Ford's Tickford performance arm ups the ante with its T3 range of fast Falcons, shoehorning 5.6 litres of V8 grunt under the bonnet in a bid to turn the tables on HSV's. Gautam Sharma test drives the TE50.
Ford fans rejoice. The Blue Oval's performance brand FTe (Ford Tickford experience) has at last delivered a machine serious enough to tackle HSV head-on. The generation III T-Series cars are a marked improvement most notably in the engine department.
FTe was conceived in 1999 as Ford's answer to Holden's HSV performance arm which had established itself as a lucrative niche brand. But public response to FTe's initial offerings was lacklustre, partly due to the fact the brand had no established identity. FTe may have to be patient on this score, as HSV took more than a decade to build up its credibility with the punters.
Tickford boffins were also restricted with the engine, a 5.0-litre V8, while HSV had as its starting point an all-alloy 5.7-litre Gen III V8. Ford initially said it would not enter a power war, but in 2001 realised the futility of competing against 255kW Clubsports and Senators with 220kW models.
Solution? Stroke it! Tickford has lengthened the stroke of the venerable Windsor V8 increasing capacity from 5.0 litres to a brawny 5.6. The result is a glorious powerplant that is every bit the equal of its HSV rival.
With the horsepower deficit taken care of, something had to be done about the T-Series' lack of "street cred". A low-key styling approach wins no friends in the Aussie muscle car market, and FTe unleashed a body kit that is altogether more aggressive than its predecessors. The "T" in T-Series could now justifiably stand for "Tuff".
The TE50's front spoiler is literally a road-hugger (which means caution is needed when entering or exiting driveways), while the sizeable rear wing could easily double for an ironing board.
Mesh grille inserts and side skirts with TE50 decals further differentiate the car from its lesser siblings, while its multi-spoke 18x8-inch alloy wheels look sensational and overcome the basic Falcon's top-heavy stance.
Inside, leather sports seats embroidered with the Tickford logo suit the car's character, as soes the leather-bound steering wheel and gearknob. Some potential buyers may be disappointed by the dash and console, which are no different to those found in a taxi-pack Forte.
The seats are supportive enough and the steering wheel is adjustable for reach and height so it's possible to conjure up a reasonably comfortable driving position with a bit of fiddling.
There is no shortage of kit as anti-lock brakes, keyless entry with alarm, power windows and mirrors, dual airbags, air-conditioning, multi-function steering wheel and cruise control are among the standard equipment list. T-Series cars also come with a premium six-stack CD stereo, but you may as well leave it switched off because the best soundtrack you'll hear in this car is with the window down and your accelerator foot buried.
Stretching the engine to 5.6 litres has reaped worthwhile dividends and power is up to a healthy 250kW at 5250rpm, while peak torque is a towering 500Nm - albeit at a relatively high 4250rpm. What this means is that the engine delivers its best in the upper half of its rev range.
The TE50 is no slug at low revs, but get past 3000rpm and its pulling power enters another realm. Ford claims the TE50 can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds - and that feels about right. This is the quickest Blue Oval car on offer here - maybe barring the Mustang.
Perhaps best of all is the rousing, barrel-chested bellow that emanates from the twin tailpipes when your right foot is inclined to get a little heavy. We reckon the TE50 sounds like a detuned race car. All Ford V8s are aural delights, but this is easily the best of the lot.
The flip side of the coin is that lead-footed antics will mean regular wallet-thumping trips to the local servo. Ford quotes figures of 15 litres/100km around town and 9 litres/100km on the highway. And don't forget to factor in the added cost of PULP, a must in this vehicle. But, what the heck, it's not a huge price to pay for such good, clean fun.
The engine is nicely complemented by the Tremec five-speed transmission, which is an altogether better proposition than the baulky five-speeder found in its lesser XR8 sibling. It allows reasonably quick changes (unlike the XR8) and the ratios are well-spaced. The steering is well weighted and offers ample feedback, encouraging the driver to explore the car's cornering limits where appropriate.
In keeping with the TE50's sporting aspirations the suspension has been firmed up, but displays a disappointing tendency to understeer into tight corners. It feels a bit like the proverbial lead-tipped arrow, with the nose plowing straight ahead when pushing hard through the tight stuff. Part of the blame must be taken by the car's bulk, tipping the scales at over 1700kg.
That said, the TE50 feels better balanced through faster, more flowing corners and it offers amazing traction - thanks largely to the sticky Dunlop 245/40ZR18 rubber - considering how much power is on tap. This is just as well as traction control is not available in manual versions.
The test car provided by Ford came with the optional Brembo brake package - with discs as big as dinner plates. The premium braking package delivers strong stopping power but perhaps not quite the eyeball-bulging retardation one might have expected.
At the time of this test, the TE50 was priced at $57,350, putting it up squarely against HSV's strong-selling Clubsport - so which car should you choose? In spite of the relative age of the TE50's basic engine (which dates back to the 1960s), the latest upgrades have breathed new life into it and, if anything, it feels stronger than the Gen III powerplant found under the HSV's bonnet.
The Tremec five-speed gearbox is also more user-friendly than HSV's clunky six-speeder. Ditto the TE50's steering, which is sharper than the Clubbie's tiller. But the Clubsport seems to offer better chassis balance, even though its rear suspension design is, at least on paper, inferior to Ford's double-wishbone set-up.
Looks are a highly subjective area so we'll leave you to judge that for yourself.
Overall, it's a tough call but our vote goes to the TE50 - the charismatic exhaust note being the clincher. Potential buyers should bear in mind that the current car's Windsor engine will be ditched in favour of an altogether more modern 5.4-litre V8 once the Barra Falcon makes its debut in October, 2002. So you will either have on your hands an obsolete machine or a collector's item - depending on how you choose to look at it.