Ford Falcon. Probably the most iconic nameplate for an all Australian car, and in continuous use since 1960. Of course, the first Falcons weren’t strictly Australian, but American. In the 1950s, Ford Australia had been selling a mixture of 4 cylinder British Fords such as the Anglia, Prefect, Consul and Zephyr and V8 American models such as the Customline. They were losing out big time to the 6 cylinder locally designed Holdens so to improve potential sales volumes, they needed a competitor that was something in-between their current offerings, and when the MD of Ford Australia saw the proposed new American compact car, the Falcon, he was clear that this was just what was required. During the 1960s, American and Australian cars appeared to be very similar, though the Australian ones were adapted to suit the needs of the local market, but when Ford US discontinued the nameplate and the model in 1970, the Australians went their own way, producing their own design, specifically to meet the continued needs of the local Antipodean market for a tough roomy but affordable car. There have been Falcons ever since, with a bewildering array of different models produced thanks to a policy of frequent model changes. The formula has not changed much, though, which remains that of offering a spacious but affordable car powered by a large engine capable of travelling long distances in comfort. The Australian love of “muscle cars” means that various sporting models have become a staple of the range, too, with Ford’s famous “XR” badging living on in Australia. I drove a Falcon Wagon on my last trip Down Under, in 2003, and enjoyed the experience, so was pleased to find that the Falcon still features in the Hertz fleet in 2012.
In fact, Hertz do better in 2012 than they did in 2003, as the car they offer is no longer the regular XT, but the more sporting model, the XR6. These cars are readily distinguished by a large spoiler which sits astride the rear boot lid, and many of them are painted in the bright colours that seem so popular in the Australian market (take note, Europeans with your ever growing trend only to buy grey and black!). Despite all efforts to get a test car in the very bright blue that Ford call Nitro. I ended up with the rather more restrained silver colour with the odd name of Lightning Strike. Silver is fine for the photographer, so I loaded up, adjusted seats and mirrors, and set off, eager to find out what this car was like.
Heart of the XR6 is a 4 litre in-line 6 cylinder engine, which puts out 261 bhp. Drive it gently and you can potter along quite happily and enjoy the refinement of this smooth powerplant. Flex your right foot a little more, though, and the noise changes to something very agreeable and the XR6 shows an urgency that delights. Shame that Victoria is so infested with speed cameras. And I do mean infested, as this stopped me taking full advantage of what clearly is a big attraction of such a car. Even by complying with the laws of the State (mainly!), this was still a good car to drive, though. The engine has plenty of torque, too, so you are never left worrying about lack of oomph or acceleration, which was useful when I left the long straight freeways and headed off onto single lane country roads and wanted some overtaking urge. Manual gearboxes are available, but the test car had a six speed automatic, which did have a sport mode with the ability to shift the ratios yourself by flicking the lever back and forth. Despite the fact that there were 4 litres of engine to supply with fuel, I was pleasantly surprised that the economy during my tenure averaged out at 7.9 litres/100 km, which translates to 35.6 mpg, an impressive figure indeed for such a large and potent car. One of the on-board computer displays was for instant mpg and you could see that when you put your foot down even a bit, the economy worsened a lot, so I think my overall average is largely down to the fact that the longest trip I did was a steady cruise at around 100 kph almost all the journey. It is not just the engine which makes the XR6 good to drive, though, as this car is also endowed with steering with decent amounts of feel and handling which I was able to appreciate on some twisty roads up in the Yarra Valley. There is very little body roll at road speeds, and the rear wheel drive configuration means that the XR6 handles in the way that we are all supposed to appreciate. It rides well, too, with no trace of float and wallow, perhaps thanks to the stiffer suspension that features on the XR6 and the fact that this is an Australian car, not an American one. The brakes were good, not that I have had occasion to test them out in a real emergency. There is a central pull handbrake fitted between the seats. Compared to many modern designs, there is relatively a lot of glass, so all round visibility is good. The spoiler on the boot really helps as it provides a clear indicator of the extent of the back of the car.
The interior of the Falcon is neatly finished, though with the exception of the sports seats with the XR6 logo included in their trim pattern, it lacks much in the way of really special flair. However, the dash mouldings are from soft touch plastics, and the different components all fit together well. Matt silver plastic inserts in the dash and on the door casings add some visual relief to the otherwise black interior. The two main dials have a thick concentric ring of blue which works visually surprisingly well, as it does not look as brash as it might sound. Smaller fuel level and water temperature gauges are inset in the bottom of the speedo and rev counter respectively, and between the large dials is a display area for the on board computer displays. These can be cycled through by pressing buttons set on the side of the instrument nacelle. Large column stalks operate the wipers and indicators, and as with the Lexus which I drove immediately prior to this car, the indicators are on the right, which led to a couple of occasions when I wiped the screen when I intended to signal. The lights are operated by twisting the end of the indicator stalk. The centre of the dash contains a hooded display screen which shows the clock, the ambient temperature, climate control and audio unit selections, and has six audio preset buttons in it. Below this are the other buttons for the audio unit and below this the climate control dials. Repeater buttons for audio unit and cruise control are on the spokes of the steering wheel. It all proved easy to use apart from those wrong-sided indicators, which I later discovered are in fact the norm for Australian market cars.
One of the attractions of the Falcon during its 52 year life has always been the amount of space in it, and this model is no exception, with particularly generous quantities of rear leg room, ample shoulder room. The intrusion from the transmission tunnel is not too bad, so the middle passenger should be decently comfortable installed there. The boot is truly enormous. Not only is the total floor area massive, and far larger than you might be led to expect given the amount of rear overhang, but the large central part is particularly deep, easily accommodating my suitcase, meaning that an almost flush load area was then available for other stuff. Inside the cabin, there are the usual stowage areas: moderate glove box and door bins, a shallow stowage area under the central armrest, and a two level area in front of the gearlever which could easily accommodate several odds and ends.
Until the latest FG series of Falcons were introduced in 2008, Ford used to offer an extended wheelbase and more luxurious model called Fairlane. No longer, and nor do they sell a Wagon model any more, as reflecting the popularity of Crossovers and SUVs they now offer the Territory for those who want more space. They do still have the ever-popular Ute version to complement the range of saloon cars. Entry level models are badged XT, and these differ from the XR6 in that they are only available with a manual gearbox, lack the sports suspension, have smaller 16″ wheels as standard, and in matters of trim. The XR6 has a leather wrapped steering wheel, sports seats, drilled alloy pedal covers and optional dual zone climate control. Both models get a range of comfort and convenience features which do not make them lavish, but nor do they come across as spartan. These include a 4 way power adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, split folding rear seats, a rear centre armrest with cup holders, cruise control, an AM/FM audio unit with single CD slot and 4 speakers and wheel mounted controls with MP3 capability, bluetooth and iPod connectivity, a multi-function on-board computer, cloth seat trim, auto-sensing lights. Those who want more luxury can opt for the G6 range which took over from the old Fairlane. The body on these cars is the same as the XT and XR6 models, with some added chrome trim. All models are available with an optional 4.0 litre EcoLPi engine which runs on LPG, and delivers similar levels of power to the regular petrol cars and the XR6 and G6E cars can be supplied in Turbo guise, which endows them with 360 bhp. I bet these are rapid, but what a shame that Australians will struggle, at least in Victoria to exploit any of that power legally.
I enjoyed my time with the Falcon XR6. That sonorous in-line 6 cylinder engine, with plenty of power, wrapped up in a smart but not too showy body, and decent enough build quality means that it is just the sort of car that appeals to me. Indeed, I found it vastly preferable to the Lexus which I had been driving immediately prior to collecting the XR6, and for which the rental cost was nearly double. Take it from me, it is not worth the extra money chez Hertz, and I would struggle to be convinced it was worth the extra cost as purchase proposition, either. However, that is not quite the end of the story, as the Falcon has a direct rival. Whereas the Ford sells well, it is dwarfed in volume by the Holden Commodore, which until very recently has been the best selling car in the Australian market, a spot it has occupied for many years. Hertz Australia have taken on the SV6 model, a direct equivalent to the Falcon, and so before I can pronounce on whether the XR6 is my recommended rental car for an Australian trip, I need to sample the opposition, and plan to do so later in this trip.