Here we go again. Supercar Scare!!!
By Bill McKinnon
Monday November 25 2002
In their race to be number one, Australia's two biggest car makers have pulled out their biggest guns. But with State governments becoming increasingly twitchy about rising road toll statistics, have the car makers exceeded the limit?
A performance war has broken out between Ford and Holden, with the result that extremely fast, high-performance Falcons and Commodores are now well within reach of the mass market.
Ford is desperate to revive Falcon's fortunes after five years of being hammered in showrooms by the Commodore.
A key element of its Falcon strategy is going back to basics, giving the new BA range the under-bonnet muscle to thump its Holden rivals.
The base model six-cylinder BA Falcon XT delivers 182kW of power, twice the output of the 1987 EA model. It's also 20 percent more than the 152kW Commodore Executive. A Porsche Boxster produces 168kW.
The family sedan/repmobile/fleet workhorse Falcon automatic now takes only 7.8 seconds to get to 100km/h.
No other large sedan, Commodore included, comes close at the money. Many sports cars cannot accelerate as quickly.
Further up the range, Falcon and Commodore are among the most powerful and quickest sedans on the market.
A $40,490 VY Commodore SV8 produces 235kW, the same power as the current model Porsche 911.
The BA Falcon XR6 turbo, priced at $43,965, tops that with 240kW; the XR8 Falcon, due early in 2003 atabout $50,000, will crank out 260kW. Its 5.4-litre V8 is called the Boss.
The Falcon XR6 turbo automatic rockets from rest to 100km/h in 6.4 seconds, comparable with the 911 but a few tenths slower because of the Falcon's heavier weight.
The Falcon XR8 will go close to beating the Porsche in a foot-to-the-floor drag.
Today's horsepower race is similar to that which happened in the early 1970s, when Ford, Holden and Chrysler built and sold replicas of their Bathurst race cars -- the Falcon GT-HO Phase Three, Holden Torana XU1 and Chrysler E38 Charger -- which raised the ire of the NSW transport minister of the day.
Then, the Falcon GT-HO was one of the fastest sedans in the world.
Holden started the current race towards accessible supercar performance with the release in 1999 of the 5.7-litre Generation III Chevrolet V8, a 225kW powerhouse which replaced the old Australian-made 5.0-litre engine in V8 Commodore variants such as the SS.
At the time, Ford had nothing to give the Gen III a run for its money.
This cemented Holden's image as Australia's performance car company, a corporate identity reinforced by domination of the V8 Supercar race series, its annual belting of the Falcon at Bathurst and the rise of the Holden Special Vehicles HSV subsidiary, which takes fast Commodores and makes them even faster.
HSV V8 models start at $58,200 for the 260kW Club Sport. HSV's gun engine is the American-built Callaway version of the Gen III 5.7-litre V8. As fitted to the $95,869 Monaro GTS Coupe and GTS sedan, it produces 300kW, a whisker more powerful than the 3.6-litre V8 fitted to Ferrari's Modena.
In 2003, Ford will respond with its own "special vehicles" operation and V8 engines which produce more than the XR8's 260kW. It will revive the car which caused the 1972 furore, the Falcon GT.
In Commodore/Falcon territory, particularly when it comes to the V8s, the crudest automotive measurements -- size and power -- are still the currency of argument and the basis of sales success.
The power race between Ford and Holden is, as it was in the 1970s, a grown-up's version (though this is debatable) of the "mine is bigger than yours" game played by little boys.
"Have a look at the letters pages in Wheels and Motor magazines, where the argument between Ford and Holden fans almost comes down to a contest involving penile measurement," Kim Rennick, from automotive industry con******cy Autopolis, told Drive.
"Call it red bloodedness or total unsophistication," Rennick said.
"Ford and Holden are appealing to a mindset which is anti-chardonnay and anti-latte.
"The cup-holders in both cars should be able to hold a can of Foster's."
The contest under the bonnet is accompanied by a renewed advertising push from both makers which emphasises the pleasures of power and speed, and extrapolates these to the personality of the driver. The idea, of course, is to turn on his testosterone tap.
Ford's No Boundaries ad for the BA Falcon, and the VY Commodore ad, feature exactly the same speed thrills cues, fast-forward vision, hyperactive tachometer needles, the obligatory headbanger tune, pumped dude in car etc, etc.
Holden has been doing this sort of stuff for a while with the Commodore, most notably the controversial advertisement which shows dad timing his run down the driveway to the garage, navigating a slalom course around his kid's toys while said kid watches from the window. The Game Over Monaro advertisement is another example.
NSW Transport Minister Carl Scully did not buy into the power issue to the same extent as his 1972 predecessor, but expressed concern about how power is advertised.
"We have recently developed a new voluntary advertising code for car manufacturers, and it requires car makers to ensure they don't promote reckless or illegal activities," Scully said.
"I am keeping a watching brief on this area, and if we find that car-makers are breaching the code, then we may have to consider further regulation."
While the emphasis on power and speed may be a relatively blunt selling tool, Kim Rennick says it is effective.
"A big, ballsy horsepower figure isthe most effective, unique selling proposition in the Australian market," he said.
"It's an area where Ford and Holden know that imports can't go at anywhere near the same price. They basically mark out their turf with a 200kW power rating."
Most Falcons and Commodores are not owned by feral petrolheads.
They're sold to fleets, and driven to and from work by mild-mannered mums and dads. So how and why do they respond to the power message?
There's an element of the Walter Mitty syndrome at work here.
"Fleet buyers buy dull cars," Rennick said. "They have to be given a reason to select one model over another. The performance image is a come-on to these people to buy something of great power."
So can Ford and Holden be accused of ramping up the performance of the current Falcon and Commodore to a level which presents a danger to their owners -- and the rest of us who have to share the road with them?
If you're from the "I've never met a kiloWatt I didn't like" school, the fact that neither car is what you would call underdone in the herbs department is a good thing. Who wants to drive a gutless car?
Power can be a safety feature as well as a liability. On our Third World roads, which require you to overtake against oncoming traffic, the less time you spend out there the better. Power minimises exposure to risk.
Power, and torque, are necessary for towing. Around Sydney, where speeds on arterial roads are relatively high, simple tasks such as merging with traffic or changing lanes are accomplished more smoothly and easier in a powerful, responsive car.
The argument that the great unwashed should not have access to cheap, powerful cars is rather quaint. It presupposes that the well-off who can afford BMWs and Mercs with similar performance to a local V8 sedan's are somehow going to use that performance more responsibly, which, of course, is complete tosh.
Today's new Falcon or Commodore, however, is tomorrow's cheap used car, the favourite set of wheels for young, inexperienced blokes who tend to feature prominently in crash statistics.
Placing 200-250kW at the disposal of any novice driver, particularly a male with a pre-pubescent attitude to his fellow road users, doesn't seem like a great idea.
On a wet road, or in the dirt, it is also too easy to get into trouble in a Falcon or Commodore when power overcomes grip.
Put your foot down a bit too firmly and in an instant the automatic can kick back a gear or two, spin the engine up to peak revs, and snap the back end sideways. The averagedriver has no idea how to regain control.
Ford and Holden should fit traction control across the range.
Traction control uses the anti-skid brakes to quickly arrest a spinning rear wheel and restore grip. It is featured on all rear-drive European cars with comparable power levels, and high-performance Falcon and Commodore variants.
Traction control is not available at all on the Commodore Executive. It was also listed as unavailable on the XT Falcon when the car was launched in September, but Ford has since decided to offer itasa $495 option.
High performance Fords and Holdens have been a part of the Australian automotive landscape since the 1960s. The power contest ebbs and flows.
Right now, it's on again in earnest, and the numbers are higher than ever.
How times have changed. The Ford Falcon GTHO reached a maximum power output of 225kW before the supercar scare of the 1970s. Today, a basic Holden Commodore V8 has the same power.
For decades car makers in Japan have had a "gentlemen's agreement" that their cars will not exceed 206kW, but that arrangement with authorities is about to be relaxed. Stand byfor a power war.
Drivers find ways around Germany's "gentlemen's agreement". Engine power is not restricted but most cars are limited to a maximum speed of 250km/h. Modifying engine computer chips is a big after-sales business.
Holden introduced a 220kW V8 four years ago and then, a year later, claimed it had been upgraded to 225kW -- even though it was 225kW all along. Holden reportedly understated the original figure it issued.
Car-makers happily increase their vehicles' power but rarely provide brakes to match. For example, the latest Ford XR6 Turbo -- which is as quick as a Porsche -- has the same brakes as a Falcon taxi. Premium brakes cost $2990.