BA article - Drive.com.au
By Joshua Dowling
The Sydney Morning Herald
Friday July 19 2002
Come September, it's a fair bet many people won't be able to pick the new Ford Falcon from the Holden Commodore.
Remember how similar the previous-generation sedans looked? Rewind to 1996, when Ford and Holden swapped the sales lead regularly and when the EL Falcon and VR Commodore both had sleek headlights and similar tail-lights. Their overall proportions were all but identical. Car-spotters could pick the difference, but to the uninitiated, they were indistinguishable.
It's going to be deja vu soon because, by a bizarre coincidence, the new Falcon and Commodore again will have similar faces.
Holden gave the public a big clue to the VY's styling with its Cross-8 concept car at the Melbourne motor show in March. And, in the final phase of an overtly orchestrated three-month teaser campaign, Ford finally pulled the covers off the Falcon in Melbourne on Monday.
It is now evident that both the Holden and Ford will have rectangular headlights housing twin circular lights. Both will have a starched crease in the bonnet, both will have a rectangular grille. Ford has even fitted foglights to its flagship Falcon to match the prestige look of the Holden Calais.
Holden's chief designer, Mike Simcoe, the man credited with the Commodore's runaway success, this week politely declined to comment on the Ford reskin. Other industry pundits say that it is clear that, after pushing the styling boundaries with the love-it-or-hate-it AU model, Ford has played it safe with the new Falcon.
Ford's designers say they don't see the resemblance to the next Commodore. But even if they aren't prepared to admit it, it must be reassuring for them to see Holden going in the same direction.
Ford Australia is betting the farm -- and $500 million -- on the most important Falcon in its history. The Falcon has been outsold by the Commodore for the past five years and Ford Australia hasn't turned a profit for the past two.
So how did the country's two biggest-selling cars end up looking the same again? The talent pool for car designers in Melbourne is shallow and there are only two big players in town. Cross-pollination is common with designers as well as engineers but both makers insist the similar appearance of the new model is a coincidence.
"We never aim to create a car that looks the same [as a rival] but the reality is we are all being influenced by the same design themes," says Ford stylist Graham Wadsworth. "Obviously, this is the direction everyone is going at the moment."
Wadsworth says a designer contracted to Ford left to work for Holden "about a year ago" and the company has, in the past, hired former Holden stylists. But given how long it takes to develop new models (from three to five years) no-one is launching conspiracy theories just yet.
If you squint, there is even a hint of the Lexus IS200 in the Falcon's nose and a flicker of Audi's A6 tail-light. The latter should come as little surprise -- the worldwide head of design at Ford is J Mays, who oversaw the design of the A6 during his spell at Audi.
It is no secret that styling was the biggest priority with the new Falcon. The boot is demonstrably bigger. When we asked by how much, Ford didn't know -- or wasn't saying.
"We did whatever we had to do to make the car look good, and the boot space came after that," said Wadsworth. "The boot space was always going to be whatever it would be. We worked from the outside in."
The new front and rear appearance is unlikely to offend. Because the doors carry over from the AU series, the deep character lines remain in the flanks but the maker has muted them at each end of the car.
The roof has lost its hoop-shaped crown (it's flatter and 40 mm lower). To further help diminish the oval look, the top corners of the front and rear windscreens are now square.
It may not look like it, but the wheelbase is longer and the car also has a wider stance, in a move to make the Falcon more sure-footed.
Despite the stretch, cabin space is effectively unchanged. The interior is being kept secret until the launch of the car but it is said to follow the themes in Ford's European models.
Enhancing the Falcon's safety in a rear-end crash, the petrol tank is now located under the rear seat rather than behind the rear bumper. This modification would make it easier to export the Falcon to the US -- but Ford Australia is adamant it has no plans to do so.
As Ford revealed in its earlier "drip feed" strategy, it has developed a new, lighter and apparently more sophisticated independent rear suspension (IRS), which is also cheaper to make than the current set-up.
Ford is rightly proud of most of its improvements but in many areas the maker is playing catch-up -- or still persisting with old technology.
Ford's IRS may be more advanced than Holden's but it will be fitted only to sedans. The wagon and utility must make do with leaf-spring suspension, whose lineage goes back to the horse and buggy.
Ford is beating its chest about such features as satellite navigation and rear parking sensors but these have been available on imports for years.
Side airbags at last will be available on the new Falcon, but Holden has had this important safety feature since 1999.
Ford will follow Toyota and Holden by making a cigarette lighter optional but the removal of the telescopic radio antenna (replaced by a discreet adhesive on the windscreen) will be a first for a local maker, as will the height-adjustable pedals and "drive-by-wire" electronic throttle.
What will customers make of such things? How long before the Falcon returns to glory? There is no straightforward answer to either question. The damage to the Falcon badge following the AU's sales flop is impossible to measure. Industry pundits reckon Holden has too much momentum for the Falcon to make a sudden impact. It could be more than a year before the tide even looks like turning.
The combined effects of weak resale values of the AU and a price hike of about 3 to 4 percent for the new model are likely to make it more of a stretch for fleet owners to update.
Holden gained a lot of Falcon customers who weren't happy with the AU's styling or the way it drove. Ford has moved heaven and earth to remedy both failings; it may need further dealings with providence for buyers to forgive and forget.
And even if company-car Australia switches back to Ford, will the rest of us notice?
Key features of the new Falcon
. New, flatter roofline has lost its crown (40mm lower). The top corners of the front and rear windscreens are now square.
. Cleaner windscreen look thanks to recessed 'screen washer jets. Radio antenna replaced by windscreen adhesives.
. New, twin-beam headlights are 20mm higher than on AU. Falcon has foglights for the first time. Under the bonnet, a revised six or an all-new 5.4-litre V8.
. Rear parking sensors on Fairmont Ghia for the first time. New boot is bigger, taller and squarer.
. New independent rear suspension. The doors are the only carry-over panels from the AU. The BA has been stretched 20mm behind the rear doors.
. Bigger, more powerful brakes. Front guards moved out 30 to 40mm to give car a squarer look.
What Ford said
Excerpts from Ford's AU Falcon press material in September 1998:
Falcon has dominated the Australian market place for decades and we have every intention that it will continue to do so long into the future.
The styling of the AU blends bold, sharp edges with the strong, robust stance of previous Falcons and the flowing silhouettes of contemporary European design. AU Falcon's design represented the start of the next design trend, signalling the end of the softer shapes of the early 1990s.
Although we've retained the values important to our loyal Falcon customers, we are confident that Falcon's great new looks and sophisticated manners will attract people who have never considered Ford or Falcon before.
We also worked intensively ... to ensure that by the time we brought the car to market we had done everything we could to get it right the first time, something which is absolutely vital in today's very competitive market place.
Ford's chief designer Steve Park: The car is unmistakably Australian and unmistakably Falcon, but it also has design cues familiar to new edge and to the bolder European designs. We think the car will age well.
What Drive said
Excerpts from Ford AU Falcon reports in September 1998:
Several Ford dealers contacted by Drive this week confirmed styling was already becoming a major talking point -- positive and negative -- with prospective buyers. "A lot [of customers] don't like the look at first," said one salesman, "but I think it will start to grow on them when they see it the flesh."
Ford's new Falcon sets only one record on the international stage. It is the biggest, most powerful car that $29,990 devalued Aussie dollars can buy. The 87 per cent dinky-di AU series Falcon, with its Geelong-made engines and its BHP steel body, is probably the most metal for the least cash available anywhere in the world. But in a car market now dominated by imports, will this be enough?
The price is right, the product is honest but only a patriot could describe this $700 million essentially Australian big car as a technological world-beater. The engine is an update of the familiar straight six, a grandpa's axe design which still uses bore centre dimensions first minted in 1960. Now quieter, smoother and more willing to rev, it is still no match for a modern Japanese V6.
Styling, already the big talking point, may be the weakness. The curved turret and huge, triangular headlamps and tail-lights make the AU appear slightly smaller than it is. The Falcon either will roar into vogue or fail on the fashion grid.
Near Cessnock, a passing motorist who claimed to be "a Ford fan" said: "Mate, it's so ugly, I wouldn't drive it to a dog fight."
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