IF the entry level XT illustrates most graphically how far Ford has come with the BA Falcon, then the Fairmont Ghia - flagship of the short-wheelbase range - provides the most lasting impression of the new Falcon's accomplishments. In top-shelf, optional V8 guise as tested here, Ghia lines up directly with Holden's Calais V8 and gives us our first taste of Ford's sophisticated new 5.4-litre overhead camshaft V8. Look past the restrained, classical treatment of the masculine new BA shape and the blood-quickening V8 performance, however, and you'll find massive gains in cabin quietness, ambience, presentation and equipment, plus an entirely new independent rear suspension that delivers the perfect balance between ride quality and body control. Offering a combination of comfort, practicality, dynamics and performance usually found in far more expensive German cars, the BA Fairmont Ghia V8 is the best executed, most opulent expression of luxury family-size motoring Australia has ever produced.
By MARTON PETTENDY 05/02/2003
FAIRMONT Ghia is Australia's equivalent of a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-class, at about half the price.
Like Calais, the Ghia's most direct competitor over at Holden, it is available with either standard six-cylinder power or an optional V8 as tested here.
Either way, both cars remain under the $57,000 luxury tax threshold and, although the Calais V8 undercuts the Fairmont Ghia V8 by a couple of thousand dollars, it is not as well equipped, nor as new, as the 2003 Ghia.
Indeed, after spending $500 million - double what Holden spent to develop the VY Commodore range - Ford's BA Falcon line-up is more like an all-new car than a mid-life facelift. This is a direct response to five solid years of market leadership by Holden's popular Commodore.
Ford's money appears well spent with wholesale changes to exterior and interior styling, engines, automatic transmission, suspension and steering making even the entry level XT a vastly improved product.
Throw into the Fairmont Ghia equation a bundle of new equipment, new leather trimmed seats, greatly improved cabin isolation and the world-first employment of an all-new 5.4-litre V8, and Ford's most expensive Falcon-based sedan begins to appear an extremely attractive proposition.
Fairmont Ghia's equipment list is extensive and, in addition to the extensive base Falcon specification, includes dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver's seat with memory, colour TFT display screen with satellite navigation, trip computer, Prestige six-CD sound system, full leather upholstery, a reverse parking system, power adjustable pedals, 17-inch alloy wheels, Sports IRS, side airbags, courtesy lighting, automatic headlights, woodgrain trim, traction control and driving lights.
But a healthy standard equipment list alone does not make a luxury car and, thankfully, Fairmont Ghia builds on the strengths of the BA Falcon to produce a distinctively prestige feeling package.
First there's the 88 per cent stiffer body structure, which plays a big role in making the BA Fairmont Ghia feel more like a prestige car than ever before. There's no creaking over diagonal gutter crossings as before and the whole plot remains consistently more composed when roads deteriorate.
Slung under the rigid new body is revised double wishbone suspension and a completely redesigned Control Blade independent rear suspension. Fairmont Ghia rides on a unique 17-inch wheel/suspension specification called Sports IRS, which is optional on XT, Futura and Fairmont models.
Carrying lower ride height, stiffer springs, revised shock valving and a beefier anti-roll bar than the regular IRS, the rear suspension setting is not quite as firm as that found exclusively in XR models, but realises susbstantial gains in terms of ride comfort.
The result is ride quality that belies the level of road holding, composure and body control available, and Sports IRS feels the perfect level of suspension tune for the Ghia's sports-luxury aspirations.
Along with the extra ride comfort is a far quieter cabin, while the revised, quicker steering rack continues to lead the class for response, feedback and precision.
Inside, the only blemishes are the lack of a tacho redline, uneven unions between the new door skins and dash, an awkward driver's footrest and the too-tall power driver's seat, which positions tall drivers a little closer to Falcon's intrusive A-pillar.
But the Fairmont Ghia's V8 is its greatest asset. In tandem with BTR's excellent adaptive four-speed automatic transmission, now featuring sequential manual control, the 5.4-litre V8 offers seamless acceleration from idle to its 5250rpm redline.
Vastly different to Holden's optional all-alloy 5.7-litre V8, the Boss 220 is a long-stroke design that still employs a cast-iron block but adds variable camshaft timing, electronic throttle, an overhead camshaft per bank, two inlet and one exhaust valve per cylinder, coil-on-plug ignition and Failsafe Cooling - but not a pushrod in sight.
As a result, the 90-degree 24-valve 5.4 produces more torque and similar power at significantly lower engine speeds. The figures read: 470Nm of torque at 3250rpm versus 460Nm at 4400rpm for the Gen III, with 220kW on tap at 4750rpm versus 225kW at 5200rpm.
Assisting this is lower final drive gearing from the XR sedan which, combined with the ever-ready auto, makes for instant throttle response, a healthy dose of bottom-end urge, a brisk mid-range and an enthusiastic top-end that feels European in the way that its revs so crisply, cleanly and without any of the coarse protest familiar to owners of any 5.0-litre Windsor V8.
Of course, weight is the enemy of performance and as the ultimate short-wheelbase Falcon-based sedan, the Ghia tips the scales at a porky 1786kg.
Although the Ford's 5.4 V8 narrowly edges out the Holden V8 in terms of specific output, the extra 75kg in Fairmont Ghia trim sees Calais V8 leap ahead in the power-to-weight stakes.
It might not feel that heavy on the road but the weight does effect the Fairmont Ghia V8's fuel economy, which is perhaps the Calais V8's biggest advantage in this contest.
But the fact is any performance difference between the two is academic. Both luxury cars offer deceptively quick acceleration on the open road and are equally happy to trickle around town at lazy engien speeds. It is just that the Ghia's performance is more refined and easier to access thanks to a better transmission, lower gearing and better torque curve.
Ultimately, however, Fairmont Ghia V8 is not in the same league as large German sedans more than twice the price. But the 2003 version amounts to far more than a tarted-up Falcon and nowhere in the world can this many luxury features and so much performance be had in such a large car for so little money.
At last, Fairmont Ghia has the structural integrity, noise suppression, interior ambience, equipment list and drivetrain refinement and performance to warrant its station as the most sophisticated Falcon.
If the BA Fairmont Ghia V8 has followed the VY Calais V8's lead as a legitimate, no-excuses alternative to similarly priced (but smaller and much slower) luxury European offerings, then Ford has beaten Holden at its own game.
And the winner is the homegrown sports-luxury car buyer.