Ford's turbocharged big six is a performance bargain that can beat traditional V8s, writes Robert Wilson
BATHURST is approaching, and a win for Ford this year will top off a remarkable motorsport revival. A loss will mean all its triumphs on lesser tracks will count for nothing.
But regardless of what happens on October 12, back in the real world Ford now has the most memorable Australian performance car - and here's the shocker - it's not even a V8.
To make a car more powerful you have two basic choices: put in a bigger engine or turbocharge the one you've got.
The first course has always been Australian automotive tradition.
True, Holden did a Commodore turbo in the 1980s but it used a bought-in Nissan turbo motor. But after driving the Ford Falcon XR6T the question is: why didn't they think of this years ago?
The turbocharged XR Falcon is one of the most engaging and capable sports sedans available at any price. For the $45,085 asking price, it's an outstanding performance bargain.
You can't make a silk purse sportster out of a sows ear of a car, but the BA model Falcon is an excellent foundation.
Even in its basic form its in-line six-cylinder engine boasts twin camshafts with infinitely adjustable (as opposed to two-stage) variable valve timing on both inlet and exhaust valves, for a very impressive combination of power and economy.
The Turbo model adds a Garret GT40 turbo (Ford aficionados will smile at that designation), which runs in tandem with an intercooler, despite blowing only a relatively mild 0.5 atmospheres of boost.
Even so, it lifts power from the standard engine's already impressive 182kW to 240kW.
The conservative turbo setting, the same as a low-performance Saab 9-3 Linear model, minimises turbo lag. That's the often infuriating wait for a turbo to build up to full pressure.
It also maximises low-rev and mid-range torque. Maximum torque of 450Nm is constant between 2000-4500rpm.
To put that in perspective, a Commodore's 5.7-litre V8 doesn't develop its maximum torque of 465Nm until 4000rpm.
But the Falcon six also delivers the traditional turbo rush, that sensation of fast-forwarding a video. It revs strongly until 5900rpm when the rev limiter rather abruptly calls a halt.
Some turbo engines can be tedious to drive at normal speeds. The worst of them can be weaker than a normal engine until the turbo kicks in and they're suddenly a handful.
But the XR6 turbo is pleasant in everyday driving. Use the accelerator gently and you get flexible, smooth, effortless performance, indistinguishable from that of a V8.
About the only thing it lacks is the V8 sound -- that primal fart that makes grown men weep.
The XR6T may be the best-handling of all the BA models. We didn't directly compare it and the V8 powered XR8 or GT but we wouldn't be surprised if it had a faster turn-in than the XR8 and less understeer as a result of the lighter six-cylinder engine over the front wheels.
Feel through the steering wheel is excellent -- a Falcon strength inherited from the otherwise unlamented AU series.
Brakes have not always been a Ford Falcon strong point in recent years.
Some AU models felt underbraked for their power but the Turbo has an appropriately effective set of stoppers.
The test car had optional premium brakes but Ford says that even the standard brakes are as effective as the premium brakes on the previous model.
The independent rear suspension is unflustered by mid-corner bumps, in contrast to the little jumps that Holden's simpler rear suspension can produce in the same situation.
It also does a good job in applying the turbo's considerable power to the road without wheelspin or axle tramp.
The ride is firm but not stiff -- quite an achievement compared with the billycart jolting of some other fast sedans.
Make no mistake, it's much firmer than a Falcon XT and and no comparison with Fairmont, but it's not uncomfortable.
The only drawback is the manual gearbox, which can be both heavy and baulky, particularly in the 2-3 shift.
The optional four-speed automatic with tiptronic-style manual shifting is the way to go.
The body and finish share their strengths and weaknesses with the rest of the Falcon range.
The LCD display for air conditioning and audio controls is stylish, sophisticated and easy to use, although the relatively small instruments with their fiddly graphics aren't so pleasing.
Its pleasing to be able to report that build quality in the latest BA Falcons we've driven is much improved over early models -- no more wildly mismatched dashboard gaps.
But the driver's seat, is still too high for a sports sedan -- the steering wheel feels low and tall drivers are forced to peer grumpily out from under the windscreen rail, like Clint Eastwood from under his stetson.
Appearance is reasonably subtle by local muscle car standards, compared with some of the boat prowed, bat-winged monstrosities thrust upon us, and there are no reports of problems with the turbo engines.
And the alloy wheels are easily scratched - although we didn't.
The turbo six is heavy on fuel if driven hard - with bills roughly equivalent to those of a V8 - and although it will run on standard unleaded it prefers premium. It's the only area in which the XR6 Turbo is too close to a V8 for our liking.
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