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Ford's new AU Falcon is not only significant for introducing the biggest number of changes since the EA model was launched back in 1988, there's also a lot riding on its success.
The AU represents a very substantial financial commitment by Ford Australia to continue with a home-grown product when many other manufacturers simply adapt overseas designs. Ford needs the AU to be successful both on the local market and as an export, to justify its investment.
But though the new AU Falcon could be described as the last 100 per cent Australian car, overseas influences are nevertheless apparent and the most noticeable of these is undoubtedly the styling.
Described as "New Edge" design, the new look is (for a Falcon) radical and dramatic. There's a hint of Taurus in the AU, though not as pronounced as the Taurus's use of oval shapes and curves, and Ford expects this more contemporary and more compact look will enhance the car's appeal to both younger buyers and the private sector.
Other priorities for Ford were to make the AU quieter, smoother and better handling than any previous Falcons and as a consequence, there's a host of mechanical changes and refinements from the engine right through to the back axle.
Interiors have come in for re-design and there are many new comfort and convenience features to make life more convenient and more pleasant for both drivers and passengers.
Ford has paid close attention to operating costs, with average scheduled service costs down 10 per cent over a 150,000 km period; lower (NRMA) insurance ratings and premiums as a result of class-leading repair costs in low speed impact tests; and improved fuel consumption through weight saving, more efficient engine management, low rolling resistance tyres and better body aerodynamics.
Though the familiar Futura, Fairmont and Fairmont Ghia model names are still current, the base model GLi now becomes the Forte. Wagons come in Forte, Futura and Fairmont specification levels.
Tickford offers a range of body and handling enhancements for all models, and the sporty XR6 and XR8 models continue with even more model differentiation than before. Six cylinder Forte, Futura and Fairmont models can be ordered with Tickford's LPG conversion.
Ford has turned up the heat on its rivals by including both automatic transmission and air conditioning as standard equipment, even on the base model Forte. The Forte sedan's recommended retail price is $29,990.
By comparison, an automatic air conditioned Holden VT Commodore Executive sedan is currently priced at $32,690. The Commodore comes standard with independent rear suspension but only time will tell if buyers consider that justifies the difference.
The two other main competitors are the Toyota Camry V6 and the Mitsubishi Magna V6 and prices for the equivalent model air conditioned automatic sedans are Camry CSi, $31,395 and Magna Executive, $31,805.
Prices for other six cylinder AU Falcon models include the Futura at $34,490; the Fairmont at $37,990; and the Fairmont Ghia at $47,990. Add $2,000 for wagon versions of the Forte and Futura, and $2,500 for the Fairmont wagon. The premium for V8 engine versions is around $3,600.
The Tickford XR range starts with the XR6 for $38,990; the XR6 VCT (variable cam timing) is priced at $43,990 and the XR8 costs $46,490.
The venerable 4.0 litre straight six cylinder engine has had a major workover to make it quieter and smoother, and to improve fuel consumption. Ford says only a handful of components carry over from the old engine; new items include the cylinder block and head, the crankshaft, pistons, conrods and lightweight valve trains. There's a new cross-bolted alloy sump and new sequential electronic fuel injection.
An interesting (and potentially very worthwhile) new feature on the six cylinder engines is a 'limp home' mode which enables the engine to keep running even if the coolant fluid is lost.
Power output of the base engine is unchanged at 157 kW, but there are three other versions producing 164 kW, 168 kW and 172 kW. The V8 engine has also been revamped, with two versions producing 175 kW and 185 kW.
Underneath, there's a new stronger and more rigid platform, and a new independent double wishbone front suspension, while three different rear suspensions are available. The standard rigid rear axle set-up with coils and multi-links, has been modified for better control and more forgiving handling, while the all new independent rear suspension is an option on Forte, Futura and Fairmont, and standard on Fairmont Ghia. The wagon retains a simple leaf spring rear suspension. The range of standard equipment that comes on even the base model AU would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Apart from the automatic transmission and air conditioning already mentioned, equipment includes four wheel disc brakes, electronic engine immobilisation, keyless door and boot entry system, electrically operated mirrors, tilt and telescopic steering column, lumbar and height adjustments on the driver's seat and a 60/40 split fold rear seat.
Items such as electric windows, cruise control, trip computer, alloy wheels and CD player are progressively added as you go up the range, plus there's a comprehensive range of options available. One interesting option for the Forte and Futura is a Mobile Office Pack. It includes a small work table, a mobile telephone holder with integrated wiring in the centre console, an additional 12 volt power outlet for a portable fax machine or laptop computer, and directable front seat reading lamps.
Only time will tell how well buyers embrace the AU's controversial new styling, but there's certainly no argument about the new car's ability to stand out from the crowd and be noticed. The look is quite deceptive in that the AU looks smaller than the previous model, but in reality there's little in it. The AU is virtually identical in length to the EL, a little lower, but fractionally wider.
Falcon's last major model change (the EA back in 1988) was plagued with production faults and this time around, Ford has shown a strong commitment to getting it right first time, with over a million kilometres of testing and a controlled programme of development rather than rushing a new model onto the market before it was fully ready.
The test Forte, and various other models I inspected and drove at the release, displayed a good standard of finish overall. The base model's interior is rather bland and almost austere compared to the Commodore and Camry, but it's generally well thought out and practical.
Falcon buyers expect good comfort and plenty of space in their cars and on the whole, they shouldn't be disappointed with the AU. Up front, there's ample leg room and class-leading head room, and the seats are both comfortable and supportive.
The rear seat isn't quite as accommodating across its width as the measurements suggest, as the seat shaping tends to push outer occupants inwards, making life rather squeezy for a centre rear occupant. A centre occupant also has to contend with less seat padding and a fairly large floor hump. Comfort is good in the two outer seating positions and leg room is the best in class.
With the domed roof sloping away sharply to the rear, and the upper door frame extending well behind the door handles, some people found entry (and exit) to the rear seat awkward, with the possibility of coming into contact with the door and/or roof.
Boot space is generous in the AU sedan though it loses a few points for having a stepped floor. Unlike Magna and Commodore which just have a porthole for longer items, the Falcon has a 60/40 split fold rear seat.
The combination of a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, height adjustable driver's seat and plenty of space gives people of all statures a good chance of finding a comfortable and effective driving position.
The control layout is generally straightforward and effective, if not particularly inspiring. The steering wheel-mounted sound system volume and station controls are a welcome addition.
Falcons have never been short of power and even though maximum power and torque outputs for the base engine haven't changed since the last model, the lighter and more aerodynamically efficient AU Forte sedan tested returned improved (and best-in-class) acceleration times over an EL GLi sedan previously tested. The AU engine is noticeably quieter and smoother, though it's still not in the same class as the super smooth Camry V6 engine. Two minor glitches in the test car's performance were an occasional hesitation on acceleration and a slightly uneven idle.
For both highway and city running, and overall, we recorded better fuel economy for the AU than for the previous EL. The Forte's overall figure of 11.6 litres/100 km was better than the first series VT Commodore (12.0 litres/100 km), equal to the Camry V6, and not far behind the Magna V6 (11.0 litres/100 km). Handling in the base model, rigid rear axle, AU is much improved over earlier models and it's really only when you start hurrying the car over rough surfaces that you miss the benefits of independent rear suspension. IRS copes better with mid-corner bumps and uneven surfaces without unsettling the car.
As before, Ford-approved towing packs provide towing capacities from 1200 kg to 1600 kg and to 2300 kg. However, current NSW regulations for passenger cars still limit the maximum allowable towing mass to an amount equal to the unladen (kerb) mass of the towing vehicle. For the Forte sedan tested, this would be 1515 kg.
Despite its brand new look and a multitude of changes under the skin, the Ford AU Falcon retains the traditional character, feel, comfort and space that have made this model so popular over the years.
The new Falcon keeps its power advantage over its competitors in the family car segment and at the same time is smoother and quieter, and has better chassis dynamics than before.
Add lower operating costs, lower (NRMA) insurance premiums, new comfort and convenience features, and very competitive pricing, and it's understandable that Ford should be bullish about the expected success of what rates as the most significant Falcon model change in the past ten years.
Test vehicle supplied by Ford Motor Company of Australia Limited.
|Model||Falcon AU Forte|
|Price of vehicle tested||$29,990|
Value for money
Rear seat shaping and awkward entry for rear occupants
|Country of manufacture||Australia|
|Number of cylinders||6|
|Engine size||4.0 L|
|Induction||Electronic fuel injection|
|Claimed max power (kW)||157 kW @ 4900 rpm|
|Claimed max torque (Nm)||357 Nm @ 3000 rpm|
|Wheel size||15 "|
|Type||Power assisted rack and pinion|
|Turns to lock||3.2 m|
|Turning circle (measured)||11.2 m|
|Width (including mirrors)||2147 mm|
|Fuel capacity||68 litres|
|Max towed mass (trailer plus load)||1515 kg|
NRMA Theft Rating
|Points on scale 0 - 120 (high score is best)||82|
Acceleration - Test results
|50 - 80km/h||4.4 secs|
|60 - 100km/h||6.6 secs|
|0 - 80km/h||6.0 secs|
|0 - 100km/h||8.7 secs|
|Distance to stop (from 80km/h)||29.4 metres|
|Interior noise at constant 80km/h||67 dB(A)|