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  1. Ford BA Falcon XR6T v Holden VY Commodore SS Nov 2002

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    Ford BA Falcon XR6T v Holden Commodore SS - The badge says Turbo, but it also says six-pack. Can Ford's boosted bruiser make Holden's tough VY SS appear less than macho? By Nathan Ponchard.
    Reprinted from Wheels November 2002.

    It's been longer than the hiatus between Mel & Kim albums since a six-cylinder sports sedan seriously challenged Australia's entrenched V8 pecking order. Ford's original S-XR6 did a fine job of making its XR8 stablemate look a bit girly back in '91, but then it wasn't quite man enough to embarrass HSV's VP Clubsport, and it neglected to set any new benchmarks.

    To find the king of six-cylinder performance, you have to go back 30 years to Chrysler's brilliant Charger R/T E49 - a stunning looker, and dynamite against the clock. But, achingly rapid as the E49 may be, Ford's new BA Falcon XR6 Turbo is quicker. Not by much, but enough. It's Australia's fastest ever production six. And it adds a whole new dimension to 40-something-grand grunt.

    Yes, on paper the XR6 Turbo looks hotter than a sunburnt Holly Valance, but it's the quality of what it does that should make Holden's collective sphincter tighten. No more 60-a-day closed windpipes at high revs, no more hideous fan noise, valve-train thrash, or other undesirable traits that have always blighted Ford sixes. The Turbo heralds a whole new era in six-cylinder aural pleasure, and comparisons with BMW's sublime straight sixes aren't pure fantasy. The Ford doesn't sound as metallic as a Bee-Em six, but it is beautifully smooth, and emits a horn exhaust bark. It even has a touch of blow-off-valve woofle, although the 240T doesn't feel like a traditional turbo donk. The point at which the turbocharger starts spooling is anyone's guess, because there is simply plenty of everything, everywhere.

    Only a fool would doubt just how quick this boosted Falcon is. With that massive plateau of torque - peaking at 450Nm from 2000 to 4500rpm - it delivers instant response. Acceleration is truly punishing. From 80 to 120km/h, the Turbo is half a second quicker than Holden's VY Commodore SS in third, a second ahead in identically geared fourth, and almost two seconds quicker in fifth. And the SS's number-five slot is geared a tad shorter. So much for V8 torque.

    But that's not to say that Holden's full-fat VY SS - complete with newfound exhaust burble, 235kW, and an extra 5Nm (465Nm) - should hide in the dunnies in shame. Its peaky 5.7-litre V8 feels a tad limp down low compared to Ford's chubby 4.0-litre turbo six, but it's an undoubtedly worthy lump of alloy. The 235kW Gen III exhibits a more deep-chested induction rumble than before, and sounds richer right across the rev range - a spread that now angrily extends all the way to 6400rpm, not 5600rpm like before.

    Full noise from standstill, the SS gives little away to the Turbo. It lags half a second behind to 80 clicks, but matches the Turbo to 120, and stays almost dead level even to 180km/h. Down the quarter, the Ford wins, but only just - 14.34 seconds at 162.1km/h versus 14.53 at 162.6. It's only out in the real world that the Ford's superior driveability and superb torque spread make it the bearer of bad-arse news.

    More intelligent gearing makes a big difference, too. The Turbo combines high-geared calm with ballistic corner-exit thrust, and can easily pull fifth gear from below 1500rpm. The revised T5 five-speeder feels marginally slicker, although it doesn't like shifting down from fifth to third, even when matching revs.

    The Holden's maligned six-speed tranny isn't the smoothest box if you're lazy, but somehow everything comes together when you're really up it. The T56 swaps cogs quickly during maximum acceleration and, even with the VY's fat 18-inch Bridgestones, will easily chirp the rear wheels between gearchanges.

    The SS looks burly doing it, too, but there is still no solution to the T56's (over) gearing woes. Sixth is useless below 100km/h, and while the top slot works tolerably well on the east coast's Humourless Highway, and presumably all over the NT, it sucks everywhere else. Who honestly needs a gear that does 68km/h at 1000 revs?

    Bitching aside, one aspect that really works is Holden's VY steering tweaks. A significantly stiffer torsion bar and revisions to the steering valve have greatly improved on-centre weighting, as well as overall feel. The lolling fluffiness that blighted VX's steering either side of straight ahead - where the wheel felt over-assisted and insufficiently connected - and the varying lumpiness evident when more lock was applied has disappeared in lieu of consistent firmness, and linear response. The VY's steering is easily the best yet in a Commodore, to the point where it freely communicates, yet feels incredibly meaty. Sometimes too meaty - at low speeds, the SS's steering is almost heavy and has a gluggy feel that disappears above 15km/h. More an observation than a genuine criticism.

    The new SS is great to drive. It's a tough, unyielding sort of car in the way it traverses bumps - rocking over irregularities, jiggling at lower speeds, and moving around more than the Falcon - but it has a real sense of connection and feels resolutely planted.

    Rear-end fidget is barely noticeable because the steering now behaves itself, and overall balance is excellent - neutral to the core, with miles of corner-exit grip, and a satisfying aversion to understeer. You can throw the SS around with confidence because it encourages you to do so, and its brakes are bloody good, too, refusing to fade after several 185km/h stops, and offering unyielding force on the road.


    Jump into the Ford and the contrast couldn't be more stark. It immediately feels lighter, more fluid, and not as butch-tough as the SS. The Ford lacks the Holden's beef in its control weighting, and feels almost too light on first acquaintance. But its overall poise and fluency are a real treat. The Falcon's steering is easier to finesse, and more immediate off-centre than in the SS. It turns in quicker and feels more like it's driving on its toes - waiting for right-foot inputs to determine its attitude. The Turbo carves up corners with a delightful level of adjustability - mild initial understeer, lovely mid-corner balance (just like the SS, in fact), and amusing throttle steerability. It feels quicker, more effortless, and more polished than the SS, and with its instant torque, the Falcon has grin-inducing thrust out of corners.

    The Control Blade IRS is unflappable - fidgeting less than the SS, but leaning on itself more for greater rear-end emphasis - and the Falcon is more refined over corrugations. It transmits less road noise, and has a noticeably more supple ride than the SS, with little of the Holden's lively, bucking motion over serious shite. And while the Turbo's (optional) premium brakes are more abrupt than the SS's in initial travel, they are seriously effective.

    The Falcon also has an excellent driving position - nothing like the freakshow in AU. The wheel is smaller and chubbier, the correctly aligned seat is enveloping, and the gearshift is no longer halfway to En-Zed.

    The Ford's new dash looks great, and there is comfort and cabin space by the shedload. Same in the SS, except its driving possy isn't quite as form-fitting, and the long-travel clutch can be tiring, although its left footrest is perfectly placed. In the Falcon, the clutch is lighter and shorter, but the distant footrest only suits beanpoles.

    The SS is also more adventurous in its colour-coded instrument design, but the inconsistency of plastic finishes between the dash (new), doors (old), and the lower dash section (new, but cheap-looking) is a bit disappointing. The Falcon's understated cabin is all-new, so everything gels pretty well.

    And styling? VY has copped plenty of flack, but I like it - especially the spunky SS. Only the mis-match between the curvy rear door's trailing edge and the angular rear bumper cut-out looks clumsy. The XR6 Turbo is also a very handsome car - smaller wheels, less of an extrovert in detail, but arguably more unified.

    The XR6 Turbo is also cheaper than the SS. Equipment levels are very similar (see breakout), but then so are space, performance, fuel consumption, you name it. Rarely have two cars with such disparate characters finished so close. The SS is a wonderfully belligerent beast and probably the most convincing VY of all. It sounds tasty, it looks hot, it's dynamically impressive, and it makes a great case for local grunt over imported gall.

    But the XR6 Turbo is that much better again. It's suave, more subtle, and yet no less stirring. In fact, the boosted Ford is more polished than any big sedan Australia has ever produced. It's just so damn good, it makes the SS feel crude. And it's a brilliant example of the glowing future of local performance cars. Ignore the WRX. Forget the E49. Falcon XR6 Turbo is king.

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