunt that propels the Turbo towards the horizon with a ferocity unmatched by any locally built six cylinder sports car.

The engine pulls strongly from low revs, flinging the XR6T forward with a ferocity usually the exclusive realm of hi-po V8s. The power delivery is seamless, linear, and unstoppable, the XR6T engine and exhaust belting out a rip-roaring tune that’s gotta be the best sounding local six we’ve ever heard. And those outside the car will have just as much fun, listening to the FPV-finessed freak howl menacingly on full throttle. Pure bliss.

Don’t bother with the five-speed manual unless you really must change your own gears, the clutch is doughy and lifeless, and the heavy gearbox – needed to handle the torque – fights against quick changes. Ford’s BTR-sourced Sequential Sport Shift four speed auto is a gem. Gearchanges aren’t as smooth as some European autos, but it swaps cogs quickly and gets on with the mumbo, never dropping out of turbo boost range.

Even in ‘D’ mode the adaptive shift holds gears and changes late when you’re on the charge. Slide it left into Performance Auto mode and the ‘box holds longer, changes down later, almost negating the need for driver involvement. And, unlike plenty of Euro ‘boxes, the BTR auto doesn’t second guess the driver in fully manual mode – if you want to bounce off the rev limiter, it will, all day. Dawdle into a low speed corner in fourth, however, and if you bang the throttle wide open on exit it will change down into a lower gear – still, one out of two ain’t bad.

Ford’s traction control system is chalk and cheeses with Holden’s hyper-intrusive pedal pusher. It lets you get away with a little bit, then comes in quietly and seamlessly to keep everything on the blacktop, a subtle, low pitched chime and a flashing dash-light the biggest giveaway to its life-saving intervention. And the chime is so quiet it’s barely audible from the passenger seat, so the other half need never know you’re pushing the limits of adhesion.

Our first drive of the XR6T took place on a very wet, mossy section of road up and over the Grampians, and with hundred foot drops on one side, unyielding cliff faces on the other, we were reluctant to turn the traction control system off. Given a better set of circumstances and we will, purely so we can sample the Falcon’s re-invigorated chassis setup, of course.

The XR6T’s trip computer reported a 16.4litre/100km fuel economy figure for our 120km jaunt across the mountain, and we can’t be accused of babying the throttle. Bugger that for a joke, there’s 240kW of turbocharged power to be tried, tested and tamed in what we reckon is the best mainstream Aussie sports sedan today.

It’s a clear indication of how good this new Falcon package is overall that you don’t need to turn traction control off to have fun. Whether you stump up just enough for the base XT, or the bank manager green-lights the Turbo, it makes no difference to whether you’ll smile or not driving the BA Falcon. It’s only the size of the grin that changes.

But that alone doesn’t make Falcon a winner. In this spoilt for choice Australian large car market buyers demand quality build, plenty of useable room, value for money and real world safety. For Ford, this Falcon has to claw back the massive advantage built up by Holden over the last five years of AU misery.

For Ford boss Geoff Polites, he’ll be happy if the Blue Oval can sell every one of the 412 Falcon’s Broadmeadows will churn out each day. We reckon BA Falcon is up to that task. It scores consistently well in most areas and sets new benchmarks in others, and, based on our two-day first impression, is the best Aussie car currently on the market.

There’s one question that remains to be answered: Is the Australian car buyer ready to forget AU and embrace BA, or will the AU’s legacy haunt – and hinder – Falcon for some time to come? According to Glass’ Guide, a 1998 AU Forte is worth less than half its original retail price – in just four years. And while private purchasers are important to Ford, close to 80 percent of Falcon sales come from fleets – where resale is king.

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