<b>Beefy burgers a satisfying local dish</b>
Both cars impress but there is too little between them to declare a winner, write Philip King and Robert Wilson.
November 21, 2002
<b>Roadtest: Holden Calais V8 v Ford Fairmont Ghia V8</b>
FINE dining is all very well, but sometimes nothing satisfies like a hamburger with the lot. That's what you get when you order a Holden Calais or Ford Fairmont Ghia.
The recipe: take your meat-and-lettuce Commodore or Falcon and add beetroot, bacon and BBQ sauce until the sesame seed bun is saturated, transforming your basic quarter-pounder into a substantial if unpretentious meal.
The sweeteners include V8 engines, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, parking sensors, leather upholstery, premium audio systems and optional GPS navigation - all the stuff of European model catalogues but at an (admittedly hefty) fraction of the price.
And our meaty metaphor goes further. Just as multicultural cuisine replaced the once ubiquitous milk bar, so have imported cars taken a bite out of the Falcon and Commodore share of the user-chooser lease market.
Tastes may be changing but for many there's still no substitute for sinking your teeth into one with the lot. And both these burgers are big fat and juicy. But are they greasy junk food, fit only for gluttons, or can their fresh ingredients reawaken the jaded palate?
FAIRMONT and Calais both get their own versions of the BA Falcon and VY Commodore makeovers. With plenty of chrome bright work, both emphasise luxury rather than sporting intent.
The Calais has unique tail-lamps, bigger than those of the base-model Executive and its derivatives. It also uses projector beam headlights with a more eye-like appearance then the base car's conventional lights. In our view, it's one of better looking versions of the new Commodore.
The Fairmont is less differentiated from the Falcon than the previous AU model, but that's less of a problem when the base car is to most viewers much better looking in BA form.
Both are good looking cars, although far from trend setting.
FROM the driver's seat Calais and Fairmont are closer to the cutting edge. Both get new interiors that follow European trends.
If the finer grades of social distinction are your thing you may see the new Fairmont as a step backward. The previous model had an entirely different dash from the base Falcon's - now only a central clock and larger message screen distinguishes it. Plus a slither of unlikely looking timber.
In design terms the new Falcon interior is excellent - the feel and finish of the transmission selector, for example, are beyond comparison with its low-rent predecessor. But quality and fit were poor with large and inconsistent gaps between trim sections on the car we drove.
Electrically adjustable pedals let small - or tall - people tailor their Fairmont to fit. But some drivers said they still found it impossible to get a perfect position in the Ford. At Fairmont level the Ford gets the auto-on-at-sundown headlights, which are now standard across the Commodore range.
Ford's new steering wheel forces the driver's hands too high. We can see why Ford did it - many people drive like this anyway - but if you've adopted the correct quarter-to-three-position, the Falcon wheel is maddening.
The Calais also has a new wheel but it's a clear improvement. It's larger than the Ford's but with better hand positioning and a nicer feeling rim.
Over all, the new Holden interior is not quite as enticing as the Ford's but there are highlights.
The Calais' cupholders are the first evidence of General Motors' stake in Saab - they're straight from the 9-5, which only gets one. But a major deduction from Calais' interior score comes for the near-invisible location of the navigation system screen.
Down at the base of the centre console, it requires too long a look away from the road. The Ford's screen is higher up but neither has the repeating screen in the instrument panel that many European cars with navigation now feature.
As ever, both are large cars that can take four adults comfortably across the country or five across town.
<b>ENGINE, TRANSMISSION </b>
THE V8 engines in both these cars are classic Detroit lumps. Although the Fairmont's engine is assembled just over the border in Canada, both come from the spiritual home of big, cushy American motoring.
Ford's new 220kW V8 is the world's first production use of the new Canadian-built three-valve head Triton engine. The Triton series is a Ford staple in the US where in two-valve form it powers the majority of Ford's F150 truck fleet - one of America's best-selling vehicles.
It may indeed have multi-valves and variable timing but the 5.4-litre, christened Barra 220 by Ford, still feels like an old-style V8. It's strong but not as keen a revver as the Holden Gen III. However, the Ford's excellent low-down torque is what the executive sedan market appreciates.
Holden's (strictly speaking, Chevrolet's) Gen III V8 in the Commodore uses pushrod-operated valves. According to engineering textbooks, that's a less efficient arrangement than overhead cams - but nobody told the GM design team who drew this engine in 1997.
In the Calais the Gen III develops 225kW and does without the rumbling exhaust fitted to other Commodore V8s.
The Gen III likes to rev and its willingness to do so gets around the drawbacks of the old transmission - on a twisty road you simply put it in 2nd and let the engine run up and down its scale with the minimum of clunky gear changes.
Left alone the Holden's four-speed automatic suffers from the same coarse and indecisive shifting we criticised in the Commodore Executive. It's wholly outclassed by Ford's BTR four-speed with manually selectable gears.
As at the base level, the Ford's considerable extra weight takes its toll on economy and performance, to some extent negating the engine's torque advantages.
<b>RIDE and HANDLING </b>
THESE two are closer in handling than the Falcon XT and Commodore Executive we drove a few weeks ago. Thank larger wheels and tyres - particularly on the Holden - for that. It's now more a question of a difference in style than outright superiority.
The Ford is much more sinuous in its handling, almost European in feel and, yes, we can't believe we're saying this about a Falcon either.
The VY Calais has more of what pilots call a yank-it-and-bank-it character. It prefers to to be turned-in sharply and then powered out of a turn while the Ford is content to waft its way through.
The Holden gets power down well out of tighter corners but is far from comfortable on sweeping bends, when its vague transmission creates an insecure feeling by refusing to hang on to gears and making it difficult to balance the car. A better transmission would instantly make the Calais a better-handling car. The Holden is slightly better in steering feel but the Ford is the easier car to drive on a twisting road and the steering is markedly more direct.
The Fairmont rides more softly than the Calais, which can have an inappropriate sports sedan feel at times.
BOTH cars come with ABS brakes, traction-control and side airbags. Head protection and rear-seat airbags are not yet available on Australian-made cars. For vehicles that in this trim compare themselves with Europe's prestige brands, they are a notable omission.
Brake feel in the Calais is softer and easy to modulate, while the harder Fairmont pedal takes more familiarity.
<b>VALUE and RESALE </b>
APART from the airbags, there's very little these cars miss. Their prices may be hovering around entry level money for some of Europe's proudest marques but realistically you'd be making sacrifices to drive a Mercedes, BMW or Audi at the same price.
Where a European will pay off is at resale time. Calais and Fairmont depreciate at about the same rate as their Commodore and Falcon cousins, which means taking a loss of up to 35 per cent in value over the first year alone. Calais outperformed the superseded AU Ghia in retained value but Chris Thoday of Glass's Guide expects the BA model will "narrow the gap quite a bit".
"It also depends on supply and demand, which seems tight at the moment and on the condition of the individual vehicle," Thoday says.
<b>AND THE WINNER IS ... </b>
A MUCH tighter contest at the top level, both these cars offer a lot of metal and enjoyable V8 engines in a premium package.
If the Fairmont had better build quality and economy - and without the spectre of the AU's resale values - it would have walked away with the gong.
The Calais would have edged ahead with a better transmission, more accomplished low-speed ride and sound ergonomics.
As it stands, their different strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. In our view, it's too close to call.
Buying a new car? Visit Motoring on The Australian's website to check out a roadtest.