They're the muscle car heroes of the large car market, but which is best Ford or Holden. We take the new Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo, Falcon XR8 and Holden Commodore SS-V to Bathurst to find out. Joshua Dowling, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 3, 2008 Ford and Holden V8s have dominated the Bathurst motor races for more than three decades, so where better to take the latest versions of the Falcon and Commodore performance sedans than to Australia's high temple of horsepower, Mount Panorama. The road cars have little in common with their V8 Supercar cousins but it was a symbolic detour on our four-day Melbourne-to-Brisbane test drive. Even people who don't drive a Ford or a Holden are known to barrack for one brand or the other on the Bathurst race weekend. And for devotees in the blue and red corners and singlets the result can mean a year of bragging rights or hope for next year's race. This time of year the roads around Mount Panorama are quiet and the burning couches, hordes of campers and fast food caravans are still months away. The spectator area at the top of the hill is a dust bowl and there's a slight chill in the air, thanks to the strong winds as we head into winter. Bathurst is regarded as one of the world's most daunting racetracks. V8 Supercars clock close to 300km/h around here but we weren't about to set any lap records. Driving around the 6.2-kilometre circuit (a public road except during race week) gave little feedback on our sports sedans except how quietly each slips through the air at the 60km/h speed limit on smooth bitumen. For this exercise, we tested the highly regarded Falcon XR6 Turbo and its V8-powered stablemate, the Falcon XR8, the two bookends of Ford's fast-car catalogue (at least, until the even hotter Ford Performance Vehicles versions arrive in June 2008). We brought only one Holden Commodore, the flagship SS-V, to compare with these two but, as we would discover, it held its own remarkably well. There is no direct rival to Ford's turbocharged six-cylinder in the Holden camp and bringing the Commodore SV6 (which, sadly, is not available in turbocharged form) simply wouldn't have been a fair fight. A sign of the Commodore's strength - the SS has been our best-selling performance sedan for 12 years - is the fact Ford needs two cars to take on Holden's big gun. With the shots of Bathurst in the bag and the grit wiped from our eyes, we continued our journey from Melbourne to Brisbane to see how these home-grown sports sedans cope with the daily grind and out on the open road. 3rd Place - Ford Falcon XR8 To ensure Ford lovers could hear the bark of the updated V8, Ford spent a substantial amount of money on a system that automatically made the exhaust louder as engine revs increased. Sadly, it wasn't money well spent, as the new model is quieter than the old XR8 even with the trick set-up. And that is indeed a shame because the noise of the V8 is about the only reason you'd consider buying one of these. In almost every other measurable regard, the Falcon XR8 isn't as good as the XR6 Turbo. It's the slowest and thirstiest car of this group and, sadly, is cumbersome in corners thanks to the heavy donk underneath its menacing bonnet. The latest XR8 has inherited the Boss 290 engine from the previous model GT but with some work to make it more efficient. In this case, however, efficient is a relative term. Ford claims to have made a 6.7 per cent improvement in fuel economy with the new XR8 but it's still thirsty. It's a pity because V8 Fords have a large fan base. They deserve better than this. The unfortunate reality is that Ford Australia is considering axing the V8 from its mainstream Falcon line-up. It either has to invest a lot of money upgrading the 5.4-litre V8 to meet stricter emissions standards beyond 2010 or fit a more sophisticated and more expensive Jaguar V8 engine. The boss of Ford Australia is on the record saying the future of the XR8 is not guaranteed. Which I guess is another reason it's a shame the XR8 is underwhelming. It would have been nice for the last one to bow out on a high if indeed this is the last one. It's not only the engine that lets down the XR8. In the wet, it is a handful, even with the help of the optional 19-inch wheels and tyres fitted to our test car. The stability control had its work cut out for it on winding back roads and we weren't even trying to provoke it. In slippery conditions, the XR8 is a car that demands caution. In the dry the front-end wants to push wide in corners due to the extra weight under the nose. In bumpy corners, the steering can get mild "rack rattle'', that is, minor tugging at the steering wheel over bumps. The brakes are adequate but, considering the extra weight, they're likely to fade sooner than the brakes on the XR6 Turbo. Our comments regarding the seating position in new Falcons apply to the XR8 except that the XR8's seat felt even higher and less comfortable because it had optional leather trim with electric adjustment. The XR8 came with a six-speed manual, so we got to sample the clunking noise at almost every gear change. Surely this is no longer acceptable, even on home-grown muscle cars built on a relative budget. At least Ford has given the XR8 an 11 per cent price cut. The new model starts at $45,490, the same as an XR6 Turbo. A $5000 option pack (as our car was equipped) brings the price and luxury equipment levels closer to the Holden Commodore SS-V. If only it had the Holden V8's performance. 2nd Place - Holden Commodore SS-V So much for the petrol crisis. One in five new Commodores sold last year was a V8. Some pundits reckon it's because people are getting in before petrol prices reach even more ridiculous levels. Holden says it's a testament to the new model's sharp pricing, styling, handling and performance. The Holden Commodore SS range starts at $45,290, undercutting the Falcon XR8 and XR6 Turbo by $200. But the model we've tested here is the flagship SS-V, in line with the XR8 we got with the works. The SS-V is $53,790, the XR8 with the works is $50,490. The Commodore SS has been Australia's favourite sports sedan for the past 12 years. Holden says its success on the racetrack is a large factor in this. It's also had the biggest tool in the shed for the past 10 years. When Ford still had a 5.0-litre V8, Holden installed a 5.7-litre from its friends at Chevrolet. Not long after Ford upgraded to a 5.4-litre V8, Holden shifted to a 6.0-litre. The Holden V8 may not be as sophisticated as the one fitted to the Ford but it's certainly effective. As our tests have routinely showed, the Holden V8 easily outguns the Ford V8. But the biggest challenge facing the Commodore SS now is the Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo. Previous versions of the XR6 Turbo have shadowed the performance of the Commodore SS. The new Falcon turbo, however, has for the first time driven a clear wedge between the two models. The 6.0-litre in the Holden Commodore SS has ample power and pulls seamlessly across the rev range. At freeway speeds in sixth gear it is surprisingly efficient. Further improvements are on the way. By the end of the year the Commodore SS will get V8 power with cylinder shutdown technology that de-activates up to four cylinders when the car is coasting. Drive sampled this technology on a recent drive of the Pontiac G8 across the US. It trimmed about 1 litre per 100km from our fuel consumption. At the moment, the official fuel consumption figures say the manual Holden SS uses 13.9L/100km and the auto 14.3L/100km. The XR6 Turbo, with the optional six-speed auto, uses 11.7L/100km while the Falcon XR8 uses 14.0L/100km with the optional six-speed. In our testing, the figures were 10.7l/100km for the XR6, 11.3l/100km for the SS and 11.7l/100km for the XR8, although these were mainly highway numbers. But the Holden's current 6.0-litre V8 gets along with the job with little fuss. It has a deep rumble, although like the Ford V8 could do with more bark. The most impressive aspect of the Commodore SS, though, is how it drives. It sits flatter in corners than the Fords and absorbs bumps and settles more quickly. We also prefer the Commodore's seating and steering positions, which have greater adjustment. And the seats, themselves, although not much to look at, are made from a high-quality foam and offer better support. Dislikes? The thick windscreen pillars can obscure visibility on winding roads and at pedestrian crossings and T-intersections. And uprated brakes or at the very least some sort of overhaul would be welcome. The interior of the Commodore, too, is starting to look a bit dated compared with the more modern, better laid out Falcon dash. 1st Place - Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo We don't mean to blaspheme but this car could be called the Jesus Christ. That's what everyone on our test said moments after applying the accelerator for the first time. Breeze is the name Ford has given the blue-green metallic paintwork of our XR6 Turbo test car but it could also well describe the performance. This thing not only goes like the wind but does it effortlessly, as if it really is a breeze. Indeed, it's faster than both the V8s assembled here. V8 fanatics won't like to read this but the XR6 Turbo is such an impressive package, it makes the Falcon XR8 look redundant. We suspect this XR6 Turbo will be the final nail in the Falcon XR8 coffin. That's a bold statement to make when the new model has only just begun to arrive in showrooms but this car really is quite remarkable. The acceleration times tell the story. In our satellite-assisted 0-to-100km/h tests, the XR6 Turbo stopped the clocks in 5.4 seconds - almost half a second quicker than the Holden V8 and almost one second quicker than the Ford XR8. However, we recorded a 5.1-second time in the same XR6 Turbo only a few days earlier at the end of Ford's media preview drive. We put the difference down to the following: the surface on which we recorded the faster time was smoother and we know the car had been drinking racing-grade, 98 octane unleaded fuel at the time. When we did our 5.4-second run, we had been forced to fill the tanks of all three cars with 95 octane fuel because that's all that was available at the remote petrol stations between Melbourne and Bathurst. Whichever way you cut it, the Falcon XR6 Turbo is rapid. So how does Ford do it? The new model has a bigger turbo, a bigger intercooler (neatly positioned in the centre of the grille mouth and painted bright silver so everyone knows you've got the turbo model) and lighter overall weight. Significantly, the XR6 Turbo is lighter over the nose than the XR8, helping handling and braking, which we'll come to shortly. The XR6 Turbo's engine is also an excellent example of efficiency. Would you believe the latest model uses less fuel than the one it replaces, despite being quicker and more powerful? Oh, and did we mention it was the most frugal of the three sports sedans on this test? By now you're probably beginning to get the idea we were impressed by this car. You'd be right but it's not perfect. The testers loved the instruments and cabin controls that glowed blue at night. The steering is greatly improved now that Ford has removed much of the nervousness that was a trait of the previous model (in, say, bumpy bends at 80km/h). And the power of the turbo is almost seamless. There is now only a slight delay between squeezing the throttle and all hell breaking loose. The six-speed automatic is still our preference. It ensures the turbo is never off the boil during gear changes. Ford has developed a launch control for manual versions of the XR6 Turbo and engineers for the company claim the manual can be one-tenth of a second quicker but we prefer the consistency and refinement of the auto. The six-speed manual gear shifts in the new Fords we've sampled are clunky. Ford's German-made six-speed automatic gearbox is only a $1500 option, $500 less than what Holden charges for its GM-made six-speed auto. The icing on the cake, in our opinion, would be shift levers behind the steering wheel on automatic versions of this performance Falcon, just like Mercedes AMG and BMW M cars have. Shift levers enable you to change gears mid corner without taking your hands off the wheel. To select gears manually in a Falcon automatic, you have to flick the auto lever into manual mode and push back or forward to change up or down respectively. Sadly, Ford's chief engineer isn't a fan of such levers, so they won't be on a Falcon any time soon. The brake package is unchanged from the previous XR6 Turbo but it was upgraded in October 2005. The brakes are fine for everyday use but given how potent this model now is, it would be nice to at least have the option of bigger brakes for those who like to drive enthusiastically. Unfortunately, due to the sophisticated electronics that monitor the stability control and anti-lock brakes, non-standard brakes can interfere with the calibration of the safety systems. On our test, the brakes felt fine but there is certainly scope for them to fade after repeated heavy use. Those who want bigger brakes will need to wait about a month or so and stump up an extra $20,000 or so for the more powerful FPV version of the same car. Dislikes? There aren't many. Our comments on cabin comfort from last week's fleet story apply to the performance Fords. Rather than lower the seating position, Ford has simply increased the height of the centre console and the waistline to create the perception you're sitting lower in the car. Compared with a Commodore, the Falcon driver's seat feels like a high chair. According to the international (SAE 1100) standards car makers use to measure interior roominess, the Falcon has more shoulder, head- and legroom upfront. But SAE 1100 data can vary because each car maker can choose where it sets the ``hip point'' for the 95th-percentile dummy. So, the brochure says the Falcon is roomier but, subjectively at least, the Commodore is more comfortable and has more space. An independent engineer who works for local car makers, Graeme Gambold, told Drive: ``[SAE 1100 data] does not always tally with the subjective feel and cabin ambience. The measurements only define certain areas and don't necessarily mean the whole cabin is bigger. It generally measures linear dimensions as opposed to volume.'' The Holden Commodore also has more room where it counts, such as under the steering wheel and between the centre console and the doors. One thing that can't be disputed is the fact that the Commodore has a much roomier back seat and a taller, more comfortable seat back with headrests that actually have a greater chance of preventing whiplash among tall passengers in the event of a rear-end crash. The foam in the Holden seats is superior, too. The Falcon's side bolsters look sporty but squash easily and offer little in the way of support. One final issue: why does the fastest and most potent car in the mainstream Falcon catalogue not have curtain airbags standard? Instead, they're a $300 option. Verdict Having been reacquainted with the Falcon XR8, we can see why Ford invested heavily in the XR6 Turbo all those years ago. We suspect Ford knew the V8 wasn't going to cut it against the big V8s Holden had up its sleeve and so embarked on a turbo six-cylinder engine program. It was a bold but wise move as the XR6 Turbo is now the highlight of the Falcon range and has finally knocked off the king of Australian muscle cars for 12 years, the Commodore SS. The XR6 Turbo is quicker, more fuel-efficient and is good to drive. And at $46,990 in six-speed auto guise it's a relative bargain. V8 fans will cling to the Commodore, which is no bad thing. But it can't match the XR6 Turbo for overall performance. This version of the XR6 Turbo is only going to be around for another three years before it's replaced by a turbocharged V6 that's not likely to have as much grunt. It's a cliche we rarely use but this XR6 Turbo could well become a future classic.