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Falcon BA XT

24 July, 2004

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Most cars that we as road testers drive have been groomed and cosseted, maintained and finessed to always be in the peak of health. After all, with press cars it’s not at all unusual for gearboxes to be changed, new tyres to be put on, interior trim pieces to be replaced. And few test cars get beyond 20,000km in the hands of journalists – most are sold as ‘executive driven’ cars after a year or so of very hard work.

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So it’s interesting that in this test we’re using a hire car with over 30,000km on the odometer – and driven and maintained as only a rental car can be.... And apart from a front-end clunk when going from lock to lock and a few very minor exterior body scratches, the Falcon stacked up well. No discernible wear inside, performance and fuel economy as new. Or better than new, actually – this car was well run-in!

The XT is the base model – plastic hubcaps on steel wheels, non-colour-coded exterior mirors, and wind-up rear windows. However, the car isn’t by any means barebones – there’s cruise control, trip computer, factory air, rear of centre console vents, electric up/down on the driver’s seat, and the normal electrics of (front) windows, remote locking and mirrors. The interior trim doesn’t scream ‘downmarket’, and if the centre LCD screen is only mono and is smaller than the colour designs used in the more expensive versions, that’s no big deal.

Taken in this form, at $34,780 the big Falcon is excellent value for money. The 182kW, DOHC, 4-litre six cylinder is the same as in any other petrol-fuelled, naturally-aspirated Falcon, and the suspension basics are the same, albeit with 215/60 tyres on 16-inch steel rims. Interior room is enormous (you don’t realise just how wide the cabin is until you try to reach across to the other door) and there’s plenty of storage spaces around the cabin.

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But like all Falcons of recent years, the in-cabin quality feel is let down by some cost-cutting. Lift the clunky centre console lid and bare Philips head screws stare back at you; the lid of the opening cup holder positioned just ahead sticks in a part-open position and simply looks cheap and nasty; the map lights are elegantly designed to allow you to burn your fingers as you adjust them (you have to touch the actual lenses), the sunvisors return to their closed positions with loud clunks. And there are still a few rough edges around the rest of the car – open the fuel filler cap (incidentally it was hard to close in the test car) and there’s still no proper infill panel around the filler neck (at least there’s now a panel but it has gaps all around it), and the boot floor remains grossly uneven.

Sure, these points are trivial, but try finding stupid design oversights like these in any Japanese or Korean car...

Like all Falcons, the engine has been tuned to develop a torque wallop – peak torque is at 3250 rpm. Together with the calibration of the electronic throttle, the engine provides off-the-line urge that is strong and effortless. In fact, drift around on light throttle openings and the car feel superbly refined, quiet and strong. At idle the engine is almost inaudible, with a vibration level that would be quite at home in a $100,000 car. But go towards the (stupidly unmarked) redline and noise and harshness increase dramatically. Unlike the more expensive versions, the reduced soundproofing means that in XT form the engine sounds at higher revs rather like its predecessor AU engine... We also found top-end power a little lacking in country overtaking: the response that’s gained at low revs is blunted as the speedo and tacho needles swing around. Yes, even with 182kW available - you also need to remember there’s also just under 1700kg to lug around.

Having said that, in this pricing class the engine is strong and responsive and performance far from ordinary.

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Fuel consumption on test was excellent, with an average of 10.4 litres/100 km. Most of the kilometres were on country roads but there was also a fair swag of city driving included – although admittedly in light, free-flowing traffic. The City Cycle figure is 11.5 and the Highway Cycle, 7.4 litres/100km.

Together with the big and powerful engine, you also get as standard a 4-speed automatic transmission with a tiptronic-style function. Unlike some transmissions of this sort, whenever you push the lever across to change to manual mode, the trans downchanges a gear. Some drivers like it while others would prefer that any downchanges made in manual mode are only those that are driver-requested. Either way, to have a manual mode in the auto box is, again, very good in this price range. But no 5-speed auto? That’s true but with the variable cam timing and the variable inlet manifold, there’s plenty of torque across a very wide range of engine speeds.

The steering wheel – which has an odd non-circular cross-section – contains controls for the sound system and cruise control. In the test car these button assemblies were a bit wobbly but on the whole they work well with intelligent coding that allows their selection by feel alone. The single CD radio is far better in quality than fitted to the previous AU series (or is it that the speakers are better?) but the sound system is still nothing to get excited over. Radio range, however, is excellent.

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Another strong feature of the car – and like the radio range, showing the car’s Australian origins – is the lighting. The headlights provide a broad and even illumination on low beam and an excellent high beam range. There are many cars costing far more than the Falcon that have inferior headlights.

The instrumentation is clear – in fact, it’s better in the XT than in the upper trim level models which add a fussy series of markings around the outside of the dials. The switchgear feels quality and works well, although the layout and look of the centre-of-dash controls will date quickly. Their night illumination is also poorly executed, with the translucent panel unevenly lit. In fact, from the centre console, continuing upwards across the HVAC and radio controls to the roof-mounted maplights, the design execution of this section of the interior is unimpressive.

On the road the base model Falcon is comfortable and competent. The seats are excellent and there’s sprawling room front and back. The steering is quick – in fact we thought that at speed on a narrow road it made the car feel a little nervous – and the ride and handling very good indeed. Warning understeer is built-in and the tail can be progressively powered into oversteer when the urge arises (there’s no traction control fitted). One of our drivers thought he could feel the rear moving around slightly in its bushes under hard acceleration and on some surfaces the ride can be a little jiggly, but overall the Falcon works well both for a typical family buyer or someone who wants to push a bit harder.

Safety equipment includes dual airbags, seatbelt pretensioners and three-channel ABS.

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We’ve always hated seeing this line written in Falcon and Commodore road tests: ‘They’ve come a long way.’ But in the case of the BA, Ford really has. The new rear suspension works well, the performance/economy compromise is excellent, the standard feature level very high, and – when these aspects are considered – the price is low.

Fix a few dumb cost-cutting measures – mostly in minor trim and interior design – and the Falcon would be even better, but even as it stands, it’s our pick of the current Australian family cars.

The Ford falcon was hired for this test.

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